Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Lecture | LUCL Colloquium - Winter 2016

Universal constraints on syntactic argument coding: Functional-adaptive, mutational and representational

  • Martin Haspelmath (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena & Leipzig University)
16 December 2016
LUCL Colloquium
van Wijkplaats
Van Wijkplaats 2
2311 BX Leiden


In recent years, authors such as Creissels (2008), Cristofaro (2013) and Anderson (2016) have argued that general patterns of argument coding (ergative vs. accusative alignment, differential object marking, inverse marking) should be “explained diachronically”, rather than “synchronically” (cf. also related work by Bybee, Plank, and Blevins). It seems clear that any causal chains that one might want to postulate have a temporal dimension, so what exactly is meant by “diachronic” and “synchronic” here? I propose that one should clearly distinguish between three kinds of constraints: functional-adaptive (result-oriented, analogous to adaptive change in other kinds of evolution), mutational (constraints on sources and pathways of change), and representational (constraints on the kinds of patterns that are cognitively possible, as emphasized in generative grammar). The task is then to find good criteria to evaluate competing explanatory proposals. My concrete examples will come particularly from my research on ditransitive constructions, and I will highlight the role of multi-convergence in arguing for functional-adaptive explanations.