Invited talk at UCLA this Friday!

This Friday I will be presenting our join work with Ekaterina Lyutikova at the UCLA Department of Linguistics. My talk is entitled “WHAT IS CASE? A VIEW FROM RUSSIA”

Abstract: In recent years, syntacticians have showed a renewed interest in case marking, and two new theories have been competing as the best account of case-related phenomena: the Inherent Case Theory (ICT), put forward by Woolford (2006), among others, and the Dependent Case Theory (DCT), advocated recently by Baker (2015) and Baker and Bobaljik (2017). The proponents of the DCT, in particular, argue it to be the best account of three phenomena: (1) languages with ergative alignment, (2) applicative and other similar alternations, where the introduction of an additional argument (with no change to the thematic roles of other arguments) changes the case marking, and (3) Differential Object Marking. In this talk, I challenge those claims by bringing to the table data from three languages spoken in Russia: Russian, Agul and Tatar. I further show that the ICT can handle such data better than the DCT.

(The map on the right illustrates the location of Agul in Dagestan, listed as Agu.)


New article on Yiddish published

My article on the history of Yiddish, “On Slavic-influenced Syntactic Changes in Yiddish: A Parametric Account” has been published in the proceedings of FASL24 (the NYU meeting):

Pereltsvaig, Asya (2017) On Slavic-influenced Syntactic Changes in Yiddish: A Parametric Account. In: Yohei Oseki, Mashe Esipova, Stephanie Harves (eds.) Annual Workshop on Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics. The NYU Meeting 2015. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Publications. Pp. 281-300.


Slavic influence on the phonology, morphology, and lexicon of Yiddish is well-documented (Weinreich 1980, inter alia). In contrast, syntactic innovations triggered by contact with Slavic languages are rarely investigated. This paper examines the extension of verb-second (V2) from root clauses to embedded clauses, which was suggested to be Slavic-influenced by Weinreich (1958) and Santorini (1989, 1992). However, no satisfactory explanation has been offered in the previous literature for how Slavic languages—which lack V2 in either root or embedded clauses—could have engendered such a change in Yiddish. The key to the proposed analysis is treating (embedded) V2 not as a unitary phenomenon, but as a “constellation” of parameter values, some of which were already in place in Yiddish before Slavic languages came into the picture and the rest of which changed under the influence of Slavic.


Upcoming Courses: The Glamour of Grammar, English Accents, and the Russian Revolution

It’s that time of the year: the new academic year is impending and it’s time to advertise the upcoming courses I’ll be teaching this Fall. So…

The Glamour of Grammar: An Online Course

@ Stanford Continuing Studies, Sep 25—Dec 8, Registration opens on 08/21/2017

School teaching of English grammar often makes this subject appear dull and dreary. Writing manuals like The Elements of Style further confound even the most curious reader with their arcane prohibitions against using passives, split infinitives, or “negative form.” Unsurprisingly, many people still view grammar as “mysterious or occult,” which is exactly what the word “grammar” originally meant. (“Glamour,” as it happens, comes from the same root.)

In this course, we will examine the principles behind English grammar and will dispel many a mystery surrounding it. We will ask: Why is there “stupidity” but not “smartity”? Who decides what is a word anyway? How do we put words together into meaningful sentences? How do we interpret sentences to mean more than is being explicitly said? How do children acquire the knowledge of these grammatical intricacies? And how do adults learn them in a foreign language? By looking at these and similar issues, we will develop a subtler and more thoughtful approach to grammar. While the focus of this course is on English, we will also see that other languages possess grammars that are based on the same principles and constraints. So in addition to learning many fascinating (and glamorous!) things about our own language, we will gain new tools that will be helpful in learning another language—any language.

For more information and to register, click here.

Why English Sounds Like It Does: A One-Day Study of the Colorful World of English Accents

@ Stanford Continuing Studies, Sunday December 3, 10:00 am—4:00 pm, Registration opens on 08/21/2017

English, like all other languages, changes over time and varies according to place and social setting. The way a person sounds—such as with the “southern drawl” or dropping their “r’s”—immediately conjures up a sense of the place where they come from. But the way we speak is influenced by many factors: not only our geographical roots, but also our social and educational background, our working environment, our friends, our own sense of identity, and even our political views all affect how we sound. In this one-day workshop, we will examine English dialects and accents around the country and around the world, and how they changed over time. We will wonder what Shakespeare really sounded like, and how we can know that. We will observe how English speakers can manipulate the way they speak to emphasize their identity. We will hear Bostonians and New Yorkers, posh and working-class Londoners, Scots and Irishmen, Canadians and Australians—and then come back to Northern California and look at its changing linguistic landscape. Students will develop a better appreciation of the variety of accents and dialects in English, the people who speak them, and how we react to people speaking in different ways.

