[Lingtyp] Americanist contributions to typology

g.corbett at surrey.ac.uk g.corbett at surrey.ac.uk
Wed Jul 6 19:39:09 UTC 2016

Agreed. And not just the diachrony of nominal classification, but the synchronic typology too. We used to think that gender and classifiers were different phenomena; there were many examples of both, from several different families. There was a clear account by Dixon in 1986, setting out the differences in a convincing way. But then interesting examples were produced, particularly from south America, filling in the “gap”. Frank Seifert’s thesis on Miraña (2005) was a key step forward: looked at from one angle, Miiraña has a gender system, from a different angle it has a classifier system. The conclusion is inevitable, and we now have to come to grips with  the complex typology of nominal classification.


On 6 Jul 2016, at 20:12, Doris Payne <dlpayne at uoregon.edu<mailto:dlpayne at uoregon.edu>> wrote:

Hi David - I think no one has mentioned this so far, but Americanist linguistics has contributed in very important ways to refining the typology and understanding the diachrony of classifiers / noun classification.

- Doris

-----Original Message-----
From: Lingtyp [mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org] On Behalf Of David Beck
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To: LINGTYP LINGTYP <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Americanist contributions to typology

Wow, thank you all very much for that (I’m assuming every one has chimed in—it’s like waiting for the last popcron kernel to pop). From the sounds of it, if might have been an easier question to ask what *hasn’t* Americanist linguistics contributed to! This will be very helpful indeed!



On Jul 5, 2016, at 12:20 AM, Balthasar Bickel <balthasar.bickel at uzh.ch<mailto:balthasar.bickel at uzh.ch>> wrote:

Yes, but we also offer an alternative in the paper: a multivariate typology of the dimensions in which domains of morpheme combinations vary. And we point to the value of different such dimensions for specific research questions, such as language acquisition. We don’t need to discuss the value of the notion of word (or subject or whatever other terms we inherited from school grammar), but the value of specific dimensions of variation for specific questions.


On 05 Jul 2016, at 07:56, Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de<mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>> wrote:

One of the contributions to the "Oxford handbook of polysynthesis"
will be Balthasar Bickel's & Fernando Zúñiga's paper "The "word in
polysynthetic languages: Phonological and syntactic challenges"
(which is mostly based on data from Chintang and Mapudungun)

Here is an excerpt from their conclusion:

"Polysynthetic "words" are often not unified entities defined by a single domain on which all criteria would converge. They tend to be non-coherent in one way or another... But then, it is important to note that this is by no means a peculiarity of polysynthesis: languages generally tend to avoid fully convergent, unified word entities.”

Thus, it is not clear in what way “polysynthesis” is special, and whether the notion can survive (but I have not seen the other contributions to the handbook yet).


On 05.07.16 07:30, David Gil wrote:
Dear all,

While I agree wholeheartedly with those who have proposed the notion of polysynthesis as constituting one of the central contributions of Amerindian languages to linguistic typology, I am also sympathetic with Martin Haspelmath's observations about how the the notion of polysynthesis relies on an often poorly understood notion of wordhood, and I do not accept Claude Hagége's claim that that the abundance of typological studies of polysynthesis may be construed as somehow "giving the lie" to Martin's reservations.  On the contrary, I would say that one of the major contributions of Amerindian languages to linguistic typology, via the so-called polysynthetic languages, is precisely the challenge that they pose to the traditional notion of word, as discussed in recent work by Martin and others.

David Gil

On 05/07/2016 02:18, Marianne Mithun wrote:
Note on polysynthesis.

The Oxford Handbook of Polysynthesis is now in press, slated to appear early next year. A major thrust of the volume is the question of whether polysynthesis is an identifiable and/or useful type, whether there are sufficient or necessary features and what they might be, whether languages can be more or less polysynthetic, whether core polysynthetic languages tend to show other structural features, etc.

