Author: Martin Haspelmath

How coding efficiency explains cross-linguistic asymmetries: A reply to Song (2018: Ch. 7)

Jae Jung Song (1958-2017) published two typology textbooks, one in (2001) and another one earlier this year (which must have been finished just before his death), containing mostly new material. In particular, Chapter 7 of the new book deals with grammatical coding asymmetries and other “typological asymmetries”, as well as…

Can we ignore proper names in the universals of split case marking?

Cross-linguistic split flagging patterns (= patterns of case and adpositional marking) have often been described in terms of referential-prominence scales such as those in (1a-c), which have sometimes been put together as the “extended animacy scale” in (2). (1a) person scale: 1st/2nd (locuphoric) > 3rd (aliophoric) (1b) nominality scale: person…

Is generative syntax simply a useful descriptive tool?

In the late 20th century, the general view of generative syntax was that it made claims about the innate universal grammar, and that by investigating the principles and parameters of grammar, it did three things simultaneously: (i) explain the possibility of language acquisition despite the poverty of the stimulus, (ii)…

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, Fitch & Chomsky (2002), the authors say that the domain-specific faculty of language (=FLN) comprises only the property…

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”…

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, which was originally about how we can…

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 iconicity a better explanation for inalienable adpossessive marking after all?

Many languages have different adpossessive (= adnominal possessive) constructions for inalienable possessed nouns (= body-part or kinship nouns) and all other nouns. For example, Maltese has id Pietru ‘Pietru’s hand’ with no marker when a body-part is possessed, but il-ktieb ta’ Pietru [the-book of Pietru] with a possessive preposition when…

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…

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…

More on universals of case-marking from the perspective of nanosyntax: Van Baal & Don (2018)

In a recent blogpost, I promised that I’d pay more attention to the nanosyntactic approach if the authors look at more representative samples of the world’s languages, and it turns out that this is not difficult, because the fair open-access journal Glossa regularly publishes papers in this vein. A recent…

Coexpression patterns of complementizers, nanosyntax, and productivity

Since the 1980s, typologists have often summarized coexpression patterns (or “polysemy patterns”, or “syncretism patterns”) by semantic maps, as illustrated here for case expression (Narrog & Ito 2007: 282): (For general introductions to semantic maps, see Haspelmath 2003; Georgakopoulos & Polis 2018). The claims about possible coexpression pattern that a…

What is the name of my subfield (or subcommunity): Language typology, linguistic typology, or comparative linguistics?

Many linguists recognize typology as a subfield of linguistics, but what is the precise name of this subfield? “language typology”? “linguistic typology”? or maybe simply “comparative linguistics”? Having a unique name would have a number of advantages for the practitioners, so it seems that they should be interested in converging…

Facing the challenge of general linguistics when nature doesn’t help us

The following is a summary of an invited talk I presented at NoSLiP 2018 in Oslo in February 2018. I used the subtitle “Toward an IPA of morphosyntax”, echoing some remarks of an earlier post, though this is still a fairly distant goal. But in this talk I say more…

Could there be a sort of IPA for morphosyntactic concepts?

The IPA is so immensely useful for linguistics that nobody questions its use, even though it sometimes creates misunderstandings (e.g. the misconception that the characters defined in the IPA represent the set of possible sounds in the world’s languages). But so far, nobody has suggested that there could be something…

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…