[Lingtyp] wordhood

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Sun Nov 12 12:47:38 UTC 2017

Mattis List and Balthasar Bickel rightly emphasize that “word” is not a 
Platonic entity (a natural kind) that exists in advance of language 
learning or linguistic analysis – few linguists would disagree here, not 
even generativists (who otherwise liberally assume natural-kind catgeories).

But I think many linguists still ACT AS IF there were such a natural 
kind, because the “word” notion is a crucial ingredient to a number of 
other notions that linguists use routinely – e.g. “gender”, which is 
typically defined in terms of “agreement” (which is defined in terms of 
inflectional marking on targets; and inflection is defined in terms of 

So is it possible to define a comparative concept ‘word’ that applies to 
all languages equally, and that accords reasonably with our stereotypes? 
Note that I didn’t deny this in my 2011 paper, I just said that nobody 
had come up with a satisfactory definition (that could be used, for 
instance, in defining “gender” or “polysynthesis”). So I’ll be happy to 
contribute to a discussion on how to make progress on defining “word”.

Larry Hyman notes that other notions like “syllable” and “sentence” are 
also problematic in that they also “leak”. However, I think it is 
important to distinguish two situations of “slipperiness”:

(1) “Leakage” of definitions due to vague defining notions

(2) Incoherence of definitions due to the use of different criteria in 
different languages

The first can be addressed by tightening the defining notions, but the 
second is fatal.

To take up Östen Dahl’s example of the “family” notion: In one culture, 
a family might be said to be a set of minimally three living people 
consisting of two adults (regardless of gender) living in a romantic 
relationship plus all their descendants. In another culture, a family 
might be defined as a married couple consisting of a man and a woman 
plus all their living direct ancestors, all their (great) uncles and 
(great) aunts, and all the descendants of all of these.

With two family concepts as different as these, it is obviously not very 
interesting to ask general cross-cultural questions about “families” 
(e.g. “How often do all family members have meals together?”). So the 
use of different criteria for different cultures is fatal here.

What I find worrying is that linguists often seem to accept incoherent 
definitions of comparative concepts (this was emphasized especially in 
my 2015 paper on defining vs. diagnosing categories). Different 
diagnostics in different languages would not be fatal if “word” were a 
Platonic (natural-kind) concept, but if we are not born with a “word” 
category, typologists need to use the SAME criteria for all languages.

So here’s a proposal for defining a notion of “simple morphosyntactic word”:

*A simple morphosyntactic word is a form that consists of (minimally) a 
root, plus any affixes.*

Here’s a proposal for defining a notion of “affix”, in such a way that 
the results do not go too much against our intuitions or stereotypes:

*An affix is a bound form that always occurs together with a root of the 
same root-class and is never separated from the root by a free form or a 
non-affixal bound form.*

These definitions make use of the notions of “root” and “root-class” 
(defined in Haspelmath 2012) and“bound (form)” vs. “free (form)” 
(defined in Haspelmath 2013). All these show leakage as in (1) above, 
but they are equally applicable to all languages, so they are not 
incoherent. (I thank Harald Hammarström for a helpful discussion that 
helped me to come up with the above definitions, which I had not 
envisaged in 2011.)

(What I don’t know at the moment is how to relate “simple 
morphosyntactic word” to “morphosyntactic word” in general, because I 
cannot distinguish compounds from phrases comparatively; and I don’t 
know what to do with “phonological word”.)

Crucially, the definitions above make use of a number of basic concepts 
that apply to ALL languages in the SAME way. David Gil’s proposal, to 
measure “bond strength” by means of a range of language-particular 
phenomena, falls short of this requirement (as already hinted by Eitan 
Grossman). Note that the problem I have with David’s proposal is not 
that it provides no categorical contrasts (recall my acceptance of 
vagueness in (1) above), but that there is no way of telling which 
phenomena should count as measuring bond strength.

David’s approach resembles Keenan’s (1976) attempt at defining “subject” 
(perhaps not by accident, because Ed Keenan was David’s PhD supervisor), 
but I have a similar objection to Keenan: If different criteria are used 
for different languages, how do we know that we are measuring the same 
phenomenon across languages? Measuring X by means of Y makes sense only 
if we know independently that X and Y are very highly correlated. But do 
we know this, for subjects, or for bond strength?



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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