typology and categorial particularism

Wolfgang Schulze W.Schulze at LRZ.UNI-MUENCHEN.DE
Sun Jul 13 16:27:28 UTC 2008

Dear Colleagues,
Martin has invited members of this list to comment upon his recent text 
on "Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in cross-linguistic 
studies". So please allow me to drop some lines about the issue at 
debate (impromtu, I admit). When working through Martin's paper, I 
repeatedly had the impression that we have to deal with some kind of 
sham debate. What Martin calls 'comparative concepts' comes - in my eyes 
- close to comparative descriptive 'concepts' somehow (!) derived from 
pre-linguistic ('semantic' and 'structural') domains. The term 'concept' 
is perhaps a bit misleading as it is normally used in a cognitive sense 
denoting (for instance) experience-based, schematized, and categorized 
'images'. If I understand Martin correctly, we should rather speak of 
comparative descriptive terms or a /comparative descriptive 
nomenclature/. The main question naturally is whether the elements of 
this nomenclature are observable parts of the 'objects' included into a 
corresponding taxonomy or whether they are mere descriptors 
"/specifically created by typologists for the purposes of comparison/" 
as Martin has put it. This question is crucial with respect to the 
'typology' of a tertium comparationis (t.c.). A t.c. can be (among others)

-  Intrinsic:

a. The t.c. is a feature that is part of all objects in a scientifically 
established paradigm (highest common factor) and present as such in 
terms of at least one object. The other members of the paradigm are then 
measured with respect to their 'distance' from this factor.

b. The t.c. is an abstraction from properties of all members in a 
scientifically  established paradigm. The highest common factor is here 
not present in terms of a discrete member of the paradigm.      

 - Extrinsic:

The t.c. is not part of the paradigm, but postulated in terms of a 
paradigm-external feature that is seen in a causal relationship with 
properties of the members of the paradigm.

As far as I can see, Martin does not make sufficiently clear (to me), 
where to put in this typology his comparative concepts (that is - in my 
terms - the elements of a comparative descriptive nomenclature (CDN, to 
be short)) . When alluding to "/conceptual-semantic concepts, formal 
concepts, general concepts/" extrinsic factors seem to become relevant 
(note that - again in my humble view - the term 'conceptual-semantic 
concepts' is rather awkward. What is meant by the seemingly tautological 
'conceptual concepts'?). However, if the elements of Martin's CDN are 
related to extrinsic (pre-linguistic) factors, we should learn more 
about how these descriptive elements of the CDN have been elaborated. 
Martin gives numerous examples that illustrate the derivation of CDN 
elements from in fact pre-linguistic (not cross-linguistic) categorial, 
conceptual, or procedural entities. Note that, in this sense, Martin's 
claim that "/[o]n the categorial universalist view, categories in 
particular languages instantiate cross-linguistic categories, and they 
can thus be equated across languages/" (p.3) is a bit misleading: As far 
as I can see, the categorial universalist view does not refer to 
linguistic categories as such, but to the hypothesis that they are 
grounded in UG. I guess that nobody in Typology would today refer to a 
pre-scientific methodology that starts from intrinsic cross-linguistic 
categories that are not motivated and governed by pre-linguistic 
factors, be it UG or other (e.g. holistic) models of cognition. The 
problem is that except for the UG paradigm and some other approaches to 
Cognitive Linguistics (such as Cognitive Grammar, Radical 
Experientialism etc.) the extrinsic motivation of elements of the CDN is 
rarely spelt out in details or in terms of a full-fledged theory. For 
instance, it is not clear to me why Martin assumes that e.g. 'position' 
and 'special' are 'general concepts' and that 'syntactic construction' 
is a universal formal concept. What is the model that motivates this 
assumption? The same holds for the "/universal formal concept 'lexeme' 
and the conceptual-semantic concepts 'property' and 'modify'/", or for 
the formulation: "A/n ergative case is a morphological category that has 
among its functions the coding of the agent of typical transitive 
clauses, when this is coded differently from the patient/" (by itself a 
problematic definition). What is the theory that explains to us the 
notion of 'agent' and of is a 'typical (sic!) transitive clause'? As 
long as we lack a coherent theory that helps us to derive the t.c.'s of 
typology from a coherent and testable model of the motivation of 
language and language properties, elements of the CDN are at risk to be 
arbitrarily related to intuitively establish 'general' concepts. In this 
sense, preference should be given to models that try at least to 
systematize the motivation of elements of the CDN in order to bring the 
CDN-paradigm closer to a 'natural model of language'. In other words: I 
am left with the impression that Martin's comparative concepts do much 
the same t.c.'s do that are explicitly derived from a specific model of 
language, although they (occasionally) seem to be more impressionistic 
than the latter ones.


Best wishes,


Martin Haspelmath wrote:
> 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 below.
> I'd be interested in any comments, on this list or by e-mail just to me.
> Greetings,
> Martin Haspelmath
> ******************
> Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in cross-linguistic 
> studies
> Martin Haspelmath, July 2008
> Abstract
> 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.



*Prof. Dr. Wolfgang 


/Primary contact: 

Institut für Allgemeine & Typologische Sprachwissenschaft     

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Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München                                 

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D-80539 München                                  

Tel.: 0049-(0)89-2180-2486 


Fax:  0049-(0)89-2180-5345                                       

Email: W.Schulze at lrz.uni-muenchen.de 
<mailto:W.Schulze at lrz.uni-muenchen.de> /// Wolfgang.Schulze at lmu.de 
<mailto:Wolfgang.Schulze at lmu.de>       

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<mailto:Schulze at fhv.umb.sk>                                                                             

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