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

Let’s invest more time in research, and less time in reviewing

Over the last three decades, the amount of time linguists spend on reviewing seems to have increased significantly. Reviews of journal papers seem to be getting longer, we spend more time on grant reviewing, and most strikingly, we spend much more energy on abstract reviewing. Maybe this increase in reviewing is a good thing and I’m just nostalgic of the old times, but I feel that there’s too little discussion of this development. Here I will argue that less reviewing would be better for science, Continue reading

Confused by syntax: Some notes on Koeneman & Zeijlstra (2017)

(See also a reply to this critical review by the authors: “Syntax and didactics“)

A new authoritative textbook on Chomskyan syntax

Papers in the framework of current mainstream generative grammar (MGG) are often difficult, or even impenetrable, to read, even when the reader is well-versed in syntax and in other models of generative syntax. They are mostly written for the community of practitioners, who naturally do not see a need to motivate their choices. I was thus happy to see a new textbook (“Introducing syntax”, Koeneman & Zeijlstra 2017), published by an authoritative publisher, and approved by Noam Chomsky himself Continue reading

Does less restrictiveness mean progress in grammatical theory?

One prominent way of expressing the goal of what is often called “grammatical theory” (or “linguistic theory”) is to say that it aims to establish an innate architecture and a set of features and categories that are rich enough to account for everything we find in the world’s languages, but restrictive enough to explain the gaps in what we see and to explain why we can acquire languages despite the poverty of the stimulus. I always found the first goal absolutely compelling Continue reading

What’s the point of the negative reviews?

Scientists don’t get a lot of positive feedback for their work: Often it’s just two or three questions after a conference talk, by friendly colleagues who understood the talk only partly – and all this after months of work that went into this talk. And reviewers of journal papers are often downright negative – getting one’s journal-paper reviews back can be a depressing experience. Continue reading

A plea for pronounceable language names

Suppose you hear that a colleague is working on a language called “@t~q^M#%”. What is your reaction? What’s wrong with the language name “@t~q^M#%”? It’s perfectly unique, it consists only of ASCII characters so is eminently typable, and it has a certain beauty. But of course it lacks pronounceability, so is it good as a name? In general, we expect a language to have a name that we can use in speaking about the language, not only in writing. Continue reading

Why should we bother about terminology in linguistics?

Those who know me better will be aware that I keep insisting on careful use of terminology in linguistics, especially in grammar (my main area of research), but also in other areas – for example, I often point out that it’s very problematic to use the term borrowing only for cases of copying (of words and other features from a donor language) that were NOT due to imperfect learning of a second language (i.e. substrate effects). The reason is that we need a general term for all kinds of copying, because in many or most cases we don’t know the circumstances under which the copying took place. Continue reading

“Haspelmath goes minimalist”: A memorable workshop on universals in Abruzzo

Last week I was at one of the most unusual and stimulating events I’ve attended in a long time – a workshop on “Variation and universals” organized by Roberta D’Alessandro and Marc van Oostendorp, bringing together syntacticians and phonologists, macrotypologists and microvariantionists, and generativists and linguists who were unsure how to describe themselves. The goal was to think at a higher level than usually about the role of typological data and universal claims in understanding language(s). Continue reading

Should descriptive grammars be “typologically informed”, and what does this mean?

A recent issue of the journal “Linguistic Typology” contains a number of articles on the usefulness of typology, among others one by Nikolaus Himmelmann on the usefulness of typology for language documentation (2016). Himmelmann bluntly criticizes the theoretical stance of separating description from comparison: Continue reading

How can diachrony help explain typological distributions?

Quite a few people have argued in recent times that typological distributions should be explained with reference to diachronic change (e.g. Bybee (1988; 2006; 2008), Blevins (2004), Anderson (2005; 2016), (Plank 2007), Creissels (2008), and Cristofaro (2010; 2013; 2014)). As Bickel et al. (2015: 29) put it:

“statistical universals are not really synchronic in nature, but are rather the result of underlying diachronic mechanisms that cause languages to change in preferred or ‘natural’ ways”

This view seems to have been articulated first by Greenberg (1969; 1978), Continue reading

The growing pains of pragmatic typology

Six months ago a linguistic factoid made global headlines: ‘huh?’ is a universal word. The New York Times described it as “the syllable that everyone recognises” and for the Süddeutsche Zeitung it was “the most important word in the world” because of its role in solving communicative mishaps. Some reports claimed it was the first human word or the only global word. The news was based on a paper by me and my colleagues Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, entitled, Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items (see the paper or download the PDF). For us, the newsworthy part was in the second part of the title. For the rest of the world, it was in the first part.

The global huh-laballoo (as one commentator called it) was an interesting experience. Continue reading

Dictionaries as open-access databases: A vision

Like many other media, dictionaries have tended to move into the internet, and many people nowadays use online dictionaries for everyday purposes (e.g. LEO, which has popular online dictionaries for translation between German and a number of widely spoken languages). Scientific, high-profile dictionaries like the OED or the Grimm Deutsches Wörterbuch are also increasingly used in their electronic version.

However, scientific dictionaries of small languages that have little or no practical use outside their speech communities have not often been published electronically so far, Continue reading