For more information and to register, click here.


100 Years of the Russian Revolution

@ SCU OLLI, Friday, October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 1:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. Registration Opens at 10 a.m. August 22

100 years ago, in November 1917, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin took over the power in Russia in a largely bloodless coup; but the Russian revolution was more than just a change in who exercised political power. Followed by several years of civil war and foreign intervention, the revolution changed not only the political structure of the country, but its economy, its social fabric, and even the nature of the most personal relationships among its citizens. In this course, we will consider how the socialist revolution set Russia on the course for planned economy, repressive dictatorship, and imperial aggression. We will examine in what ways post-Soviet Russia continues with economic, political, and social models that were established by the Soviet regime. We will explore why the majority of Russians today admire Putin despite a growing economic crisis; why they are so intolerant of homosexuality; why Russian women hate feminism; and other similar issues that perplex a Western observer. By evaluating the balance sheets of the last century of Russian history, we will ponder the future of Russia and its role in international affairs.

For more information and to register, click here.

Looking forward to seeing you in one of those classes!



Advance Praise for Languages of the World is IN!

The second edition of Languages of the World: An Introduction is on its way to booksellers near you! Advance praise is now up on Cambridge University Press website (thanks to Marie-Lucie Tarpent for pointing it out to me!):

‘This book is unique, there are no other books like it.’

Bradley Montgomery-Anderson, Northeastern State University, Oklahoma

‘… there is no other material at present which so exactly fits the needs of our course … the text is really reader-friendly, a pleasure to use in class, and popular with the students. The inclusion of assignments and exercises in every chapter is a very valuable addition, and the addition of different kinds of boxes with further information makes the reading process more flexible and multi-dimensional.’

Arthur Holmer, Lunds Universitet, Sweden

You can pre-order your copy (available in September) from Cambridge University Press.

In the meantime, next Saturday I am going to teach an all-day workshop on Languages of the World. You can still sign up here.





Thoughts about Zviagintsev’s “Leviathan”

The last film that we watched in my Russian film class was Andrey Zviagintsev’s Leviathan. In the introductory presentation to the film, I talked about the Biblical stories that are heavily referenced in the film: the story of the primordial evil sea monster Leviathan; the story of Job, whose faith is tested through a series of misfortunes; and the story of Naboth, whose vineyard was wanted, and ultimately expropriated, by the king. We also talked about Thomas Hobbes’ book of the same title. Since we didn’t have enough time after the film to discuss it, as we did with other films, I was asked by my students to write up some thoughts on visual elements and questions I wanted them to think about. So here it is.

As with two other films we’ve seen, Cranes Are Flying and Autumn Marathon, Leviathan starts and ends with the same visual imagery: the view of the location of Kolya’s house, with the Barents Sea and the mountains at the background. The broad vistas and the accompanying music by the American composer Philip Glass help elevate the story of one “little man”, Kolya, to the level of an epic saga about individuals and the state, akin to Thomas Hobbes book. In this, the film follows in the footsteps of such greats of the Russian literature as Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev.

Kolya’s house (photo: Wikipedia)

In the opening scene we see Kolya’s house and the associated outbuildings taking a proud spot in the visual center of the film’s frames, just as it was the emotional focal point of Kolya’s life, his anchor in the rough seas of life. In the closing scene we see the same location, framed by the sea and the mountains, but now a newly built church takes up the exact spot where Kolya’s house used to be. No longer a man’s home, it is now a house of God. Or is it?

It is perhaps no surprise that the Russian Orthodox Church officials came out with a sharp critique of the film: the Church establishment is depicted in a very negative light. At the end of the priest, we the viewers become spectators of a church service where the bishop talks at length about “truth” and “faith”, but a viewer is left with an impression that there is little truth or faith involved in the operations of the Church. To be fair, Zviagintsev also shows a different type of Orthodox priest: instead of preaching, he acts to help the poor, delivering bread to them. To me, this juxtaposition of Kolya’s house and the church built where the house used to be begs the question of whether the Church now fulfills its original mission of spiritual guidance and support for its parishioners—or is it simply an arm of the State, like another tentacle of Hobbesian Leviathan. (Although Leviathan is often imagined as a huge whale, some accounts present it as a giant octopus, which to me is scarier than a fairly benign whale.)

