Acceptability judgements tell us about social norms, not about internal systems

Since the 1960s, many works on syntax have primarily relied on acceptability judgements, rather than on examples attested in corpora, as was common in earlier times. In Jespersen’s Essentials of English grammar (1933), there were many invented examples, but also quite a few observed corpus attestations (from authors such as Shakespeare, Austen, Thackeray, Carlyle). But over the last five decades, syntacticians have relied much more on experimental methods, which allowed them to make great progress in exploring the incredibly rich patterns of the major languages. (Note that I include acceptability judgements of all kinds under “experiments” here, because they all go beyond pure observation of naturally occurring speech.) Continue reading

Locuphoric person forms and speech act participants

Grammarians often have occasion to distinguish between 1st/2nd person forms on the one hand, and 3rd person forms on the other – that these two behave differently in many languages has been well-known since Benveniste (1947) and Forchheimer (1953). Over the last two decades, the term “SAP” (= speech act participant) has become fairly common in typological circles when reference is needed to 1st/2nd person forms (e.g. Zúñiga 2006; Jacques & Antonov 2014; DeLancey 2018). Continue reading

Zeroes and transformations: Good for p-analyses, useless for g-linguistics?

Since the mid-20th century, structural linguists have often made use of two types of abstract devices that were not part of the earlier arsenal (which did of course include rules and paradigms): zero elements (or empty positions), and transformations (or derivations, or operations). Continue reading

Do modern grammars retain traces of Proto-World?

We know almost nothing about the earliest language(s) of humans, because humans had language(s) over 100,000 years ago, and there are no records or other good methods for learning about those languages. But there is a lot of interesting speculation, and some of this is potentially relevant to understanding similarities among present-day languages. In particular, one might ask whether some similarities or universals are due to inheritance from Proto-World (the language from which all modern languages descend). Continue reading

Some issues with the correlated-evolution method for testing causal hypotheses in comparative linguistics

While comparative grammar research in the 20th century based its universal claims on stratified sampling (e.g. Bell 1978, Bakker 2011), in the 21st century, some authors have emphasized that sampling does not solve the issue of non-independence because all languages probably derive from a common ancestor or ancestral bottleneck (e.g. Maslova 2000; Levinson et al. 2011: 512). They have therefore given preference to the correlated-evolution method (Felsenstein 1985; Mace & Pagel 1994) that is firmly established in biology. Some representatives of this trend are Dunn et al. (2011), Widmer et al. (2017), and Jäger (2019). Continue reading

We are all structuralists

Linguists who study the structures of languages in a systematic way are structuralists (or structural linguists) – so this label basically applies to all linguists who are interested in language structures (not necessarily to those who only study the social roles of languages, or who only study pychological correlates of a narrow range of phenomena, e.g. word meanings). Continue reading

Long live the morph, down with the morpheme!

If you ever wondered what’s the difference between a morph and a morpheme, this blogpost contains an easy answer: Your stereotypical “morpheme” is actually a morph! No need to worry about all the problems with morphemes anymore: We can simply say “morph”, and continue to live happily. A morph is a minimal form, and if anyone has further questions about this definition, I’ve answered them in a forthcoming paper (“The morph as a minimal linguistic form”) Continue reading

The peculiar flag-article suffixes in Circassian and general linguistics: Comments on Arkadiev & Testelets (2019)

How can our general understanding of Human Language contribute to making peculiar language-particular patterns more comprehensible? This is what I keep wondering about, and in the recent excellent paper by Peter Arkadiev and Yakov Testelets, we find a really interesting case for discussion: the flag-article suffixes in the Circassian languages (Kabardian and Adyghe, two very closely related languages of the northern Caucasus region). These suffixes (Absolutive suffix -r, Oblique suffix -m) occur only on a nominal only when it is specific, and may be omitted when it is nonspecific: Continue reading

Rigour is more important than depth: Why language universals should not be based on in-depth analysis

Many linguists think that broad cross-linguistic comparison is sometimes “too shallow”, and that instead, language universals can be detected only if they are based on “in-depth”, “abstract” and “detailed” analyses. Here I give reasons to think that this is the wrong approach. This discussion is not new (cf. Comrie 1981; Coopmans 1983), but it needs to be revisited, because this erroneous idea remains very strong in the discipline. Continue reading

A conversation between David Pesetsky and Martin Haspelmath about in-depth analysis

Martin Haspelmath: David, thanks for engaging in various discussions on Facebook over the years. Most recently, I had a conversation with Elena Anagnostopoulou about innate principles, and she mentioned parasitic gaps as a convincing example of something that is explained by innate principles. Then I was asked how I would deal with the universal properties of parasitic gaps, and I replied that I wasn’t sure what exactly a parasitic gap is. To test the universality of the phenomenon, I‘d need a definition that applies equally to all languages, using the same criteria. Continue reading

A conversation between Elena Anagnostopoulou and Martin Haspelmath about the Person Case Constraint

Martin Haspelmath: Elena, it was only last week that I became aware of your 2017 paper on the Person Case Constraint in the Companion to Syntax. (The “PCC” refers to the unacceptability of clitic combinations as in French *il me lui présente ‘he introduces me to her’.) I’d like to thank you for discussing my 2004 paper (“The Ditransitive Person Role Constraint”) in such great detail in that overview article – that’s really wonderful, and exceptional for a generative paper. 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

An interview with Scott DeLancey about language description and cross-linguistic considerations

Martin Haspelmath: Scott, you have been spending a lot of time in Northeastern India over the last years, and you are currently working on a description of Bodo, a Trans-Himalayan language of Northeast India. In a few weeks’ time, you will attend the NEILS conference in Kokrajhar (Bodoland Territorial Region, Assam, India). As an experienced fieldworker, how do you see the relationship between language-particular description and typological comparison? Should each language be described in its own terms? Continue reading

Nick Evans on the uniqueness of each language and on language comparison

For good reasons, Nicholas (“Nick”) Evans is one of the world’s most prominent linguists. Among his numerous achievements, the best known among experts may be the outstanding grammatical descriptions of Kayardild (1995) and Bininj Kunwok (2003), as well as his work on insubordination (e.g. Evans & Watanabe 2016) and reciprocals (e.g. Evans et al. 2011). But to a wider group of readers, he is of course well-known through the overview paper Evans & Levinson (2009), and the 2009 book “Dying words”, which gives a beautiful nonspecialist overview of worldwide linguistic diversity, its documentation, and its comparison. Continue reading

Against “allomorphy“ (and what to replace it with: morph variants  and suppletive morph sets)

Every linguist knows the term “allomorph”, but we cannot agree on what it means. I will argue here that this is a terminological issue, not a substantive issue. Of course, we disagree on many substantive issues (and in particular, on strategic issues), but there is no reason to “disagree” on terminological issues – this is merely a matter of convenience, and just as we agree on the IPA, we could easily agree on morphosyntactic notation/terminology if we wanted. Continue reading