Do we need trees to estimate worldwide probabilities of structural types? Some comments on Widmer et al. (2017)

At least since Greenberg’s seminal work on grammatical universals, comparative linguists have often talked about worldwide preferences in probabilistic terms. For example, Greenberg (1963) noted that “With overwhelmingly greater than chance frequency, languages with normal SOV order are postpositional” (Universal 4).

Since the 1970s, there has been increasing awareness that it is not sufficient to look at a few dozen languages that we happen to have easy access to (e.g. Bell 1978, Bakker 2011). Continue reading

What all linguists agree on: Human linguisticality (= the capacity for language) as an attribute of our species

Humans talk and chimpanzees don’t talk. Not even birds talk, even though many bird species can “sing” in some sense. No other species of animals has language in the sense of talking. Even in the absence of complex vocalization abilities, many other species would seem to have the possibility to use their extremities or faces for signing, in the manner of human sign languages. But here again, language is unique to the human species. There may not be much that linguists agree on (though see Hudson 1981 for some hopeful statements), but everyone agrees that language is an attribute of Homo sapiens (and perhaps other hominin species; see, e.g., Dediu & Levinson 2013 on Neanderthal language). Continue reading

Why flags are bound forms: A discussion with Bill Croft

A flag is a cover term for an adposition or a case-marker, as I explain in my recent 2019 paper on flagging and indexing (in the journal Te Reo, run by the Linguistic Society of New Zealand). All comparative linguists know that in many cases, it is not quite clear whether we should treat an element (such as the Japanese accusative marker o, or the Arabic dative marker li) as an affix and thus a case-marker, or as an adposition (i.e. a form that is not an affix). The term flag serves as a convenient cover term for comparative linguists in situations where it does not matter. Continue reading

Comparative linguistics does not need “causation” or “grammatical theory”

In a 2017 discussion note (in the Journal LT), Randy LaPolla confesses that he was “shocked” when he heard that some comparative linguists base their comparisons on the phenomena found in languages, not some underlying “causal” level of language (2017: 553). For example, in classifying Mandarin Chinese as an SVO (or A-V-P) language, they make use of the comparative concepts A and P, rather than the notion of Mandarin Topic, which is required to state the rules of Mandarin word order (and is in this sense a causal factor determining word order in the language). Continue reading

Right and wrong in typology: Chappell & Creissels versus Stassen on predpossessive constructions

In an excellent recent paper in Linguistic Typology that I recomment to all linguists, Hilary Chappell and Denis Creissels argue against Leon Stassen’s (2005; 2009) classification of Mandarin Chinese predpossessive constructions as in (1).

(1) 她有书 Tā yŏu shū. [3SG have/exist book] ‘She has a book.’ Continue reading

Maddieson (2018), Kiparsky (2018), and the nature of phonological comparison

In the recent volume on Phonological typology (Hyman & Plank (eds.) 2018), the editors complain that phonology is not given sufficient attention by morphosyntax-heavy mainstream typology, so it may perhaps be reassuring to note that “phonology is not different” in one respect: The nature of the things to be compared is often unclear. Continue reading

Confusing p-linguistics and g-linguistics: Philosopher Ludlow on “framework-free theory”

This post was prompted by a recent paper by Peter Ludlow (a Michigan/Illinois-based philosopher) on “the philosophy of generative linguistics” (2019), where he targets a 2010 paper of mine for criticism, and (quite flatteringly) pits me against Darwin. But he confuses general linguistic theory with language-particular theory, and as this confusion seems to be more widespread, it probably deserves some discussion. Continue reading

Explaining special patient and agent marking: Is there a serious challenge to the theory of efficient coding? (A discussion of Chappell & Verstraete 2019)

Many languages have special patient marking when the patient is referentially prominent (definite, animate, or a personal pronoun), and special agent marking when the agent is non-prominent. Typologists have been aware of this since the 1970s (e.g. Silverstein 1976; Moravcsik 1978), and the first type of phenomenon (typically called differential object marking, or DOM) is very widely known, as it occurs in well-known languages such as Spanish, Russian and Hindi-Urdu. Continue reading

Ist die Gender-Grammatik biologisch vorherbestimmt? Eine Klarstellung

von Josef Bayer, Universität Konstanz

In einer Antwort auf meinen Artikel in der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung vom 11. April 2019 fragt Martin Haspelmath Ist die Gender Grammatik biologisch vorbestimmt? und beantwortet die Frage anschließen negativ. Zwar hätten Menschen die biologischen Voraussetzungen für Sprache, aber die “grammatischen Regeln” seien nicht Teil der Biologie. Weil sie über die Sprachen hinweg variieren, müssen sie, so Haspelmaths Schlussfolgerung, kulturell sein. Continue reading

Is “markedness” still alive? On Kiparsky, Dixon and some others

The idea that inflectional features like tense and number often have two contrasting values which are somehow systematically asymmetric goes back to Jakobson (1932; 1957), and his idea that often one value is marked and the other unmarked has been very influential, especially in structural/generative linguistics. The term “markedness” has also been used in many other ways, leading to a lot of confusion, and I recommended doing without it entirely (Haspelmath 2006). Continue reading

Aikhenvald & Dixon on Haspelmath (2016) on serial verb constructions

Serial verb constructions: A critical assessment of Haspelmath’s interpretation

by Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald and R. M. W. Dixon

(The following was originally written as a letter to the editor of the journal Language and Linguistics, where Haspelmath (2016) was published; L&L declined to publish it, so it is published here.)

How the individuation scale helps explain universals of coding in countability classes

It sometimes happens that different scholars arrive at similar conclusions more or less independently, and such cases are probably particularly good indications that they are on the right track. It seems that Scott Grimm’s recent study of count-mass, singular-plural and singulative-collective noun pairs (published in 2018) is a good example of this, as its results converge amazingly with a study published by Andres Karjus and myself in 2017. Continue reading

No progress on differential object marking: Comments and reflections on Kalin (2018)

From my perspective, differential object marking (DOM) – the universal tendency for prominent objects to get special marking – has been well-understood since the 1980s, but even though the explanation was clearly stated in Comrie (1989) (and also formulated clearly in Croft (1988) and Bossong (1991)), many linguists seems to have forgotten about it. Continue reading