The departure of the Church from its mission is further alluded to in a parallel between the plot and dialogue of the film and the Biblical story of Naboth. In the Bible, the king is so overtaken by his desire to have Naboth’s vineyard that he is unable to eat, sleep or enjoy life. His wife, Queen Jezebel urges him: “Are you king or aren’t you? Go and take it!” (In this, she reminds me of Lady Macbeth.) In the film, the role of “Queen Jezebel” is played by the bishop: he urges the corrupt mayor to wield power (and violence, if necessary) to enforce his desires by all means necessary. Worldly affairs, he says, are the domain of secular authorities, and it is up to the mayor to hold the reigns of power “on the territory entrusted to him”. Thus, the bishop gives the mayor the ultimate justification for his corrupt ways (“All power is from God”) and an absolution for all sins (perhaps even murder!). The earthly rulers and establishment of the Church are thus shown to have divided up the world but ruling their respective domains with equal cruelty and disregard for the bodies and souls of those ruled. (As I watched this film, I was struck by the cognate titles for the earthly and divine rulers: the mayor refers to himself as vlast’ “authority” and addresses the bishop as vladyka “your holiness”—in Russian, the two words share the same root. I’d never thought of that before.) The marriage of the earthly and divine rulers, their merger into a single terrifying whole, is further underscored by such minute details as the portrait of Putin in the mayor’s office and the bust of Jesus in the bishop’s office (which the camera focuses on): has Putin been deified through a “cult of personality”, not unlike that of Stalin? or has Jesus been reduced to an administrator deciding property disputes, punishing and promoting people in accordance to principles that are far removed from Biblical morality of “Thou shalt not…”?

Putin’s portrait on the wall of the mayor’s office caught my attention for yet another reason as well: it is shown to hang directly above the mayor’s head, where it is not likely to be seen often by the mayor himself. It is placed there for the benefit of those who enter the office to plead their case with the mayor (like Kolya’s lawyer friend does) or to take orders (as the prosecutor and the mayor’s two underlings do). The vertical line formed by the portrait and the mayor’s own head underneath it is a great visual representation of the “power vertical”, a concept that is crucial to understanding the Russian “Leviathan” (in Thomas Hobbes’ sense, that is the state). The entire state apparatus is aligned vertically, with Putin as the culminating point on top (and before that, Soviet and post-Soviet rulers, and even earlier, the Tsars). There is no horizontal organization of “checks and balances”, alternative sources of power, a real separation of powers, a civil society, or (as we see in the film) the separation of church and state. This vertical structure prevents the Russian state from being, as Thomas Hobbes envisaged it, a necessary evil required to protect individuals from arbitrary cruelty of other individuals and to arbitrate conflicting interests of different individuals. Instead, the state itself is the evil that individuals need to be protected from, if only there was any entity, besides blind fate, that could protect them.

Another episode with portraits, those of past rulers, emphasizes another characteristic feature of the Russian state throughout its history: every “change of the guard” is a mini-revolution. There is no clear set of rules on how one ruler, be it president, General Secretary, or Tsar, is to be replaced by the next one. Whatever rules are written down in the law can be set aside or manipulated by the rulers as they see fit. The same was true during the Soviet period, as can be seen by the changing titles of those who were the recognized rulers. (For example, Stalin was the formal head of state only from May 1941 to his death in March 1953; before that, he was “merely” the head of the Communist Party.) Even under the Tsars, the rules changed several times, nor did they lay out what is supposed to happen in all possible situations. (The uncertainty about the succession after Nicholas II’s eventual death is said to have contributed to the revolutionary events of 1917.) After a ruler is dead or replaced (with more or less violence), they are not seen as respected leaders who have done their best for the country, but as either a weak jester or an cruel strongman. In either case, it does not seem ridiculous to use a former ruler’s portrait as a target for shooting practice.

One final note concerns the visual imagery that caught my eye in the context of another film we watched in this class. Towards the end of the film, when Kolya’s house is being destroyed by backhoes and excavators, it is cleverly shown from within the house, which makes it look to the viewer as if one’s own house is being destroyed. The image of a former home, part of whose external structure has been broken down, reminded me of the scene from Cranes Are Flying, where Veronica runs up the steps of their building to find their apartment (and her parents in it!) gone forever. In both films, the partial destruction powerfully underscores that what used to be “home and hearth” is no more. But in Cranes Are Flying, it is an external entity, an enemy state (Nazi Germany) that causes the destruction with such impersonal means as bombs and artillery shells shot from afar. In Leviathan, it is not some foreign enemy but the Russian state itself that destroys all that was near and dear to Kolya and his family, by using far more personal and close-up machinery for the destruction. (The family too is ultimately destroyed, through the betrayal of Kolya’s wife and the adoption of his son, once Kolya himself is sent to prison.) I don’t know whether this allusion to a scene in an earlier film was Zviagintsev’s intention, a subconscious reference to a film that he doubtlessly had seen, or a pure accident—but in either case, to me this parallel poses a question of whether today’s Putin-ruled “Leviathan” of a country is what “our grandfathers have fought for”.


