multiplicity of terms

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Fri Jul 14 12:36:07 UTC 2006

I disagree with Paolo's assessment that linguistics has "too many 
technical terms". We actually have far too few. Linguists have created 
many more concepts than terms, so that most terms are multiply polysemous.

Some amount of polysemy is probably unavoidable, but the more terms we 
have, the better. Each new term gives us a chance of linking a concept 
uniquely to a form, thereby avoiding misunderstandings.

It's true that the danger of synonymy also exists; often linguists come 
up with (more or less) the same concepts independently, and as we cannot 
be aware of all other work in the field, synonyms arise. (The synonymy 
of "flag" and "case relator" is an example of this.) But better 
communication allows the minimization of synonyms.

I think the main reason why we have so few terms and so much annoying 
polysemy is "neophobia" -- the reluctance of speakers to accept new 
words, even where these would be useful. Speakers, including linguists, 
tend to be linguistically conservative, avoiding neologisms, or balking 
at them when they encounter them.

One would think that scientists should have the least fear of novelty, 
because science is all about innovation. But we are all humans, so it's 
understandable that we are reluctant to accept completely new terms such 
as "functeme". My strategy is therefore to look hard for terms that 
others may have used for a concept, and to try to use existing terms 
rather than create completely new ones. This leads me to favor "flag" (a 
relatively new term) over "functeme" (a completely new term).


Paolo Ramat wrote:
> Hi, I fully agree with Regina's position: linguistics has already too 
> many technical terms (not always used in the same sense: think of 
> phonology/phonematics, etc.) If a transparent term is not at hand (and 
> 'flag' does not seem to be the case) let's use a more transparent 
> periphrasis: 'case role marker' is fine. We can also write CRM which 
> is shorter than 'flag', 'functeme' et al.
> Best.
> Paolo
> ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
> prof.Paolo Ramat
> Università di Pavia
> Dipartimento di Linguistica Teorica e Applicata
> tel. ##39 0382 984 484
> fax ##39 0382 984 487
>     ----- Original Message -----
>     *From:* REGINA PUSTET <mailto:pustetrm at YAHOO.COM>
>     *Sent:* Thursday, July 13, 2006 8:21 PM
>     *Subject:* Re: FUNCTEME instead of relator, case, adposition,
>     flag, etc.
>     Hi
>     I’d like to approach this issue from a slightly different
>     perspective. I suggest suggesting *no term*. Terminology has a
>     life of its own, and scholarly interference of the kind we are
>     engaging in will probably turn out to be futile. The ‘best’ term
>     will, sooner or later, end up being used more frequently than the
>     less appropriate ones. It’s almost like natural selection in
>     biology, I guess.
>     For my own purposes, and explicitly non-prescriptively, I’ll keep
>     on using the term ‘case role marker’ and if necessary, I’ll
>     specify, at the structural level, whether I’m talking about
>     affixes (i.e. case) or adpositions.
>     Best,
>     Regina Pustet
>     */claude-hagege <claude-hagege at WANADOO.FR>/* wrote:
>         Dear all,
>         I have a proposal. I suggest a new term, which would be FUNCTEME.
>         / /Trask's /flag/, used by him with respect to an interesting
>         phenomenon in Basque morphosyntax, is not bad, but besides the
>         reserves expressed by Wolfgang and others, and despite the
>         good arguments presented by Martin, /flag /does not say
>         anything to linguists, for a simple reason: it is a metaphor.
>         Admittedly, this makes it quite free of any loaden past in
>         linguistic terminology, but it also makes it somewhat
>         surprising (let alone that even if it is true that we write as
>         scientists for scientists, the term /flag/, if a cultured
>         reader who is not a professional linguist comes across it,
>         might give a strange idea of what we are doing...).
>         I coin FUNCTEME in the following way: the suffix /*-*eme/, in
>         the terminology of linguistics as well as in that of other
>         sciences, regularly refers to "a unit (often the smallest one)
>         of what the root says" (cf. /phoneme, toneme, sememe/, etc.).
>         The root, in /funct-eme/, says that the unit in question
>         merely indicates the function of the element (mostly a noun or
>         noun phrase) that it governs: Engl. /for /in /for my friend
>         /indicates that /my friend /is the benefactive complement of
>         the predicate. It is obvious that prepositions like /for/ also
>         have a meaning (and this is the main reason why /case /was
>         originally used by Fillmore 1968 in a semantic acception), but
>         /functeme/ strictly refers to the syntactic role of relators.
>         Thus, /functeme/ precisely says what relators are actually
>         from the morphological and syntactic point(s) of view: they
>         are _units of function marking._
>         Best_,_
>         Claude
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Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at
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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