Unity of science: Why linguistics faces bigger challenges than the replication crisis

Over the last few years, psychologists and scientists in some other field have been talking (and worrying) a lot about problems of replicability and reproducibility. In psychology, people even talk about a “replication crisis”, and linguists have been thinking about replicability (e.g. of cross-linguistic generalizations, Plank (ed.) 2006) and reproducibility as well (see Berez-Kroeker et al. 2018, a position paper on reproducibility of linguistic data). Continue reading

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

What is the role of innate universal categories in grammatical theorizing? A conversation between David Adger and Martin Haspelmath

Martin Haspelmath:

David, you criticized a blogpost that I wrote a while ago, where I said that Chomsky apparently changed his mind and no longer assumes a rich universal grammar (UG). I didn’t quite understand what you meant in your brief Twitter comments. I have been under the impression that in at least 20th century Principles & Parameters linguistics, the idea was that innate grammatical knowledge explains limits on diversity, and therefore analyses of particular languages should make use of the innate grammatical categories that we have hypothesized to exist (e.g. V, N, A according to Baker (2003), or the various functional heads hypothesized to be innate by Cinque (1999), and the various operations such as head movement and vocabulary insertion that are routinely used by MGG practitioners). 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

How coding efficiency explains cross-linguistic asymmetries: A reply to Song (2018: Ch. 7)

Jae Jung Song (1958-2017) published two typology textbooks, one in (2001) and another one earlier this year (which must have been finished just before his death), containing mostly new material. In particular, Chapter 7 of the new book deals with grammatical coding asymmetries and other “typological asymmetries”, as well as “markedness” and explanations in terms of iconicity, economy and frequency. Song makes extensive reference to some of my earlier work (Haspelmath 2006; 2008; Haspelmath et al. 2014), so it may be worth putting together a blogpost with some reactions. Continue reading

Is generative syntax simply a useful descriptive tool?

In the late 20th century, the general view of generative syntax was that it made claims about the innate universal grammar, and that by investigating the principles and parameters of grammar, it did three things simultaneously: (i) explain the possibility of language acquisition despite the poverty of the stimulus, (ii) explain limits on cross-linguistic diversity, and (iii) provide a framework for the elegant description of particular languages (e.g. Baker 2003).

The confidence in the existence of a rich UG and parameters seems to have waned in the 21st century Continue reading

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