Reading Harari’s “Sapiens”

After hearing positive recommendations from several friends, I finally picked up Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind, and I have to admit that I am somewhat disappointed. I can see why it’s such a popular book: it’s certainly written in a clear, vivid language and brings complex ideas to a layman level. In short, he’s doing a great job in terms of popularizing science. It’s the “science” that he’s popularizing that I find somewhat disappointing, especially when it comes to language.

Harari makes a strong emphasis on fictive language: human ability to speak of entities that do not exist such as the Santa Claus, unicorns, God… and, as Harari points out, nations, states, and money. All these are fictions that large groups of Sapiens (that’s us!) choose to believe in and which allow us as a species to divorce ourselves from the restraints of biology (more on this below). “This ability to speak about fictions,” Harari writes (p. 24) is the most unique feature of Sapiens language”. (Just as a clarification: Harari refers to communication systems of apes, elephants, dolphins and even ants and bees as “language”, whereas most linguists reserve the term to our species’ ability, which Harari agrees is crucially different from the ways other animals communicate. Linguists sometime talk about “human language”, but since Harari uses the term “human” for all Homo species, talking about “human language” in this context would be confusing. The term “natural language”, usually used in contrast to artificial/constructed languages, is no help either since communication systems of other species are natural too. I’ll use “Sapiens language” to refer to the unique ability of our species.)

The ability to talk about fictive entities that don’t exist at all is indeed unique to Sapiens, as far as we know. (We’ll get back to the Neanderthals below.) But it is only a small part of what is truly unique about Sapiens language. Harari defines fictive entities as things “they” (Sapiens who talk about them) “have never seen, touched or smelled” (p. 24). It is not clear to me where he would draw the boundary. Elsewhere, he uses terms such as “fictions”, “social constructs” and “imagined realities” (p. 31), and most of his discussion focuses on such myths as nations, corporations and the like. But what of entities that are not present here and now yet were as real as you and me at some point, like ‘Cleopatra’ or ‘JFK’? What about other abstract entities that cannot be seen, touched or smelled, like ‘love’ or ‘climate’? Are they fictions too? In fact, if we dig slightly deeper, it turns out that even when we talk about “things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions” (p. 31), we often talk about abstract/fictive entities. Take, for example, Dogs bark. What does this sentence say? It certainly doesn’t talk about some real entity that is present here and now and can be seen/touched/smelled. It says something about a whole class/kind of entities called ‘dogs’. Notably, this sentence is true even if some entities that can be classified as ‘dogs’ (exceptionally) do not bark. In order to refer to concrete individuals, we can use proper names (e.g. Fido) or combine class-referring terms like dog with a special word (technical term: quantifier) that indicates which/how many “real” entities we have to pick from a fictive class: the dog, some dog, five dogs. By combining a predicate (e.g. bark) with either a kind-denoting (dogs) or individual-denoting (the dogs/Fido) terms, we impart some information (e.g. ‘individuals in the class/kind ‘dogs’ typically bark’ or ‘the individual Fido barks’). Now, our ability to do that is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. Thus, Harari writes (p. 24):

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.

I disagree: the truly unique feature of Sapiens language is the ability to transmit information, period. That’s what makes Sapiens language different from communication systems of other animal species. For example, Harari discusses the communication system (he calls it “language” but see above) of “green monkeys” (p. 22), which “use calls of various kinds to communicate”. For example, green monkeys have a call (or sign, or sound) that means (or can be “translated” into Sapiens language as) “Careful! An eagle!” and another one that means “Careful! A lion!”. Do these calls transmit information? Not exactly. These are not shared bits of information but calls to action: the first one signals to protect from danger from above and the second one — from the ground. It calls for different reactions (Harari, p. 22):

When researchers played a recording of the first call to a group of monkeys, the monkeys stopped what they were doing and looked upwards in fear. When the same group heard a recording of a second call, the lion warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree.

Such animal calls do not impart information in the sense of truth/falsehood, like Sapiens sentences. A monkey cannot say “that’s not true!”. Sapiens language on occasion uses similarly instructive rather than informative signals, such as “Fire!”. However, the bulk of what we use language for is to transmit information, not to urge our listeners to do this or that action, at least not directly. This is discussed in great detail in Derek Bickerton’s Adam’s Tongue. How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, and I’ll refer the reader to Bickerton’s excellent discussion. In fact, on p. 37 Harari sums up the new Sapiens “Language” ability in three bullet points that all start with “the ability to transmit (larger quantities of) information about…”. That, in and of itself, is the core new ability that “happened in the Cognitive Revolution”: transmitting information.

