neutral vs. no alignment

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Mon Sep 21 07:54:31 UTC 2009

Randy LaPolla wrote:
> On the idea of a language not having an alignment type, I have been arguing
> for many years that Chinese and some Tibeto-Burman languages have not
> grammaticalised the sort of constructional pivots, or restricted
> neutralisations, that we associate with the different alignment systems. I
> have called Chinese a "neutral" language, though it is, as you say, more
> lack of any particular alignment, as it has a simple topic-comment
> structure. 
If (monotransitive) alignment is (as is usual) defined as "grouping of
{A, S, P} by grammatical patterns", then a language cannot lack
alignment, by definition. Randy has pointed out that Chinese shows
neutral alignment with respect to many of the commonly invoked
grammatical patterns, and the same point has been made by Dan Slobin
about some sign languages. But neutral alignment is not the same as "no

Saying that "a language has no alignment" uses the term in a new way. It
seems best to avoid such proliferation of meanings for established terms.


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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