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

A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps

Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. This is something that perhaps I notice more than other linguists in the richer countries, because as a typologist I need access to works on many different languages. The commercial publishers would argue that this is unavoidable, but filesharing has become so easy that I expect fewer and fewer scholars to be willing to accept this argumentation in the future. What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? Continue reading

Languoid, Doculect and Glossonym: Formalizing the Notion ‘Language’

Martin Haspelmath’s (2013) recent post in this forum discussed the criticism by Morey et al. (2013) of the ISO 639-3 three-letter codes for language identification. In agreement with Martin, I would strongly urge linguists not to swim against the tide but to go with the flow and accept ISO 639-3 as a useful initiative for specific use-cases. The ISO 639-3 codes are not the holy grail that will solve all our problems concerning language-identification, but they have their merits. Most importantly, it is still one of the few resources that at least tries to provide a comprehensive catalogue of the world’s linguistic diversity. If one criticises SIL and their Ethnologue (which is the basis of ISO 639-3), then at least one should also acknowledge that they have been working on this catalogue for decades, and in all this time no other institutionalised linguist has tried to improve, or at least parallel, their effort. Continue reading

Can language identity be standardized? On Morey et al.’s critique of ISO 639-3

Since 2007, Ethnologue’s three-letter codes for languages have had the status of an ISO standard for languages. This has considerably enhanced their status in linguistics, and some linguists now use these codes (which were primarily intended as unique identifiers for technical and industrial purposes) in their prose texts, as additional identifiers of the language(s) they are talking about. But at the recent PARADISEC conference in Melbourne, Stephen Morey, Mark W. Post and Victor A. Friedman launched a direct attack on them (Morey et al. 2013). It seems to me that this is a very useful step, because it may lead to a serious public debate of what it is that we can expect from a standard language catalogue such as Ethnologue. (Some discussion of the issues has been taking place in closed circles or small workshops, e.g. at the Leipzig language catalogue workshop in 2007, but this is the first highly critical voice at a major conference, as far as I know.) Continue reading

Rethinking Ecolinguistic Diversity

In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brian F. Codding and Terry L. Jones (2013) suggest that ecological productivity (how ecologically rich an environment is in terms of water, plant, and animal resources) predicts and partially explains the linguistic diversity of a given region. Many linguists have commented on the correlation between ecological and linguistic diversity, typically echoing works by Nettle & Romaine (2000), Romaine (2012, 2013), and Maffi (2001, 2003) on this topic. Indeed, looking at, it’s easy to see that linguistic diversity is most densely concentrated in the most ecologically rich areas of the world, such as Papua New Guinea or central Africa. Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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