[Lingtyp] wordhood

Daniel Ross djross3 at illinois.edu
Sun Nov 12 19:32:53 UTC 2017

I am enjoying reading all of the great perspectives here.

Responding to Martin (and others) about "family":

I am not convinced that families are an uninteresting concept
cross-culturally. This is obviously not my area of research, but let me try
to propose a definition:

'A core group of one's relatives (defined culturally).'

I included 'defined culturally' to emphasize that I am not talking about
any absolute sense of 'core' or 'relative' (but that should be obvious from
context), but also because for the most part (except to the degree that
'culture' varies some for each individual) this definition should reflect
the same meaning for anyone in a particular culture, rather than being just
whoever each individual likes the most, gets along with, sees the most
often, etc. (Whether we should also distinguish between cultural and
individual senses of family is another question, and that's fine, but not
what I'm focusing on here.)

The key is how we define "relatives", which would then allow us to
relatively objectively also define "core". The criteria for relatives can
include (but need not necessarily limited to) blood, marriage, and
adoption. "Adoption" can be interpreted broadly here, including 'friends',
etc., as culturally applicable.

That definition fits well for the 'parent(s) and children' sense in many
familiar cultures. It also fits well in cultures that find aunts/uncles,
grandparents, cousins, etc., to be part of the core level as well because
they are so close culturally. And it also works for less expected family
types that categorize differently. In the Mosuo (or Na) culture (in China:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosuo), from what I understand (although my
understanding isn't critical to the argument), women and men do not form
pairs, and the fathers of children play a relatively small role in the
lives of their children. In that case, "family" would not include
husbands/fathers, culturally. Or to take an even less canonical example, in
military culture, one's "brothers" in one's unit are family (all by
'adoption' in my terms, as well as military rank and affiliation, another
kind of relatedness). (There's no rule that a person must belong to only
one culture, or have only one family.)

I agree that "family" cannot be defined in absolute terms for all cultures.
But I disagree that we cannot define family in an interesting way, if we
define it in relative terms. It is also possible that there are some
cultures out there that have no relevant cultural sense of "family", which
would just be like a language lacking a certain feature and not belonging
to a typology for it (but the absence can still be interesting for the

In terms of "asking general cross-cultural questions about families", I
also disagree, in two ways:

1. We need to ask the right questions. "How often do all family members
have meals together?" may not be an interesting question, because "meals
together" (or even "all family members together") would not always be
relevant culturally. A better question would be: "How many members (and
who) make up families in each culture?" and "What do they do together?" --
then we could find a comparable activity to eating together (whether that's
praying, or watching television, or going to war, or whatever), and then
ask how often they do it together.

2. I don't actually find that question above to be terrible. "How often do
all family members have meals together?" can be answered for different
cultures. In some it is more about whether "family bonds" are based on
proximity and sharing time together. In another sense, it can address how
much social bonding and support each member of the family receives from
others: sharing a meal with one's military 'family' during war-time is
important and similar to eating at 'home' with one's family.

So where am I going with this? Sorry for the long digression about families.

*My main point is:* it seems to me that "family" is something that cultures
DO, rather than something that cultures HAVE.

Therefore, I find it very appealing to consider that words are something
languages DO, rather than something that languages HAVE.

Of course, if that is true, then the biggest problem, and I think one that
all of us can agree on regardless, is that assuming "word" as a
primitive/basic/given notion then basing all (or many) other linguistic
concepts on it is problematic. (For example, defining affixes based on
"words" may be the wrong way to go, as suggested by others above.)

It also does not mean that "words" are "the same" across languages, but we
can still look at how languages do things similarly or differently.

The question I would propose to ask is: "How do different languages do
words (if at all)?"

I feel that David's suggestion is one possible step in the right direction
to answer a question like that. It's statistical, variable, and comparable.

I'd also be interested in hearing alternative suggestions along the same
lines. One possibility is to consider both phonological words (as David
proposes) and morphosyntactic words (maybe by reference to affixes as
discussed by others above), and then also to ask how and to what extent
they correlate in differently languages.


On Sun, Nov 12, 2017 at 5:27 AM, Maia Ponsonnet <maia.ponsonnet at uwa.edu.au>

> 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
> Social Sciences Building, Room 2.47
> Faculty of Arts, Business, Law and Education
> The University of Western Australia
> 35 Stirling Hwy, Perth, WA (6009), Australia
> P.  +61 (0) 8 6488 2870 <+61%208%206488%202870> - M.  +61 (0) 468 571 030
> <+61%20468%20571%20030>
> ------------------------------
> *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?
> Best,
> Martin
> --
> 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
> _______________________________________________
> Lingtyp mailing list
> Lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/mailman/listinfo/lingtyp
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lingtyp/attachments/20171112/0cf2c45c/attachment.htm>

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list