[Lingtyp] comparative concepts

Östen Dahl oesten at ling.su.se
Fri Jan 22 14:40:47 UTC 2016

I dug into the depths of my hard disk and found an email exchange that I had with Martin as early as 2008 where we discussed the problems that have come up here. It seemed then that Martin (for natural reasons) wasn't quite finished with his thinking so I didn't get definite answers to my questions. Some of the ones I am asking now will therefore be similar but hopefully not identical. Also, I'll try to be a bit clearer on some points that I raised earlier in this thread.

1) I was, and am still, puzzled about a distinction Martin made (see his 2010 paper) between "matching" and "instantiating" (“the crucial difference between comparative concepts as proposed here and the crosslinguistic categories that I reject”). A language-specific category (the German Dative) does not "instantiate" the comparative concept 'dative', it just "matches" it. Philosophers often say that something "falls under" a concept. Gottlob Frege used the German locution "unter einen Begriff fallen". For instance, Martin could be said to fall under the concept 'typologist', which of course could be claimed to be just a fancy way of saying that he is a typologist. I assume that scholars in other disciplines where comparative concepts are used would agree that "fall under" could be used about them. Thus, to use Martin's example, Pope Francis could be said to "fall under" the concept 'clergy' (or maybe better: 'clergyperson'). But I also think he could be said to "instantiate" that concept. So my question to Martin is whether he would agree that the German Dative "falls under" the comparative concept 'dative'.

2) Peter Arkadiev brought up the notion of a "cross-linguistic gram-type" that Joan Bybee and I introduced in our 1989 paper,  which were said to be "identifiable by their semantic foci and associated with typical means of expression" and contrasted against language-specific grams (grammatical items such as morphemes and constructions). Later on, I have said that gram-types are "clusters of grams in grammatical space". I wonder if Martin sees any essential differences between this approach and his.

3) Finally, here is a new puzzle for me: In his latest posting, Martin uses the word "analytical" several times, seemingly suggesting that it is equivalent to "descriptive", although it is not combined with "category" but with "terms", "concepts", "issues", and "notions". And in the final paragraph he also speaks of "universal analytical notions". So I wonder if you Martin could explicate what you mean by "analytical" and how it differs (if at all) from "descriptive"? And could you give an example of a "universal analytical notion"?


Från: Lingtyp [mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org] För David Gil
Skickat: den 22 januari 2016 15:15
Till: lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
Ämne: Re: [Lingtyp] comparative concepts

I've greatly enjoyed following this high-quality discussion: thank you all.

In particular, I think the discussion has helped me to articulate an unease that I've always felt about the distinction between language-specific categories and what Martin calls comparative concepts.  I agree wholeheartedly that we need to distinguish between, say, the Latin Dative, and a typologically-informed concept of dative that the Latin Dative may or may not instantiate to whatever degree.  (I also agree that it's unfortunate that we don't have enough distinct terms to assign to all of these different things, and that we sometimes end up falling prey to the resulting terminological confusion.)  Where I think I part ways with some of my colleagues is that I do not accept that language-specific categories and comparative concepts constitute two distinct and well-defined ontological types.

Let's take the wing analogy.  I agree that a statement such as "bats have wings" may be of more interest for somebody interested in comparative evolution than for a specialist in bats — in that sense it resembles a comparative concept in linguistics.  But still, bats do have wings, even though they may differ in many ways from those of birds or bees.  And yes, ontologically bat wings are a very different type of thing than, say, whatever feature of bat DNA it is that "generates" those wings.  However, these different ontological types all have a place within a description of bats, even though a bat specialist might be more interested in the DNA while the comparative evolutionist will be more interested in the wings.

Getting back to languages, let's consider three hypothetical (and somewhat simplistic cases of) languages that Matthew would classify as having SVO basic word order:

Language A:  has well-defined Ss and Os, and specific linearization rules that put the S before the V and the O after it.

Language B:  has well-defined Ss and Os, but no linearization rules that refer to them; instead it has specific linearization rules that put the A before the V and the P after it.

Language C:  does not have well-defined Ss and Os, but has specific linearization rules that put the A before the V and the P after it.

In Matthew's WALS chapter, all three languages are characterized as SVO; this is an example of what Martin and others call a comparative concept.  And as we have found out over the last several decades, basic word order is a very useful comparative concept for us to have.  However, our three hypothetical languages arrive at their SVO order in very different ways, giving rise to the impression that the respective bottom-up language-specific descriptions of the three languages will share no common statement to the effect that they have SVO word order.  And indeed, adequate bottom-up language-specific descriptions of these three languages should look very different, reflecting the very different provenances of their SVO word orders.

However, I would like to suggest that there is also a place within the bottom-up language-specific description of each of the three languages for some kind of statement to the effect that the language has SVO word order (in the sense of Matthew's WALS chapter).  Of course this is a different kind of statement to the ones previously posited, making reference to different levels of description.  But we're already used to multiple levels of description within language-specific descriptions, for example when we talk about Ss and Os but also As and Ps, topics and comments, and so forth.  So there is no good reason not to allow for a WALS-style word-order category such as SVO not to be written into the grammatical descriptions of each of our hypothetical three languages, even if in some cases it may be "derivative" or "epiphenomenal", and even if in some cases it is of relatively little interest to language specialists. (Though as Matthew pointed out earlier on in this thread, the basic word order facts of a language have implications regarding other properties of the language in question even in those cases where the basic word order is "derivative" of other factors.)

So what I'm suggesting, then, is that so-called comparative concepts have a place in the grammatical descriptions of individual languages.  This is not to deny that comparative concepts are different kinds of creatures, which — by definition — are of greater relevance to cross-linguistic comparison than to the understanding of individual languages.  It follows that the ontological diversity of language-specific categories and comparative concepts should be present within the grammatical descriptions of individual languages.  Some will object to this, but I have no problem with the proposition that a good description of a language will be ontologically heterogeneous, e.g. containing some statements that are psychologically real and others that are not.  (I note here Eitan's suggestion earlier in this thread that some comparative concepts may also be cognitively real.)

Finally, and somewhat tangentially, a practical consideration:  a good reference grammar, while describing a language on its own terms without imposing categories from outside, should at the same time maintain a parallel reader-friendly typologically-informed narrative, one of whose major tasks is to mention all of those cross-linguistically familiar typological categories — e.g. case marking, agreement, gender, and so forth — that are absent from the language, if only to reassure the reader that the author didn't just omit mention of them for reasons of space, lack of interest, or whatnot.


David Gil

Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

Email: gil at shh.mpg.de<mailto:gil at shh.mpg.de>

Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-812-73567992

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