Author: Martin Haspelmath

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…

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…

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…

After 40 years in the field, looking back

In early October 1982, exactly forty years ago, I formally entered the field of academic linguistics, by enrolling at the University of Vienna in the programmes of Indo-European linguistics and general linguistics. A lot of things have happened in linguistics (and in my career) since, so in this blogpost, my…

Austronesian languages prefer agent-first orders: Some notes on Riesberg et al. (2019)

In their 2019 paper “How universal is agent-first?”, Sonja Riesberg, Kurt Malcher and Nikolaus Himmelmann argue that western Austronesian languages provide evidence for a general “agent-first” preference, although they often have a neutral order in which the patient (or another type of “undergoer”) unexpectedly precedes the agent. They examine 51…

Marking atypical objects is efficient – does generative grammar challenge this functional explanation of DOM?

Since Caldwell (1856: 271), linguists have thought that the universal tendency of differential object marking (DOM) is explained by the pressure for languages to converge on efficient coding patterns, i.e. to concentrate their coding on the most atypical objects (namely referentially prominent, e.g. animate and definite, object nominals). This explanation…

Defining is never “difficult” – the practical problem is the polysemy of terms

Linguists often begin their papers by noting that the technical terms they use are not immediately clear to everyone, but why is this so? Why don’t we all use our terms with the same meanings, so that we can talk about the substantive issues right away, without clarifying the terminology…

On Bošković on generative typology vs. Greenbergian typology: Where is the rapprochement?

In a new position paper, Željko Bošković (2022) compares Greenberg-style typology with Baker-style typology and claims that the two approaches are not as different as it might appear. He suggests that a rapprochement is possible, and even that “typology is setting grounds for a potential rapprochement of the functional and…

On retro-defining, and why there are words after all in general grammar

In 2016, I gave a talk about “Coptic as a language without words” (which is available  on YouTube; the handout is here), which was merely an illustration of a point that I had made in my earlier 2011 paper: That there is no general definition of ‘word’ that applies to…

Types of pronouns: Beyond the stereotype

Everyone knows what a stereotypical pronoun is: they, she, he; and all linguists know that there are also interrogative pronouns (who, what), relative pronouns (who, which), and demonstrative pronouns (this, these). Or should we say “demonstrative adjectives”, because they are typically used in adnominal function (this room, these chairs)? And…

Can linguistics be reunifed? How the “general vs. theoretical” distinction might help

If you are reading this text, you are most probably a p-linguist, at least most of the time. It’s not that I enjoy dividing people into categories, but when there’s conceptual confusion, I think that making up new terms for existing concepts often helps. So we can distinguish between general…

Different explanations are mutually compatible: Structural, evolutionary and biocognitive

A few months ago, I was invited to give an online presentation to the Center for Linguistic Sciences of Beijing Normal University (my host was Chia-Jung Pan). This blogpost summarizes the main points of the talk (based on the talk handout; there is also a video of the talk, with…

Typological classification is never “difficult“ – the difficulties lie elsewhere

Cross-linguistic research is not easy because one needs to examine languages of diverse structures, but here I argue that typological classification is never “difficult”. The literature contains many references to such difficulties, but in fact, the main practical difficulty is obtaining complete data for a wide range of languages. And…

What kind of theory do we need for meaningful conversations about grammatical concepts (such as “personal pronoun”)?

The LINGTYP e-mail list is an old-fashioned way of communicating – it has existed for 23 years in its present format, as an unmoderated e-mail list for the typology community (made possibly by the LINGUIST List), and one might think that it should have been replaced by something more modern.…

What do we mean by ”existential clause”?

Some of our most common technical terms that we all take to be widely understood don’t have a clear meaning – I observed this earlier for the terms “morph”, “bound form” and “affix”, and in this blog post, I will discuss “existential clause” (or “existential sentence”; the difference between these…

Affixes are bound forms of a special kind – they are not defined by their phonological properties

A few weeks ago, a new paper of mine on bound forms and affixes was published by the journal Voprosy Jazykoznanija. This has long been the most important Russian linguistics journal, and it now publishes articles in English as well. Here’s an introduction to some of the key points of…
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