Discovering Martin Haspelmath's blog

🕑 5 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 April 28, 2021 in Discussions • 🏷 methodology, universals

Unbecoming as it may be for a blogging linguist, I am not particularly familiar with the overall blogosphere in linguistics. As a devoted Twitter & Facebook hermit, I am perpetually out of the loop, and I like it that way. So it is only recently that I have become aware of Martin Haspelmath’s long-running blog, thanks to a post by David Adger. There’s tons of posts, but based on the limited sample I’ve read so far, it seems that most revolve around one of three issues: terminology, innateness, and peer-review. I think the latter is actually the most interesting, but for the sake of completeness self-indulgence, I’ll add my $0.02 regarding the first two, leaving peer-review for a separate post.

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Three types of generalizations

🕑 12 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 December 14, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 methodology, reduplication

My post on defossilization clearly wasn’t esoteric enough, so I’m upping the ante by turning to one of the most esoteric and ephemeral issues in linguistic theory. Yes, we’re gonna talk about generalizations and what their role ought to be in how we do linguistics. Since it’s a long post even for outdex standards, I’ll give you a tldr: I think there’s at least three types of generalization, and we shouldn’t lump them together. In particular, not every generalization has a payoff in the grammar.

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Just your regular regular expression

🕑 6 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 April 24, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 coding, fun allowed, methodology

Outdex posts can be a dull affair, always obsessed with language and computation (it’s the official blog motto, you know). Today, I will deviate from this with a post that’s obsessed with, wait for it, computation and language. Big difference. Our juicy topic will be regular expressions. And don’t you worry, we’ll get to the “and language” part.

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Against math: When sets are a bad setup

🕑 11 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 April 06, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 methodology, syntax, set theory, Merge, linearization

Last time I gave you a piece of my mind when it comes to the Kuratowski definition of pairs and ordered sets, and why we should stay away from it in linguistics. The thing is, that was a conceptual argument, and those tend to fall flat with most researchers. Just like most mathematicians weren’t particularly fazed by Gödel’s incompleteness results because it didn’t impact their daily work, the average researcher doesn’t care about some impurities in their approach as long as it gets the job done. So this post will discuss a concrete case where a good linguistic insight got buried under mathematical rubble.

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Against math: Kuratowski's spectre

🕑 8 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 March 30, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 methodology, syntax, set theory, Merge, linearization

As some of you might know, my dissertation starts with a quote from My Little Pony. By Applejack, to be precise, the only pony that I could see myself have a beer with (and I don’t even like beer). You can watch the full clip, but here’s the line that I quoted:

Don’t you use your fancy mathematics to muddy the issue.

Truer words have never been spoken. In light of my obvious mathematical inclinations this might come as a surprise for some of you, but I don’t like using math just for the sake of math. Mathematical formalization is only worth it if it provides novel insights.

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Unboundedness is a red herring

🕑 13 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 February 20, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 syntax, methodology, competence, performance

Jon’s post on the overappreciated Marr argument reminded me that it’s been a while since the last entry in the Underappreciated arguments series. And seeing how the competence-performance distinction showed up in the comments section of my post about why semantics should be like parsing, this might be a good time to talk one of the central tenets of this distinction: unboundedness. Unboundedness, and the corollary that natural languages are infinite, is one of the first things that we teach students in a linguistics intro, and it is one of the first things that psychologists and other non-linguists will object to. But the dirty secret is that nothing really hinges on it.

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We need a framework?

🕑 7 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 October 30, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 methodology, subregular

As you might know, Stony Brook hosted AMP, the American Meeting on Phonology, a week ago quite a while ago (yikes, almost November again). Jane Chandlee started off the conference with an invited talk on the subregular view of phonological mappings from underlying representations to surface forms. It was well received, but during the question period Bruce Hayes (no, not that Bruce Hayes) made a point that I found puzzling: “You need a framework!” Unfortunately I didn’t have time to ask Bruce afterwards what exactly he meant by that. But every conceivable interpretation I’ve come up with I vehemently disagree with, and I think Bruce’s demand for a framework stems from incorrectly applying the linguistic modus operandi to computational work.

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I'm not done KISSing yet

🕑 3 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 July 25, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 methodology, semantics

I just got back from MOL (Mathematics of Language) in Toronto, and much to my own surprise I actually got to talk some more about KISS theories there. As you might recall, my last post tried to made a case for more simple accounts that try to handle only one phenomenon but do so exceedingly well without the burden of machinery that is needed for other phenomena. My post only listed two examples for syntax as I was under the impression that this is a rare approach in linguistics, so I didn’t dig much deeper for examples. But at MOL I saw Yoad Winter give a beautiful KISS account of presupposition projection (here’s the paper version). That’s when it hit me: in semantics, KISS is pretty much the norm!

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KISSing syntax

🕑 7 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 July 12, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 methodology, syntax

Here’s a question I first heard from Hans-Martin Gärtner many years ago. I don’t remember the exact date, but I believe it was in 2009 or 2010. We both happened to be in Berlin, chowing down on some uniquely awful sandwiches. Culinary cruelties notwithstanding the conversation was very enjoyable, and we quickly got to talk about linguistics as a science, at which point Hans-Martin offered the following observation (not verbatim):

It’s strange how linguistic theories completely lack modularity. In other sciences, each phenomenon gets its own theory, and the challenge lies in unifying them.

Back then I didn’t share his sentiment. After all, phonology, morphology, and syntax each have their own theory, and eventually we might try to unify them (an issue that’s very dear to me). But the remark stuck with me, and the more I’ve thought about it in the last few years the more I have to side with Hans-Martin.

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Two dimensions of talking past one another

🕑 8 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 May 20, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 theory, methodology, Minimalism

This post will be a bit of a mess since it’s mostly me trying to systematize some issues I’ve been grappling with for a while now. I have discussed my research with people who come from very different backgrounds: theoretical linguists, computer scientists, molecular biologists, physicists, and so on. Many of these discussions have involved a fair amount of talking past one another. To some extent that’s unavoidable without a large shared common ground. But ironically, most of the talking past one another actually didn’t occur with, say, biologists, but with theoretical linguists, in particular Minimalists. The rest of this post presents my personal explanation for what might be going on there. I believe there are two factors at play. Both concern the horribly fuzzy notion of a linguistic theory.

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