[Lingtyp] wordhood: responses to Haspelmath

Johann-Mattis List mattis.list at lingpy.org
Sat Nov 11 20:53:53 UTC 2017

I think the essential problem, not only regarding wordhood, but
regarding many issues in typology is that people often try to find some
essential universal category that is well-defined and easily detectable,
even if there's no evidence that there is one. Biologists are, at least
judging from the ones I have been collaborating with, much less obsessed
with universals. Take the comparative concept of "leave", for example:
biologists would have huge problems if they based their definition of
trees on the claim that they have leaves (are needles also leaves? do
trees essentially need to loose them in winter?). But since in biology
there has always been a very strong focus towards evolutionary accounts
on the phenomena observed in life, people bother less with
classification in "natural categories" (or universals). This does not
mean, and this is how I read Martin's paper, that one could not write a
book on leaves in biology (in fact, leave anatomy seems to be an
interesting topic), but people would not get stuck with a proper
definition before they even start their analysis. When studying
Slavistics and Sinology, I felt tortured by all kinds of debates about
parts of speech in Russian or Chinese, where people have book-long
debates on the question of how many POS you could find in the respective
languages, while at the end, it was a question of external
classifications, of categories that we often superimpose in order to fit
things into our word that does not allow for fuzziness. Many
classifications make sense, there were many smart people involved, but
whether classification a is better than b is often not decideable by the
data alone, and all have their insufficiencies.

That's the major essence which I get from Martin's paper (although I am
even not 100% sure whether you, Martin, will agree...).



On 11.11.2017 20:25, William Croft wrote:
> I am not arguing for an extreme position like writing grammars without word boundaries either. I am just trying to bring to people’s attention that wordhood is problematic, and to persuade someone to look at wordhood without presupposing an essentialist concept of ‘word’, that would get us past appealing to intuitions which are actually rather unclear on closer inspection. There might be a common core, i.e. a set of crosslinguistically valid criteria which form universal patterns like a typological prototype (as the latter is defined in my “Typology and Universals” textbook). But I don’t know what the criteria are or what their typological relationships are. I would really like to know.
> Actually, I *don’t* know what a family is, in a cross-cultural sense, and even in my own culture, given the notions of immediate, nuclear and extended family, foster children, adoption, divorce etc. I don’t even know if ‘family’ makes sense cross-culturally, given the variety of kin systems and the organization of society they reflect. 
> Bill
>> On Nov 11, 2017, at 12:16 PM, Östen Dahl <oesten at ling.su.se> wrote:
>> I am sorry if I gave the impression that I'm arguing for an extreme position (such as writing grammars without word boundaries). I'm rather trying to see what the ultimate consequences are of Martin's proposals. But what I am wondering about is whether there isn't a common core to the language-specific concepts of "word", although it need not involve precise criteria. I think "word" may be a concept rather much like "family". Consider Wikipedia's definition of "family", which hardly provides any criteria that can be used to identify families cross-culturally:
>> "In the context of human society, a family (from Latin: familia) is a group of people affiliated either by consanguinity (by recognized birth), affinity (by marriage or other relationship), or co-residence (as implied by the etymology of the English word "family"[1]) or some combination of these. Members of the immediate family may include spouses, parents, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. Members of the extended family may include grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, and siblings-in-law. Sometimes these are also considered members of the immediate family, depending on an individual's specific relationship with them."
>> Still, we think we know what a family is.
>> Östen 
>> -----Ursprungligt meddelande-----
>> Från: Lingtyp [mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org] För William Croft
>> Skickat: den 11 november 2017 20:06
>> Till: lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
>> Ämne: Re: [Lingtyp] wordhood: responses to Haspelmath
>> The problem that we need to guard against is using language-specific definitions for a supposedly crosslinguistic (comparative) concept of ‘word’. One has to use a crosslinguistically valid criterion for wordhood, and apply the same criterion across languages. I have yet to see anyone do this.
>> As usual, the problem is the belief in which linguistic units have essences like ’noun, ‘verb’, ‘word’ etc., and all we linguists need to do is “discover” this essence through some accidental linguistic fact of a particular language (using ‘essence’ and ‘accident’ in the philosophical sense); and it doesn’t matter if the facts are different from one language to the next, or are defined in a way that works only for that language. Until, of course, someone else comes along and decides that the essence is different from what the first person thought, even by looking at the same accidental facts; or maybe that they don’t even believe in the essence.
>> The solution, in my opinion, is to look at the “accidental" facts, that is, the different criteria for wordhood (defined in a crosslinguistically valid fashion), and find out what the typological universals are that govern those facts. I would expect that (a) the criteria won’t match, within or across languages, as with parts of speech etc.; but (b) the criteria would pattern typologically in such a way that most of the morpheme strings that we would intuitively call “words” would have a fairly high degree of syntagmatic unity most of the time. (Yes, “morpheme” raises some of the same issues -- but if we don’t address these issues, we can’t really trust our results.)
>> Bill
>>> On Nov 11, 2017, at 11:47 AM, Edith A Moravcsik <edith at uwm.edu> wrote:
>>> I agree with Fritz (if I interpret his message correctly).  As far as I can see, we can work with any definition of "word" in crosslinguistic research and then see if that definition is useful or not - i.e., whether it does or does not yield typological correlates. If we try this approach,  I cannot see that we could go wrong; or is there any possible problem that we need to guard against? 
>>> Edith Moravcsik
>>> -----Original Message-----
>>> From: Lingtyp [mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org] On 
>>> Behalf Of Frederick J Newmeyer
>>> Sent: Saturday, November 11, 2017 11:04 AM
>>> To: Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>
>>> Cc: lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
>>> Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] wordhood: responses to Haspelmath
>>> Let's say that there are no rigid consistent criteria that distinguish words, prefixes, and suffixes. I don't see why that would necessarily prevent us from making valid generalizations about prefixes and suffixes. Consider an analogy. We can make valid generalizations about men and women (their preferences for whatever, their likelihood to do whatever, etc.) even though gender is to a certain extent fluid. There are adults who consider themselves neither male or female and others who consider themselves both. Different criteria lead to different assignments for being a man or for being a woman. It seems like an analogous issue would come up for virtually any 'natural' category. What is the essential problem here?
>>> --fritz
>>> Frederick J. Newmeyer
>>> Professor Emeritus, University of Washington Adjunct Professor, U of 
>>> British Columbia and Simon Fraser U
>>> On Sat, 11 Nov 2017, Martin Haspelmath wrote:
>>>> 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 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:
>>>> http://www.comparativelinguistics.uzh.ch/en/bickel/publications/in-pr
>>>> e
>>>> ss.html)
>>>> Best,
>>>> Martin
>>>> ***********************************
>>>> 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 conventions.
>>>> References
>>>> Haspelmath, Martin. 2011. The indeterminacy of word segmentation and 
>>>> the nature of morphology and syntax. Folia Linguistica 45: 31-80.>
>>>> 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]. 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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