Classes at NYI are underway!

The first week of NYI classes is over, and with it, my part in the “3 puzzles in syntax and semantics” is done. I talked about eventive nominalizations in Russian (like: разрушение города врагом ‘the enemy’s destruction of the city’). I’m now passing the baton to Dan Altshuler and then to Omer Preminger.

Now I will be teaching just one class, “Languages of the World: An Introduction to Linguistic Typology”. I have 35 students from 10 countries in that class. It’s hectic but fun!

Also, on Thursday I will be giving a general lecture at NYI, “How to reconstruct languages of the past… and what for?” — I’m looking forward to that.


NYI in St. Pete this summer!

I’ll be back to St. Petersburg this summer to teach at the 16th installment of NYI (New York Institute), an advanced study program organized every July at St. Petersburg State University.

I’ll be offering a course on “Languages of the World: Introduction to Linguistic Typology”. Information about the course soon to be posted here, but below is a preview:

This course is available to all students. No background required. Recommended for students interested in cross-linguistic variation and typology.

This course is an introduction to language variation and typology. The focus is on the generative approach to typology but other approaches will be considered as well. Topics covered include: sounds and sound systems; morphology across languages; grammatical categories; simple sentence structure; word order. In addition to describing observable patterns of cross-linguistic variation, we will also discuss theories that attempt to relate this variation to external factors such as physical geography, social organization, or contacts between linguistic groups.

Other courses include introductory courses in phonology, syntax and semantics, as well as advanced courses on long-distance dependencies, musical cognition and “How Minority Languages Change Linguistic Theory” — I’d love to sit in on so many of them!

For a full listing of courses and to sign up for the program, click here.


Guests talks in St. Petersburg, Russia!

I’m excited to deliver two talks in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia this month!

  1. “How to reconstruct languages of the past… and why bother?” (in Russian) at the Humanities Faculty of the State Aerospace Instrumentation University. Details here. If you’d like to attend, please contact me ahead of time to make sure you can access the building.
  2. “Language contacts as an instrument for linguists and historians” (also in Russian) at the XXI Open Conference for Philology Students at St. Petersburg State University. Plenary session will take place on April 16, 10:40 am – 2:20 pm at the Philological Faculty, Universitetskaya Nab., 11 (Университетская наб., дом 11). Schedule here.

If you’re interested in attending either event, please contact me for details.



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.


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.





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