Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Mon Aug 18 14:10:51 UTC 2003

Dan Everett wrote:

> On Monday, August 18, 2003, at 02:35  pm, Martin Haspelmath wrote:
>>>> Of course it's fine if one defines one's terms, but if one is not
>>>> content with just being understood, if one has the additional goal
>>>> of improving linguistic terminology (so that at one point in the
>>>> future, we'll have terms that we all understand in roughly the same
>>>> way), then one should proceed as I suggested: simply not use a term
>>>> that has been widely and prominently used in two different senses
>>>> (because it will be  very difficult to get other linguists to agree
>>>> precisely which of the two senses should be abandoned).
> Now, this is not a goal I could really ever find interesting
> "improving linguistic terminology". I could be interested in something
> like "improving communication among linguists", but not 'linguistic
> terminology' per se.

For me, improving linguistic terminology is just one way of improving
communication among linguists. Some of the good things we already have
(and that need only little further improvement) are the IPA symbols and
simple terms like "noun", "tense", "suffix", "tones", and many others.
In other domains, we don't have them yet, but there is no reason why we
could not some day all agree to refer to singly repeated events as
"repetitives" and multiply repeated events as "pluractionals", for instance.

If a student of mine wrote a dissertation in which she insists on
talking about "thing word", "temp-relation", "f-element", and
"musicemes" (instread of "noun", "tense", "suffix", "tones"), I wouldn't
say that it's a bad dissertation either, but I wouldn't be surprised if
she didn't get a job.

> Further, the idea behind improving linguistic terminology could be
> that this somehow gets us closer and closer to the truth of what we
> are describing, closer to its 'essence' (if this is not the  goal,
> then the goal is just improving communication, which I am for too. But
> communication is served by explaining each case individually better
> than pruning back terms in an effort to get the 'universally valid'
> terminological inventory, or some such).

No, this is not the idea behind it. The idea is rather like the idea of
the metric system -- let's create a system that works for practical
purposes and that everyone uses. Of course, you can also use "miles",
"inches" and all kinds of other funny measures (as the mood strikes
you), and each time say what you mean by it (because it differs from
country to country). That's also possible, and many of us find it nice
and quaint, but it's not effective. And of course nobody would claim
that "meter" is in any sense closer to the truth than "yard".

Another analogy is the Linnean system of biological nomenclature. Again,
no Platonism involved, just effectiveness!

So just like the metric system is almost universally used now (I believe
there's only one country where its use is fairly restricted), I'm
optimistic that some day we'll have many more universally understood
linguistic terms.

Best regards,

Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at eva.mpg.de)
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6	
D-04103 Leipzig
Tel. (MPI) +49-341-3550 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616

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