How typology has solved its “comparability problem”: Some comments on Evans (2020)

Language comparison was long restricted to the question of phylogenetic inheritance (e.g. Bopp 1816; Schleicher 1860), but since authors such as Humboldt (1822) and von der Gabelentz (1891), linguists have also been interested in an ahistorical kind of comparison that is now often called “linguistic typology” – and which has become increasingly prestigious since Greenberg (1963), Chomsky (1981), and the 1997 foundation of the journal Linguistic Typology (LT). Continue reading

On Matthew Spike’s comments on comparative concepts in linguistics

Since the early 20th century, linguists have generally recognized that different languages are different not only historically (with different genealogical origins) and culturally (with different words reflecting their speakers’ cultural needs), but also structurally: The meanings of words cut up reality in different ways, and grammatical categories in different languages do not map straightforwardly onto each other. Phonological systems make use of phonetic possibilities in different ways in different languages. More generally, each language is structurally unique (Haspelmath 2021). Continue reading

Construct marking: Markers on modified nouns to signal the presence of a modifier (some comments on Creissels 2018)

Many languages have a genitive flag in their adpossessive nominals, i.e. a case-marker or adposition on the possessor nominal (e.g. English [Kim’s] money, the roof [of the house]). But alternatively, they may also have a marker on the possessed noun – an antigenitive marker. For example, Ge’ez (an ancient Semitic language of Africa) had an antigenitive suffix -a, as in wald ‘son’, wald-a nəguś [son-ANTG king] ‘the son of the king’. Continue reading

Why meaning-form correspondence is not explanatory: Differential coding in locative and adpossessive constructions

Languages are systems that link forms (or shapes) to meanings, so in this sense, linguistic analysis consists in establishing meaning-form correspondences. And of course, such correspondences explain speaker behaviour. What I’m talking about in this post is a more ambitious kind of explanation: Explaining language structures by meaning-form correspondences. One well-known label for kinds of meaning-form correspondence is “iconicity” – so in a way, this blogpost continues the theme of my (2008) paper, which apparently has not lost its relevance. Continue reading

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