[Lingtyp] Americanist contributions to typology

Claude Hagège claude-hagege at wanadoo.fr
Sat Jul 9 19:00:18 UTC 2016

Dear all,


         In reply to David among others, I’d like to observe that one of the reasons why Du Ponceau and Humboldt proposed to add the polysynthetic type to the other three ones was that they felt that the structure of functional  units in  languages of the former type was quite different from the others. The main criterion of German and French linguists of the early romantic era (1808-1840; the term “polysynthetic” was coined by Duponceau, first  in a letter (1816) and then in a report to the American Philosophical Society (1819) ) was morphological, as opposed to the pressure of syntax in contemporary linguistics since the beginning of the Chomskyan “revolution”.  But can we maintain that the term polysynthesis relies on the notion of "word"? Let us examine the facts, instead of indulging in abstract discussions. In Central Siberian Yupik Eskimo (de Reuse 2009, 23), we have


(1)  negh-yaghtugh-yug-uma-yagh-pete-aa (eat-go.to-want.to.PAST-FRUSTRATIVE “but.in.vain”-INFERENTIAL”it turns.out”-INDIC.3s.3s)

“it turns out s/he wanted to go eat it, but in vain”.


     In Quiche (Mayan, Guatemala) (Hagège 2013, 36-37), we have


(2)  k-eb-u-lu-k’am-lok (ASP-3SG.OBJ-3SG.SUBJ-DAT.3SG.-bring-hither)

“he is going to bring it to them there”.


Such facts are well-known to specialists of polysynthetic languages. Pending the publication of the  The Oxford Handbook of Polysynthesis, slated to appear early next year according to Marianne,  what we observe here is that (1) as well as (2) are holophrastic structures, in which the association of verbs with various morphemes constitutes fully grammatical sentences. Leaving aside the position of certain authors (for example Baker 1996), according to whom noun incorporation is criterial, and therefore Eskaleut languages, which lack it, cannot be treated as polysynthetic, I simply want to stress that we do not need the notion of word in order to describe polysynthetic languages : (1) and (2) above are complex units, whose boundaries with respect to what precedes and what follows are marked by prosodic criteria like stress. So I suggest that the notion of word might be a  Europeo-centric one, and it is not sure that we need it in typology, other than metaphorically. 


-      Baker, M. 1996. The Polysynthesis Parameter, OUP

-      Hagège, C. 2013. La structure des langues, Paris, PUF

-       De Reuse,W.J. 2009. « Polysynthesis as a typological feature », in M.-A. Mahieu and N. Tersis, eds., Variatons on Polysynthesis, The Eskaleut languages, Typological Studies in Language 86, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins, 19-34






-       De : Lingtyp [mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org] De la part de David Gi
Envoyé : mardi 5 juillet 2016 07:30
À : lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
Objet : Re: [Lingtyp] Americanist contributions to typology


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.  






Lingtyp mailing list
Lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org

Lingtyp mailing list
Lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org

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
Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-82238009215
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lingtyp/attachments/20160709/954cbd9e/attachment.htm>

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list