[Lingtyp] Coexpression of source and agent

Mattis List mattis.list at lingpy.org
Sun Jul 22 04:13:23 EDT 2018

What I find important, and often not very satisfying, regarding
terminology in linguistics, is that we offer descriptive -- as opposed
to explanative -- terms for the phenomena we study. Polysemy is
explanative, as it requires that we know for sure that some word gained
new meanings through semantic change processes. Homophony is explanative
as well, as it requires that we identify sound change (resulting in
merger) or borrowing as the origin of the phenomenon that two meanings
are expressed by the same word form.

Unfortunately, these are not the only examples where we lack descriptive
terms in linguistics. I often struggle with terms like "assimilation",
"shared innovation", "pronominalization", and many others, since these
terms all do not only describe, but also try to explain the phenomena at

We should all work harder in establishing a purely descriptive
terminology in our field. Explanative terminology should be restricted
to the situations where we really know what happened.



On 22.07.2018 07:05, Martin Haspelmath wrote:
> Thanks to Juergen and Tom for discussing my proposal!
> As for Tom's comment:
> Well, it may be that "A and B co-VERB C and D" more often means 'A and B
> together VERB C and D', but I think that "co-" in English works just
> like "together", i.e. that it can also mean 'A and B VERB C and D
> together' (i.e. C and D are together). For example, Wiktionary gives
> "coapply" meaning 'apply C and D together'
> (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/coapply).
> As for Juergen's comment (also copied below):
> YES! It's really helpful that the term "coexpression" is that it is
> neutral between vagueness (=underspecification) and ambiguity, because
> in practice these are often difficult to distinguish (just as polysemy
> and homophony are difficult to distinguish).
> If one feels that one can distinguish them, one should of course use the
> more specific terms, but in cross-linguistic studies, they are better
> avoided (comparativists will not want to commit themselves to claims
> about particular languages).
> In my 2003 paper on semantic maps, I used the term "multifunctionality"
> to be neutral between vagueness and ambiguity/polysemy, but
> "coexpression" is better (see also the brief discussion in the first
> section of Georgakopoulos & Polis's recent survey article on semantic
> maps, https://doi.org/10.1111/lnc3.12270).
> The semantic map model: State of the art and future avenues for
> linguistic research
> Best,
> Martin
> On 21.07.18 19:33, Tom Payne wrote:
>> While I share Martin’s objection to the use of “syncretism”, I also
>> think “co-expression” is problematic. Words like “co-author” or
>> “co-operate” imply two actors working together to accomplish one task,
>> e.g., “I co-authored an article with Taeho Jang,” “We co-parent our
>> children”, “They co-wrote a linguistics textbook,” etc. If “co-author”
>> meant what Martin and Juergen suggest “co-expression” could mean, that
>> would be like one person writing two articles – “I co-authored an
>> article on tense, and one on aspect” (meaning I was the only author of
>> those two articles).
>>    I think “co-expression” normally refers to situations where more
>> than one form together (“co-operatively”) express one category, like
>> one might say “/ne/ and /pas/ co-express negation in French.”
>>   What happened to “poly-functional”?
>> Tom
>> *From:*Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> *On Behalf
>> Of *Martin Haspelmath
>> *Sent:* Saturday, July 21, 2018 03:20
>> *To:* lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
>> *Subject:* Re: [Lingtyp] Coexpression of source and agent
>> Dear all,
>> A side comment on terminology: The term "syncretism" is not only
>> opaque, ugly and ambiguous (it originally referred to merging of case
>> distinctions in Indo-European, which was likened to religious
>> syncretism, in a strange metaphor; it can still have this purely
>> diachronic meaning referring to Indo-European cases) – it is also
>> impractical because it does not have a good corresponding verb (cf.
>> ??"Malay /dari/ syncretizes source and agent").
>> Moreover, it is typically associated with inflection (cf. the Surrey
>> definition: " The term 'syncretism' refers to the phenomenon whereby a
>> single form fulfils two or more different functions within the
>> inflectional morphology of a language":
>> http://www.smg.surrey.ac.uk/syncretism/).
>> (And syncretism seems to have been construed as a relation between
>> forms: cf. the original title of this thread "syncretism between forms
>> encoding source and agent" – a very cumbersome formulation.)
>> I would like to propose replacing the term "syncretism" by
>> "coexpression" when it is not used in a context of inflectional
>> morphology (and maybe also in that context). The term "coexpression"
>> is transparent and clear – and it can be used for all kinds of
>> situations where one form corresponds to two meanings or functions.
>> It has the transparent corresponding verb "coexpress": "Malay /dari/
>> coexpresses source and agent".
>> This term was first used in our 2014 paper on semantic role
>> coexpression patterns (Hartmann et al. 2014), and was taken up in
>> David Gil's recent paper on DO/GIVE coexpression. It was inspired by
>> Alex François's (2008) term "colexification" (also used in
>> Johann-Mattis List's new CLLD database on colexifications:
>> http://clics.clld.org/).
>> A colexification pattern is just a special kind of coexpression
>> pattern – and one might also want to coin the term "coexponence" for
>> inflectional morphology, for a situation where a single vocabulary
>> item coexpones two feature values; i.e. for what has been known as
>> "inflectional syncretism".
>> Finally, a semantic map could be called a "coexpression map", allowing
>> us to be neutral between different interpretations (cf. different
>> terms such as "conceptual map", "cognitive map", "implicational map",
>> which will confuse many students).
>> Best,
>> Martin
>> ***************************
>> References
>> François, Alexandre. 2008. Semantic maps and the typology of
>> colexification: Intertwining polysemous networks across languages. In
>> Martine Vanhove (ed.), /From polysemy to semantic change: Towards a
>> typology of lexical semantic associations/ (Studies in Language
>> Companion Series 106), 163–216. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 
>> Hartmann, Iren, Martin Haspelmath & Michael Cysouw. 2014. Identifying
>> semantic role clusters and alignment types via microrole coexpression
>> tendencies. /Studies in Language/ 38(3). 463–484.
>> Dear Martin et al — There may be another reason not to apply the term ‘syncretism’ to the phenomenon at issue in this thread: the latter presumably involves metaphor and thus constitutes (at least initially) an instance of polysemy. In contrast, the term ‘syncretism’, as I understand it (I’m not a historical linguist), involves loss of formal distinction among paradigm cells, which would thus constitute a case of homophony (with respect to the formerly distinctly expressed cells in the now simplified paradigm).
>> (There doesn’t seem to be a theoretical reason to assume that syncretism and polysemy are mutually exclusive, though. If syncretism is indeed defined in terms of a morphological merger, then such mergers may well occasionally be motivated by metaphor or metonymy. However, that doesn’t seem to apply to any of the cases discussed in this thread so far.)
>> Now, the proposed ‘coexpression’, as I understand it, would be a hypernym of, and coverterm for, polysemy, homonymy, and semantic underspecification (as in the case of _linguist_ not distinguishing gender). This would lead to the following terminological network:
>>                         coexpression
>>                           |                 |
>> underspecification           ambiguity
>> (a.k.a. vagueness)           |            |
>>                              polysemy       homonymy
>> Syncretism would then be a particular instance of homonymy, presumably restricted to morphological paradigms, as opposed to homonymy in lexical items (with the understanding that sound mergers can cause both syncretism and lexical homophony).
>> Enough terminology for a Saturday morning! — Best — Juergen
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