Author: Martin Haspelmath

What is the role of biology and culture in understanding language(s)? A discussion with José-Luis Mendívil-Giró

Martin Haspelmath: José-Luis, I’d like to thank you for writing a detailed comment on one of my recent posts (on differential object marking) on your own blog (Philosophy of Linguistics). I’d like to discuss some of the general issues in more detail. José-Luis Mendívil-Giró: Thank you very much, Martin, for…

Unity of science: Why linguistics faces bigger challenges than the replication crisis

Over the last few years, psychologists and scientists in some other field have been talking (and worrying) a lot about problems of replicability and reproducibility. In psychology, people even talk about a “replication crisis”, and linguists have been thinking about replicability (e.g. of cross-linguistic generalizations, Plank (ed.) 2006) and reproducibility…

How the individuation scale helps explain universals of coding in countability classes

It sometimes happens that different scholars arrive at similar conclusions more or less independently, and such cases are probably particularly good indications that they are on the right track. It seems that Scott Grimm’s recent study of count-mass, singular-plural and singulative-collective noun pairs (published in 2018) is a good example…

What is the role of innate universal categories in grammatical theorizing? A conversation between David Adger and Martin Haspelmath

Martin Haspelmath: David, you criticized a blogpost that I wrote a while ago, where I said that Chomsky apparently changed his mind and no longer assumes a rich universal grammar (UG). I didn’t quite understand what you meant in your brief Twitter comments. I have been under the impression that…

No progress on differential object marking: Comments and reflections on Kalin (2018)

From my perspective, differential object marking (DOM) – the universal tendency for prominent objects to get special marking – has been well-understood since the 1980s, but even though the explanation was clearly stated in Comrie (1989) (and also formulated clearly in Croft (1988) and Bossong (1991)), many linguists seems to…

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…