[Lingtyp] wordhood: responses to Haspelmath

Guillaume Jacques rgyalrongskad at gmail.com
Sat Nov 11 18:23:53 UTC 2017

A question of potential interest to this discussion is how common languages
with ambiguous word boundaries really are. Most linguists are of course
aware of examples of such languages (among those I work on for instance
Bantawa), but if they are outliers, and if in most languages morphosyntaxic
and phonological boundaries do converge, it is counterproductive to just
abandon words and the distinction between syntax and morphology. Moreover,
(following on Frederick Newmeyer above), as long as we choose a (set of)
criterion/a and apply it/them consistently across languages, we can still
do typology using a "word" concept (even if these criteria might lead to
counter-intuitive word divisions for some particular languages).


2017-11-11 19:00 GMT+01:00 Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>:

> It's not crazy at all to say that isolating languages could be described
> as polysynthetic, and vice versa. (In fact, Skalička described Modern
> Chinese as polysynthetic in 1946.)
> The problem is that archetypes like isolating and polysynthetic are mostly
> stereotypes. They are not clearly defined, at least not without reference
> to a "word" concept (itself only based on intuition, i.e. stereotypes).
> Of course, morphosyntactic patterns are often more complex than simple
> strings of morphemes. But we don't really know in which ways these
> complexities cluster. Is it the case that languages with tense-person
> cumulation (to give just one example of a complexity) also tend to show
> case-number cumulation? Is it the case that languages with special
> bare-object constructions ("incorporation") tend to show phonological
> interactions between object and verb? We don't know yet, I think. By merely
> labeling languages according to a few archetypes, we won't find out.
> So yes, let's forget about word boundaries in typology until we have a
> very good way to draw them consistently (using the same criteria in all
> languages).
> Best,
> Martin
> Am 11.11.2017 um 18:40 schrieb Östen Dahl <oesten at ling.su.se>:
> Martin, I wonder if your views on these matters imply that a polysynthetic
> language could equally well be described as being an isolating one, and
> vice versa. That is, one should just forget about word boundaries and
> describe utterances as consisting of strings of morphemes. If you think
> this is not feasible, why?
> Best,
> Östen
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Guillaume Jacques
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