[Lingtyp] wordhood: responses to Haspelmath

David Gil gil at shh.mpg.de
Sat Nov 11 18:38:30 UTC 2017

Contrary to Östen (below), I am not quite ready to concede to Martin the 
impossibility of defining a comparative concept of "word" that will 
enable typologists to distinguish between isolating and polysynthetic 
languages (as well as various intermediate types).  I am currently 
working on a paper that will provide such a definition.  An extended 
abstract of the paper is attached here.


On 12/11/2017 02:23, Östen Dahl wrote:
> OK, we should forget about word boundaries in typology, but should we 
> also do so when writing grammars? Could you write a grammar of a 
> stereotypical polysynthetic grammar and make it look like an isolating 
> one without using procrustean methods?
> (Didn’t Skalička have a rather idiosyncratic definition of polysynthesis?)
> Östen
> *Från:*Martin Haspelmath [mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de]
> *Skickat:* den 11 november 2017 19:01
> *Till:* Östen Dahl <oesten at ling.su.se>
> *Kopia:* lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
> *Ämne:* Re: SV: [Lingtyp] wordhood: responses to Haspelmath
> 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 
> <mailto: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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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): +62-81281162816

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