A conversation with Östen Dahl, on universals, grams, and p-/g-linguistics

Östen Dahl:

I just saw your recent paper on universals (“General linguistics must be based on universals (or nonconventional aspects of language)”). One immediate reaction I had was that a lot (perhaps most) of the phenomena that keep typologists busy are not universal but rather things that show up in some but not all languages. Just two examples (you’ll find more of them among the WALS chapters): classifiers and tone systems. You could perhaps say that they are universal in a very weak sense, viz. that hey are manifested in languages that have nothing to do with each other. In most cases, we have very vague ideas about the causal mechanisms behind them. What I wonder is whether linguistics isn’t unique among human and social sciences in its focus on universals. 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

Do we need trees to estimate worldwide probabilities of structural types? Some comments on Widmer et al. (2017)

At least since Greenberg’s seminal work on grammatical universals, comparative linguists have often talked about worldwide preferences in probabilistic terms. For example, Greenberg (1963) noted that “With overwhelmingly greater than chance frequency, languages with normal SOV order are postpositional” (Universal 4).

Since the 1970s, there has been increasing awareness that it is not sufficient to look at a few dozen languages that we happen to have easy access to (e.g. Bell 1978, Bakker 2011). Continue reading

Revise & Resubmit is damaging to science and should be abandoned

I have written about the bad effects of Revise & Resubmit (R&R) earlier (here and here), but I keep hearing from people who see no problems with this type of editorial decision in journal editing, so I need come back to it. This is also because I hear more and more about the unhappiness that it causes in people’s lives, and I feel that much of this is unnecessary. Continue reading

Why generative grammar needs innate building blocks in practice: An open response to José-Luis Mendívil-Giró

Dear José-Luis,

Many thanks for your open letter of March 2020 (on your blog and on Lingbuzz), where you discuss a number of recent contributions of mine, and where you argue that in contrast to what my 2020a paper on linguisticality and recent blogposts imply, there are no problems with generative grammar (GG) once one adopts a correct general perspective, because GG does not assume innate building blocks. [There is also a Lingbuzz version of this response.] 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

Two methods for comparative grammar: Measurement uniformity and building block uniformity

At this year’s annual meeting of the DGfS in Hamburg (2020), I organized a workshop on the empirical testing of grammatical universals, because I feel that universals are too often taken for granted (here is the handout of my talk). The well-known example of a universal morphology-syntax distinction is just the tip of the iceberg. Weirdly, Bauer (2019: 2) says in his recent book on the foundations of morphology: 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