[Lingtyp] comparative concepts

Balthasar Bickel balthasar.bickel at uzh.ch
Mon Feb 1 07:59:09 UTC 2016

I have just now had a chance to read up on this very interesting discussion and noticed a certain trend towards keeping comparative work outside the description of individual languages. I find this problematic. Modern descriptive work has become better precisely by integrating typological perspectives, and I have always found that I have started to understand a phenomenon in a language only once I could tell with some precision how it compares to similar phenomena in other languages.

It might help to realize that “comparative concepts” --- or typological variables, as I prefer to call them --- contrast with language-specific categories in two very different ways. Only one of these contrasts is a contrast between research enterprises.

(i) By definition, the categories of a typological variable can recur across languages, language-specific categories can’t. For example, ‘argument with most agent properties in Dowty’s definition’, ‘linearly ordered before’, a Nijmegen-style exlicitation simulus, a Dahl TAM questionnaire context, a translation context etc. can all by definition recur across languages, the Saussurian sign -ed ‘PST’ can’t.

(ii) Language-specific categories serve a purpose in a Pāṇini-inspired, structuralist analysis where the goal is to re-use categories in a maximally parsimonous way (so you can say, e.g., there is a category of ‘subordinate clauses’ in language X, defined by a set of properties in X, and then find that the same category also captures --- or even ‘causes’ --- the constraints on WH questions in X). By contrast, typological variables don’t serve such a purpose. If you want to explore patterns across variables or even capture the system as a whole, you use stats (and so you might discover for example that certain values on a variable that captures WH possibilities correlate to some extent with certain values on a variable that captures the scope behavior of illocutionary force markers, a correlation caused by information structure principles; Bickel 2010).

The contrast in (i) merely limits the range of things you can compare typologically (as opposed to reconstruct proto-individuals), but it doesn’t imply anything about the usefulness of typological variables for describing languages, let alone call for a terminological distinction between ‘matching’ vs ‘instantiating’ a category or for different research enterprises. Every well-defined typological variable captures or measures something of interest in a language --- but obviously it is only ‘something’, a very tiny aspect of a very complex phenomenon: “is used for past time event” clearly only captures a tiny bit of, say, the English PST marker, but it does capture something real.  In fact,  a typologial variable might pick up something that is indeed very real because it directly corresponds to electrophysiologically detectable patterns (see e.g. Bickel et al. 2015 in PloS ONE <http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0132819> on the S=A vs S≠A variable).  (And, yes, saying that Chinese is SVO captures something real in Chinese, but I agree with others that the traditional terms and abbreviations here are misleading.)

The contrast in (ii) is where we get a real opposition between different approaches for analyzing languages, perhaps even sub-disciplines. Given the complexity of language, though, it won’t harm to use both approaches simultaneously. Where things get tricky and confusing is if you want to design typological variables not in the sense of (i) but for comparing the language-specific categories in the sense of (ii). I wouldn’t.

Balthasar Bickel.

More on this:
Bickel, B 2007. Typology in the 21st century: major current developments. Ling. Typol. 11. 239–251.
Bickel, B 2010. Capturing particulars and universals in clause linkage: a multivariate analysis. In I Bril (ed.), Clause-hierarchy and clause-linking, 51–101. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Bickel, B 2011. Multivariate typology and field linguistics: a case study on detransitivization in Kiranti (Sino-Tibetan). Proc. Conf. Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory 3, 3–13.(http://www.hrelp.org/publications/ldlt3/papers/ldlt3_02.pdf)
Bickel, B 2015. Distributional typology: statistical inquiries into the dynamics of linguistic diversity. In B. Heine & H. Narrog (eds.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis, 2nd edition, 901 – 923. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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