The description-comparison approach and the audacious Chomskyan approach (or: how to frame better)

According to George Lakoff, we should frame ourselves, because otherwise we will be framed by others. This is an interesting thought, and indeed, linguists of different orientations constantly frame others and themselves. I have not been happy with many of these framings, and here I’ll make another attempt. Continue reading

Differential-coding scales and the Actionality Hierarchy (comments on Becker & Malchukov 2022)

The best-known differential-coding scale is the well-known “extended animacy hierarchy” in (1)

(1) 1st/2nd > 3rd > human > animate > inanimate

This scale can be taken as a basis for two well-known generalizations about semantic-role coding, about differential (or split) object marking (DOM, e.g. Bossong 1991; Aissen 2003) and split (or differential) ergative marking (e.g. Dixon 1994). Informally and in a simplified way, they can be stated as in (2) and (3). Continue reading

The journal WORD, and Greenberg and Jakobson in New York (1948-49)

I recently published a paper in WORD (“Defining the word”), and this made me curious about the fascinating history of this journal. It turns out that it has close links with the Greenberg-Jakobson connection that I have been interested in for quite some time. My long-standing interest in asymmetric coding patterns (e.g. Haspelmath 2021) was kindled by Croft’s (1990) “typological markedness”, which is based on Greenberg (1966), a major contribution to typology that was largely overlooked for a long time (unlike his 1963 paper, which became famous fast). In turn, Joseph Greenberg (1915-2001) was clearly influenced by Roman Jakobson  (1896-1982), from whom he adopted the term “markedness”. Continue reading

From radical critique to constructive proposal: “Defining the word” (2023)

What exactly is a word? How can we distinguish morphology (= word structure) from syntax? How do we tell phrases apart from complex words, and clitics from affixes? In my 2011 paper (“The indeterminacy of word segmentation”) I said that we don’t know: The various criteria that we typically use do not necessarily give the same results, and it could be that a notion of “word” plays no role in general grammar. Continue reading

Boycotting our colleagues from Russia: An atmosphere of fear in German academia?

[Normally this blog is reserved for strictly scientific issues. This post is an exception, about a situation when politics gets in the way of science.]

Over the last few months, several international conferences in Germany announced that they were forced to boycott participants from Russia because of a requirement imposed by their funders, the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany’s main funding agency for academic research).
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Sustainable dictionaries of low-resource languages: The “Dictionaria” series and its user-friendliness

Documentary and descriptive linguists often produce dictionaries of understudied languages, and speakers of these languages often show great interest in these dictionaries – typically a lot more interest than in grammatical analyses, which are much less accessible to untrained users. Like other aspects of language documentation, the results should be sustainable, which means that they conform to the FAIR principles for data: the data are findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. (Of course, this applies only to those languages whose speakers are happy to have descriptions of their languages made available to the whole world without restrictions.) Continue reading

Grammaticalization two decades later: A personal view

Recently I attended a nice conference in Paris on grammaticalization, held in a 17th century mansion with a view over the Seine, and while there were pleasant distractions (such as a memorable visit to the famous café Les Deux Magots on the last day), the conference also helped me reflect a bit about some developments over the last few decades. Continue reading

A bit less “radical”: Roots as solitary contentful morphs

One of the most basic terms of grammar is the term root, referring to the indivisible content-bearing parts of words, e.g. the first element in dog-s, sunn-y, famili-ar-iz-ation. The term originally comes from Hebrew grammar and has been known to European grammarians since the 16th century – but for a long time, it mostly referred to the original elements of languages and was long associated with etymological speculations (this association is still felt in von der Gabelentz 1891: 188). Continue reading

What kinds of “null argument” or “argument ellipsis” phenomena are there? Argument omission as a central question of valency research

There are several different situations where an argument that might be expected to be present is not present. They have been given a wide variety of terms: “null arguments”, “omission”, “ellipsis”, “deletion”, “implicit arguments”, and so on. The question is important, because some central grammatical notions such as “transitive verb” depend on this. For example is a sentence such as (1b) an intransitive sentence, or is it just as transitive as (1a) except that the direct object is not realized? And does (2) exhibit “valency-reduction”, because the agent argument was “removed”?

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Revisiting the serial verb construction concept – is it relevant for cross-linguistic comparison?

At an inspiring recent conference at the University of Mainz, quite a few talks discussed the notion of serial verb construction (SVC). I had written about SVCs in Haspelmath (2016), so I followed and took part in the discussion with interest. In this post, I share some of the thoughts that came up, in part presented in my talk (the handout is available here). Continue reading

Where I went wrong (I): “Iconicity” in basic-derived relations in morphology

In this post and in a few that are planned for the future, I will highlight some things that (I now think) were wrong in my earlier scientific writings. Science is supposed to be self-correcting, and these posts will demonstrate that this can happen also within a scholar’s career (not only when a new generation takes over, as is expressed by “Planck’s principle”: “Science progresses one funeral at a time”). Continue reading

What is “phonological fusion”? A plea for clear concepts such as boundness or welding

Many linguists have the intuition that affixes are “attached” to their bases, and we often informally use metaphorical terms such as “fused”, “cohering” and “tightly linked”. There is nothing to be said against metaphors in technical terminology, but do these expressions have a precise meaning? Since my 2011 paper in which I expressed doubts about the “word” concept, I have been thinking about better ways of capturing key distinctions of morphosyntax terminologically. Even earlier, I questioned the well-known “agglutination vs. flection” distinction (in Haspelmath 2009; originally presented in 1999), which has its roots in racist ideas about the superiority of Indo-European (“Aryan”) languages that were popular in German Romanticism. Continue reading

Non-Structuralist Linguistics (guest post by Randy LaPolla)

Guest post by Randy J. LaPolla (罗仁地), Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai

[The title of this post evokes and is meant as a tribute to Mickey Noonan’s 1999 paper, “Non-Structuralist syntax”. Although Noonan is arguing for a constructionist and integrative approach, he uses the term “syntax”, which doesn’t exist separately in a truly constructionist approach. Many claiming to be doing constructionist studies actually see the constructionist approach as just another form of syntactic analysis, but this is missing the whole non-componential nature of the constructionist approach (see Croft 2021 for discussion). The text was presented as a talk at Nankai University on 2022-05-25 as part of their “Experimental Linguistics” Online Forum, and is to appear (in Chinese) in the journal Experimental Linguistics.] Continue reading