[Lingtyp] wordhood

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Mon Nov 13 09:21:47 UTC 2017

Yes, Peter Arkadiev is quite right to point out that the root concept as 
tentatively defined by me earlier (in 2012 
does not extend readily to cases like English "sing/sang", let alone 
Arabic "kataba/yaktubu".

But remember that typological classification does not have to be 
exhaustive (unlike description, which must cover everying in a given 
language): Typological studies focus on clear similarities and clear 
differences between languages, but there are also many aspects of 
language structure that are not readily comparable.

I learned this lesson originally from Bickel & Nichols's 2005 WALS 
chapter on "structure sampling". In their sub-chapter on "Sampling case 
and tense formatives" (http://wals.info/chapter/s5), they say:

"... This makes it impossible to typologize whole languages for fusion 
and exponence. In response to this, we sampled individual formatives..."

A similar point was made by Bill Croft in his 2016 LT contribution 
<https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/lity.2016.20.issue-2/> on comparative 
concepts (§5):

"... "large" conceptual categories are in fact not good comparative 
concepts, and typologists use narrower conceptual categories or even 
individual tokens (as in elicitation from a stimulus like a 
cutting/break video clip). Language-specific categories are often large, 
especially if they are defined by occurrence in a role in just one 
construction, and are defined as all elements that occur in that 
constructional role."

Likewise, Matthew Dryer points out in the current discussion that 
comparative concepts need to be narrower than descriptive categories:

"there is often a way to define one's comparative concept in a 
"narrower" way so that at least some problematic cases can be classified"

So yes, the Arabic "root" concept needs to be very abstract, so abstract 
that it no longer matches my comparative root concept (and the same 
applies to English "sing/sang" etc.). But this does not mean that the 
comparative root concept needs to be abstract in a similar way. I think 
that if it is not sufficiently concrete, it cannot serve as a 
comparative concept anymore, because only fairly concrete concepts can 
be applied across languages using the SAME criteria.

If you now wonder whether I would be forced to say that Arabic is a 
language without roots, the answer is yes, probably, to a large extent 
(though there are probably a few noun roots, i.e. forms whose vocalic 
pattern does not have an additional singular meaning, e.g. roots of mass 
nouns). This may sound unacceptable to some, but note that Arabic-like 
languages are extremely rare, so the fairly concrete root concept still 
matches the traditional root concept to a large extent. (But I admit 
that the situation is not a happy one, because it was actually Arabic 
and Hebrew grammarians who brought the "root" concept into linguistics; 
so maybe I should change the term to something different, such as "radix".)

In any event, whatever problems my root concept has, it does not have 
the fatal problem of incoherence, only the (fairly ubiquitous) vagueness 
problem. So I do have hopes that my definition of "affix" can stand 
(though Chao Li rightly points out that in my definition of "simple 
morphosyntactic word" as "a form that consists of (minimally) a root, 
plus any affixes", "free" needs to be added before "form").


On 12.11.17 21:22, Peter Arkadiev wrote:
> Dear Martin, dear all,
> the problem with "roots" as a comparative concept is that they are not 
> well-defined either. In the 2012 paper which Martin has quoted, he 
> defines "roots" as follows (p. 123 fn. 9): "morphs that denote things, 
> actions, or properties"; thus, the definition of roots is based on the 
> definition of "morph" , which in turn (ibid.) is defined as "smallest 
> meaningful piece of form". This appears to sound OK, but the devil is 
> in the details. Martin writes (p. 123) that "The great advantage is 
> that we can readily identify roots in any language", but I consider 
> this statement overly optimistic and based on the notion of "root" 
> inferrable from such languages as English (though even there 
> "sing-sang-sung-song" can posit problems). What about Semitic 
> languages, where roots are abstract phonological entities with very 
> little "substantive" meaning? If we take the most famous example from 
> classical Arabic, what is the root of *kita:bun* 'book'? Is it the 
> same root as in *kataba* 'he wrote' and *yaktubu* 'he writes' (and 
> what is the common root, if any, of the latter two)? Is it a 
> thing-denoting root or an action-denoting root? And please, be sure 
> that, again, Arabic is just the extreme case. The very same problems 
> with roots are found in plenty of other languages, including the most 
> familiar ones.
> Best regards,
> Peter
> -- 
> Peter Arkadiev, PhD
> Institute of Slavic Studies
> Russian Academy of Sciences
> Leninsky prospekt 32-A 119991 Moscow
> peterarkadiev at yandex.ru
> http://inslav.ru/people/arkadev-petr-mihaylovich-peter-arkadiev
> 12.11.2017, 15:48, "Martin Haspelmath" <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>:
>> 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  <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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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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