There are general chapters on polysynthesis and complexity, polysynthesis and holophrasis (in the sense of all crucial parts of the predication specified within the verb, including core arguments), the limits of polysynthesis, the nature of the lexicon in polysynthetic languages, different theoretical perspectives on polysynthesis, the nature of the word in polysynthetic languages (phonological and morphological challenges), social circumstances stimulating the development and retention of polysynthesis, etc. There are also chapters on the diachrony of polysynthesis, the acquisition of polysynthetic languages, areal perspectives on polysynthesis (geographical hotbeds), and chapters on individual languages that have been characterized as polysynthetic, in which authors weigh the various criteria that have been proposed for polysynthesis to see whether they add up to a definable type.


On 7/4/2016 7:07 AM, Claude Hagège wrote:

Hi  everyone,

      I’d like to stress that, after the  monographs on Nahuatl
written in the XVIth and XVIIth centuries by, among others, Alonso
de Molina, Andres de Olmos, or on Guarani by Luis de Montoya, work
on incorporation and polysynthesis, became more and more important
in Europe due to  the discovery of these morphosyntactic features
by Pierre du Ponceau, who invented these technical terms, first
applying them to Nahuatl, and thus showing what outstanding
contributions Amerindian languages were able to make to language
studies. There is, therefore, a tradition referring to the study
of these characteristics, and this went as far as prompting
linguists to add the polysynthetic type to Schlegel’s and
Humboldt’s famous three types, to wit isolating, agglutinative and
inflectional, which, long before Greenberg, laid the foundations
of linguistic typology. This research tradition on polysynthesis
and incorporation is illustrated by many works, giving the lie, by
the way, to Martin’s  assertion that “these terms have no clear
definition in typology, because they rely on the notion of word”.
Among such works, there are for example, if I may mention them,

-         CH, « Lexical suffixes and incorporation in Mainland Comox », Forum Linguisticum, Vol. 3, n°1, August 1978, 57-71.

-         CH,  « On noun incorporation in universal grammar (further comments on a previous article) », Forum Linguisticum, Vol. 4, n°3, Apr. 1980, 241-245.

-         CH, « Incorporation nominale et suffixation lexicale : essai de typologie et cas particulier du comox (Colombie britannique) », Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris, tome 72, fasc. 1, 1977, 319-340.

-          CH « Language as a faculty, languages as “contingent” manifestations and humans as function builders », Reconnecting Language. Morphology and Syntax in Functional Perspective,  « Current Issues in Linguistic Theory » series, 154, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1997, 29-47.



Lingtyp [mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org] De la
part de Plank Envoyé : lundi 4 juillet 2016 12:35 these terms have no clear definition in typology, because they rely on the notion of "word"
Objet : Re: [Lingtyp] Americanist contributions to typology

The paper by Antoine that Enrique mentions is specifially on what is nowadays called "associated motion", something where Australia and South America have been leading the way.  The paper -- and it's probably the longest we've ever had -- is in LT 20(1) 2016, an issue that was regrettably held up by production hiccups, but is to finally hit your screens and/or mailboxes this month.  ToC attached.

In its early days (17-18th century) typology, and simultaneously language evolution, was a subject for "conjectural historians", and seriously Americas-informed factually-based typologising arguably only began with the likes of James Burnett (see below a passage from a handbook article for his actual language coverage) and Peter Stephen Du Ponceau.  I'd say grappling with polysynthesis/incorporation/Einverleibung was the first really significant typological contribution whose chief inspiration was American, superseding what had been speculated about the typological and evolutionary status of holistic event designations, aka impersonal/subjectless sentences.  Very early, certain sound/phoneme inventories, lacking labials that just about everybody else loved and acquired early, were also perceived as a typological challenge from the Americas, calling for corrections of facile generalisations.

(Good) typology is so driven by (deep) knowledge about languages.  Good of Mark to recall Sapir.


Martin Haspelmath (
haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10
D-07745 Jena
Leipzig University
IPF 141199
Nikolaistrasse 6-10
D-04109 Leipzig

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Greville G. Corbett

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email: g.corbett at surrey.ac.uk<mailto:g.corbett at surrey.ac.uk>

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