typology and categorial particularism

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Fri Jul 11 14:42:07 UTC 2008

Dear LINGTYP readers,

Some of you may have seen the paper by F. Newmeyer in LT 2007 defending 
cross-linguistic categories, reacting to a paper of mine in the same 
issue (and earlier work by William Croft and Matthew Dryer) where we 
take the position that grammatical categories are strictly 
language-specific ("categorial particularism").

I have just completed a first draft of a paper that reacts to Newmeyer's 
defense of cross-linguistic categories and explains in some detail how 
typology is possible in the face of category diversity ("Comparative 
concepts and descriptive categories in cross-linguistic studies"). If 
you're interested, you can find it on my web page 
(http://email.eva.mpg.de/~haspelmt/papers.html). An abstract is included 

I'd be interested in any comments, on this list or by e-mail just to me.

Martin Haspelmath


Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in cross-linguistic studies
Martin Haspelmath, July 2008


In this paper I argue that cross-linguistic grammatical comparison 
cannot be based on grammatical categories, because these are 
language-specific. Instead, typology must be (and usually is) based on a 
special set of comparative concepts that are specifically created by 
typologists for the purposes of comparison.
    Descriptive formal categories cannot be equated across languages 
because the criteria for category-assignment are different from language 
to language. This old structuralist insight (called categorial 
particularism) has recently been emphasized again by several linguists, 
but the idea that typologists need to identify "cross-linguistic 
categories" before they can compare languages is still widespread. 
Instead, what they have to do (and normally do in practice) is to create 
comparative concepts that help them to identify comparable phenomena 
across languages and to formulate cross-linguistic generalizations. 
Comparative concepts have to be universally applicable, so they can only 
be based on other universally applicable concepts: conceptual-semantic 
concepts, formal concepts, general concepts, and other comparative concepts.
    If, by contrast, one espouses categorial universalism and assumes 
cross-linguistic categories, as many generative linguists do, typology 
works by equating comparable categories in different languages, which 
are said to "instantiate" a cross-linguistic category. But in 
typological practice, all that is required is that a language-specific 
category matches a comparative concept. For example, the Russian Dative, 
the Turkish Dative and the Finnish Allative all match the comparative 
concept 'dative case', but they are very different distributionally and 
semantically and therefore cannot be equated and cannot instantiate a 
cross-linguistic category 'dative'.
    Comparative concepts are not always purely semantically-based 
concepts, but outside of phonology they usually contain some semantic 
components. If one is not confident about the universality of meanings, 
one can substitute extralinguistic contexts for universal meanings. The 
view that descriptive categories are different across languages and 
different from comparative concepts leads to terminological problems, 
which are also discussed here. Finally, I observe that the adoption of 
categorial universalism has actually impeded, not facilitated, 
cross-linguistic research.

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

Glottopedia - the free encyclopedia of linguistics

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list