[Lingtyp] wordhood: responses to Haspelmath

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Sat Nov 11 13:27:43 UTC 2017

As far as I'm aware, only one typologist has taken up the challenge of 
my 2011 paper: Matthew Dryer in his 2015 ALT talk at Albuquerque (I have 
copied his abstract below, as it seems to be no longer available from 
the UNM website).

Otherwise, the reaction has generally been that this is old news (for 
those with no stake in the syntax-morphology distinction), or that the 
distinction is fuzzy, like almost all distinctions in language. But the 
latter reaction misses the point that it's not clear whether there are 
any cross-linguistic regularities to begin with (apart from orthographic 
conventions) that point to the cross-linguistic relevance of something 
like a "word" notion. (The results of the recent work by Jim Blevins and 
colleagues do seem to point in this direction, but it is only based on 
four European languages.)

An interesting case is OUP's recent handbook on polysynthesis: While all 
definitions of polysynthesis make reference to the "word" notion, almost 
none of the authors and editors try to justify it, instead simply 
presupposing that there is such a thing as polysynthesis.

(The one paper that addresses the issue, by Bickel & Zúñiga, agrees with 
my skepticism in that it finds that "polysynthetic "words" are often not 
unified entities The word in polysynthetic languages defined by a single 
domain on which all criteria would converge". OUP's handbook is hard to 
access, but a manuscript version of Bickel & Zúñiga can be found here: 



Evidence for the suffixing preference

Matthew S. Dryer

University at Buffalo

Haspelmath (2011) argues that there are no good criteria for 
distinguishing affixes from separate words, so that claims that make 
reference to a distinction between words and affixes are suspect. He 
claims that there is therefore no good evidence for the suffixing 
preference (Greenberg 1957). since that assumes that one can distinguish 
affixes from separate words. He implies that decisions that linguists 
describing languages make in terms of what they represent as words may 
at best be based on inconsistent criteria and he has suggested that we 
have no way of knowing whether the apparent suffixing preference 
reflects anything more than the fact that the orthography of European 
languages far more often represents grammatical morphemes as suffixes 
than as prefixes.

In this paper, I provide evidence that the suffixing preference is 
unlikely to be an artifact of orthographic conventions, at least as it 
applies to tense-aspect affixes. I examined the phonological properties 
of tense-aspect affixes in a sample of over 500 languages, 
distinguishing two types on the basis of their phonological properties. 
Type 1 affixes are either ones that are nonsyllabic, consisting only of 
consonants, or ones that exhibit allomorphy that is conditioned 
phonologically by verb stems. Type 2 affixes are those that exhibit 
neither of these two properties. The reason that this distinction is 
relevant is that grammatical morphemes of the first sort are almost 
always represented as affixes rather than as separate words in 
grammatical descriptions, so that we can safely assume that in the vast 
majority of cases, grammatical morphemes of this sort that are 
represented as affixes really are such. Haspelmath's suggestion that the 
suffixing preference might be an artifact of orthographic conventions 
thus predicts that we should not find a significant difference in the 
relative frequency of Type 1 prefixes and suffixes, but only with Type 2 
prefixes and suffixes.

The results of my study show that this prediction is not confirmed. They 
show that for both types of affixes, suffixes outnumber prefixes by a 
little over 2.5 to 1. The number of languages in my sample with Type 1 
suffixes outnumber the number of languages with Type 1 prefixes by 181 
to 67, or around 2.7 to 1, while the number of languages with only Type 
2 suffixes outnumber the number of languages with only Type 2 prefixes 
by 223 to 85, approximately 2.6 to 1. Thus the prediction that the 
suffixing preference should be found primarily with Type 2 affixes, is 
not borne out. To the contrary, we find the same suffixing preference 
among both types of affixes.

This provides evidence that, at least for tense-aspect affixes, the 
suffixing preference is real and not an artifact of orthographic 


Haspelmath, Martin. 2011. The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the 
nature of morphology and syntax. Folia Linguistica 45: 31-80.?

ALT Abstract Booklet
On 10.11.17 06:11, Adam J Tallman wrote:
> I am writing a paper about wordhood - has anyone responded to 
> Haspelmath's 2011 /Folia Linguistica/ paper on the topic?
> I have only found two sources that mention the paper and seem to put 
> forward an argument against its conclusions, but its mostly in /en 
> passant /fashion.
> On is Blevins (2016) /Word and Paradigm Morphology /and another is 
> Geertzen, Jeroen, James P. Blevins & Petar Milin. 'Informativeness of 
> unit boundaries' [pdf 
> <http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/jpb39/pdf/GeertzenBlevinsMilin2016.pdf>]. 
> Italian Journal of Linguistics*28*(2), 1--24.
> Any correspondence in this regard would be greatly appreciated,
> Adam
> -- 
> Adam J.R. Tallman
> Investigador del Museo de Etnografía y Folklore, la Paz
> PhD candidate, University of Texas at Austin

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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