The second important issue is when that ability first appeared in Sapiens. According to Harari’s “Timeline of History” (a term he also uses rather differently from the commonly accepted wisdom), “fictive language” appeared in Sapiens ca. 70,000 years ago, the event Harari calls “the Cognitive Revolution”. This date seems to be correlated with “symbolic explosion”: the sudden wealth of evidence in the archeological record for Sapiens developing symbolic abilities (such as jewelry and the like), which is more commonly dated as 50,000 years ago. Some scholars have indeed argued that language emerged at the same time as the abundance of more sophisticated (symbolic) artifacts (e.g. Klein and Edgar 2002). The slightly earlier date that Harari picks is necessary in order to peg the emergence of Sapiens language before the species spread from Africa into Eurasia and onwards. Thus, it seems that Harari assumes that Sapiens language emerged only once, before the species spread geographically, an assumption that most linguists share. (As a footnote, I’ll note that in a footnote on p. 21 Harari states: “Apparently, even at the time of the Cognitive Revolution, different Sapiens groups had different dialects”. It is not clear to me what evidence, if any, this is based on, nor how it is possible to have different dialects/languages at the time of the Cognitive Revolution, that is, when language first emerged. Not shortly thereafter, but at the time. I will leave it aside as an example of sloppy presentation.)

Going back to the date when the Cognitive Revolution happened, it is not clear to me what evidence there is that it happened 130,000 years after the emergence of the Homo Sapiens species. Existing genetic evidence suggests that (to the extent that it can be taken as evidence of language at all) the genetic basis for Sapiens language, the H. Sapiens version of the FOXP2 gene, emerged ca. 200,000 years ago. Some scholars have argued that not only did we Sapiens have the genetic underpinning for developing Sapiens language but that Sapiens language allowed us to out-compete other (human and non-human) species despite our lightly built skeleton and overall fragile physique. Harari himself suggests that our ability to use “fictive language” and to cooperate in language groups as a result of our linguistic capacity is what allowed us to out-compete (and ultimately push out of existence) our Neanderthal cousins: “In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens” (p. 34). How, then, did Sapiens survive language-less for 130,000 years with the same anatomy as their linguistically-endowed descendants in the last 70,000 years ago? And if they had some other evolutionary advantage that allowed them to survive alongside the Neanderthals and other ancient human species, as well as lions, hyenas, gorillas and other competitors, what could have been the impetus for the emergence of language ca. 70,000 years ago? Harari, disappointingly, leaves the whole issue of how Sapiens language emerged open, but it is clear that by his logic it must have been a biological event, one driven by “genes, hormones and organisms” (p. 38). Only the emergence of Sapiens language allowed us to the “bec[o]me exempt from biological laws”. If that’s the case, the emergence of Sapiens language should be correlated with some biological event, such as a mutation in a gene that produced our linguistic ability, whether directly or indirectly. This brings us back to the FOXP2 and its presumed emergence ca. 200,000 years ago, in contradiction to what Harari states.

And that brings us, inevitably, to the question of Neanderthals and their linguistic abilities, an issue that remains rather murky, to say the least. Harari assumes that the Neanderthals had some language (recall that he doesn’t reserve the term for the unique Sapiens ability). They “could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell — and revise — stories about tribal spirits” (p. 34). In other words, they did not have Sapiens language but they had the ability to transmit information about “real world entities”. Whether such an intermediate stage (i.e. predicative language without “fictive” entities) ever existed, what may have prompted its emergence or its transformation into a fully Sapiens “fictive” language is not at all clear. Which is not to say that it is impossible for such intermediate stage to have existed in our Homo cousins, but at the moment such a possibility remains rather “fictive” (in Harari’s own sense). It appears that the Neanderthals had the genetic basis for Sapiens language (if so, it would need to be renamed “Homo language”); see Krause et al. (2007). Yet, these findings are open to various interpretations. Harari could be right if FOXP2 could be shown to be responsible for predicative but not necessarily “fictive” language, yet I am inclined to agree with Bickerton that predicative language (i.e. language that can be used to transmit information) is impossible without the type of signs that refer to classes/kinds, ergo to abstract entities.

(To be continued, hopefully…)


Klein, R.G. and Edgar, B. (2002) The Dawn of Human Culture, Wiley, New York.

Krause, Johannes et al. (2007) The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals. Current Biology 17: 1908–1912