Cross-indexing is the most common type of subject expression in the world’s languages

I recently saw an interesting article that asks about biases in evolutionary biology introduced by the fact that it is studied by humans. In linguistics, there is no shortage either of biases introduced by big languages such as Latin and English, and all linguists are at least aware of this possibility. But are we taking the potential problem seriously enough? Continue reading

Chomsky now rejects universal grammar (and comments on alien languages)

That our colleague Noam A. Chomsky no longer argues for a rich innate universal grammar (UG), containing many dozens (or even hundreds) of substantive features or categories, is old news. In Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (2002), the authors say that the domain-specific faculty of language (=FLN) comprises only the property of recursion, nothing more. Continue reading

Morphists and adaptationists in 19th century biology, and in modern linguistics: Some intriguing parallels

Recently I’ve been reading up on various aspects of the history of biology, and I noted some similarities between biology and linguistics that I found quite amazing. Maybe historians of science will dispute my interpretations, but I cannot resist the temptation to draw some parallels between what I call “morphists” (scholars who emphasize pure “form”) and adaptationists in both biology and linguistics. Continue reading

The moving parts and fixed parts of our theories: Why functional-adaptive explanations are more testable

I have recently stumbled upon a new metaphor may might help us think more clearly about different approaches in linguistics: the “moving-parts” metaphor that is sometimes used by generative linguistics.

It came up first in a Twitter conversation I had with Peter Jenks, Continue reading

Asymmetric coding in grammars and frequency-induced predictability

Over the last decade, I have often argued that grammatical coding patterns can be explained by frequency of use. In this blogpost, I provide a short summary of the claims for those who are not familiar with the argument.

What I’m claiming is not that I can explain language-particular patterns – the claim is entirely at the level of general linguistics, i.e. I am proposing an explanation of cross-linguistic tendencies. The tendencies that can be explained in this way are coding asymmetries, i.e. pairs of grammatical meanings that are in paradigmatic opposition and where one of the members shows a strong cross-linguistic tendency to be expressed by a longer form (which often means that the shorter form is zero). Continue reading

Facing the challenge of general linguistics when nature doesn’t help us

The following is a summary of an invited talk I presented at NoSLiP 2018 in Oslo in February 2018. I used the subtitle “Toward an IPA of morphosyntax”, echoing some remarks of an earlier post, though this is still a fairly distant goal. But in this talk I say more to motivate the need for it.

1. The general linguistics problem: Human Language is unobservable

In the 19th century, most linguists were particular linguists Continue reading

Dictionaria: Farewell to linear dictionaries

Dictionaries are structured databases, and they are linear only because of the inflexible paper medium of earlier times. Like linear phonebooks, linear timetable books, or antiquarian book catalogs, they are bound to disappear, but the process seems to be much slower. I’ve been wondering if there is a reason for this – does linearity perhaps serve a useful purpose in dictionaries? Continue reading

Ideophones, expressiveness and grammatical integration, or: how morphosyntax can depend on mode of communication

Ideophones —vivid sensory words found in many of the world’s languages— are often described as having little or no morphosyntax. That simple statement conceals an interesting puzzle. It is not often that we can define a word class across languages in terms of its syntax (or lack thereof). After all, most major types of word classes show intriguing patterns of cross-linguistic variation. There is no particular reason to expect that the morphosyntactic position or degree of embedding of, say, noun-like or verb-like words will be similar across unrelated languages. Indeed that is why typologists define comparative concepts primarily by reference to semantic rather than grammatical or morphosyntactic properties (Croft 2003; Haspelmath 2007).  Continue reading

An interview with Sonia Cristofaro about diachronic change and typological explanation

(The following conversation reflects some of the discussions that we had over the last few years, and particularly at a recent mini-workshop at WIKO Berlin.)

Martin Haspelmath:  In the typological literature of the last decade, one finds more and more instances of people claiming that this or that typological generalization actually has a diachronic explanation. Continue reading

Number suppletion vs. case suppletion: Does “locality” provide an explanation?

Whenever generative approaches claim that they can account for broadly cross-linguistic regularities, I try to pay close attention. In a recent short paper in Linguistic Inquiry, Moskal (2015) is concerned with the generalization that nouns may show number suppletion (e.g. Russian rebënok ‘child’, deti ‘children’), but almost never suppletion for case, whereas personal pronouns often show number suppletion (e.g. English I/we) as well as case suppletion (e.g. English I/me, we/us). This seems to be a robust observation, Continue reading

Hypothesis-testing in comparative linguistics: Aprioristic categories cannot be disproven!

A few months after their (2014) target article with comments from de Reuse, Dryer and me were published in the “Perspectives” section of Language, Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson have published their response (DGM 2015). Their original claim was that a UG-oriented approach is better suited to the discovery of linguistic diversity, in contrast to some of the claims made by Levinson & Evans (2010). In particular, they stressed the need for systematic hypothesis-testing, which turned out to be uncontroversial.

In my commentary (Haspelmath 2014b), I noted that the main difference between two types of approaches is not between “C-linguists” and “D-linguists” Continue reading

A proposal for the glossing of bound formatives without committing to their nature

Martin Haspelmath (2011) has argued that the notion ‘word’ is incoherent, and therefore is not useful as a cross-linguistically valid comparative concept or as a language-internal descriptive category. As a result, in his view, the distinction between bound formatives, e.g., affixes and clitics, is untenable. For example, in Lithuanian, the bound formative –si is traditionally analyzed as a suffix when it is in one position (after the verb when the verb has no prefixes) and as a prefix when it is in another position Continue reading

Ancient DNA and the Indo-European Question

by Paul Heggarty, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig.


1. Towards the End-Game at Last?

An ‘ancient DNA revolution’ is now sweeping through genetics. Suddenly, ancient population migrations can be recovered far more clearly than before.  For linguists, this holds out the prospect of ‘closure’, at last, on the Indo-European question.  And that is quite some prospect, for agreement on the origins of Indo-European has eluded us Continue reading