[Lingtyp] wordhood

Maia Ponsonnet maia.ponsonnet at uwa.edu.au
Sun Nov 12 13:27:00 UTC 2017

I think we should also keep in mind another possibility beyond 1/ Vagueness and 2/ Incoherence.

Describing the world involves making it fit into categories, but the world was not made to fit into our categories. Hence a logical conclusion of the rejection of essentialism is that sometimes (probably more often than not) no set of criteria will do a fully satisfying job at establishing categories that account for all the cases encountered in the world.

This just because the world was not made to fit into our categories - useful categories must be the best possible fit for the world, but "perfect" (non-leaking) categories are probably the exception rather than the rule.

So this is 3/ Our categories are only the best possible fit for the world phenomena - not a perfect fit.

If I listened to the Wittgensteinien philosopher in me, I would say that forgetting about 3/ is still giving in to essentialism.

Dr Maïa Ponsonnet
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics
ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Fellow

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From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>
Sent: Sunday, 12 November 2017 8:47 PM
To: lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] wordhood

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 “word”).

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<mailto: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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