"flag" for case/adposition

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Thu Jul 13 11:02:19 UTC 2006

Dear LINGTYPists,

Thanks to everyone who reacted to my query about a case/adposition cover 
term. Many people seem to think that it's useful to have a cover term, 
although it was pointed out that cases and adpositions don't do exactly 
the same kinds of things (but I still like Zwicky's 1992:370 
formulation: "Everything you can do with adpositions you can do with 
case inflections, and vice versa.")

There clearly is widespread support for reserving "case" for 
inflectional case (Christian Lehmann, M. Noonan, Paolo Ramat, Claude 
Hagège). It seems to me that a term such as "case-marker" (Croft 2003, 
Kilby 1981) or "case relator" (Lehmann) for case/adposition is bound to 
be confusing, because it cannot be interpreted compositionally.

This leaves us with "relator", "flag" or some further neologism (though 
none has been proposed). As pointed out by Niels Smit and C. Lehmann, 
"relator" has actually been used more broadly in earlier work by Simon 
Dik and Christian Lehmann, to encompass also subordinators and (in Dik's 
work) coordinators. And other terms based on "relat-" (such as Croft's 
"relational morpheme", M. Noonan's "relational morphology", and W. 
Schulze's "relational echo") have the disadvantage that the term 
"relation" is extremely broad.

So I think "flag" is actually the best term, because it has no other 
sense (if we leave aside the marginal use in Basque inflection, pointed 
out by Stig Eliasson). It has the additional advantage that a verb can 
easily be derived from it ("the recipient needs to be flagged", 
"unflagged arguments can be relativized", etc.), and the noun "flagging" 
can be used for "case/adpositional marking". Its only disadvantage is 
that it's not very familiar yet (M. Noonan finds it "a bit opaque", but 
probably he means "unfamiliar", because it's a very transparent metaphor).

I have had confirmation from three (former) relational grammarians, 
Judith Aissen, Brian Joseph and Donna Gerdts, that "flag" (and the verb 
"to flag") was current in Relational Grammar from at least 1980 on (the 
term occurs in Johnson & Postal 1980). A particularly clear statement 
occurs in Aissen (1987): "5. Flagging: Tzotzil uses prepositions and 
so-called 'relational nouns' to mark NPs for their grammatical or 
thematic relations — to FLAG them, in the terminology of relational 
grammar." (Aissen 1987:11)

So I will continue to use "flag" as a cover term for case/adposition.


Aissen, Judith L. 1987. /Tzotzil clause structure./ Dordrecht: Reidel.
Johnson, David E. & Postal, Paul M. 1980. /Arc Pair Grammar./ Princeton, 
NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kilby, D. (1981). On case markers. Lingua 54: 101-133.
Zwicky, Arnold M. 1992. Jottings on adpositions, case inflections, 
government, and agreement. Diane Brentari, Gary Larson, and Lynn MacLeod 
(eds.), The joy of grammar: A Festschrift for James D. McCawley 
(Amsterdam: John Benjamins), 369-83.

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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