[Lingtyp] wordhood

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Mon Nov 13 21:27:47 UTC 2017

I think we can distinguish two broad kinds of situations:

(1) where a comparative concept is defined by a single criterion or a 
set of simultaneouly necessary and sufficient criteria (e.g. "dative", 
defined by the criterion of flagging the recipient)

(2) where a comparative concept is defined by multiple disjunctive criteria

I have been arguing that we should adopt definitions of the former type, 
but Peter Arkadiev is now arguing that the latter should also be 
accepted. Well, maybe he is right, but I think that disjunctive 
definitions are acceptable only if the criteria are independently known 
to correlate tightly.

For example, let's assume that we know that people with a high income 
very often drive expensive cars and strongly tend to have gardeners. 
Then we can define a sociological category "rich person" disjunctively: 
Someone who either (i) has a high income, or (ii) drives an expensive 
car, or (iii) has a gardener (or several of these simultaneously). 
Intuitively, this sounds reasonable.

But we could also create disjunctively defined concepts based on 
criteria that don't correlate. For example, we could set up a 
sociological category "meggle person" defined as someone who either (i) 
owns a Huawei smartphone, or (ii) likes Mendelssohn music, or (iii) 
works as a taxi-driver on weekends (or several of these simultaneously). 
Intuitively, this sounds crazy – though the impression that such 
features correlate might arise through some accident (e.g. if there were 
a movie where two or three meggle people play a role).

So I would say that before we can accept a disjunctive definition of a 
comparative concept, it must be shown that the different criteria 
correlate very significantly. I don't think this has been shown for 
stereotypical subject properties, or for stereotypical word properties – 
though it may well be that it's true (I have no clear intuitions).

So basically what I'm arguing is that we shouldn't rely on stereotypical 
property clusters, but we should investigate whether the properties do 
indeed cluster. (Recall that typology originated in German Romanticism, 
which was closely linked to nationalism, and eventually to racism – and 
we all know that we should not trust racial stereotypes, though some of 
the supposed correlations may turn out to be correct after they are 


On 13.11.17 21:34, Peter Arkadiev wrote:
> Dear Daniel, dear all,
> that was an excellent point, and the analogy to 'family' defined 
> relative to particular culture is very lucid. This is precisely how I 
> believe many comparative linguistic notions can (or should) be defined 
> -- relative to language. Take the notorious notion of subject, which 
> is defined by some as "the privileged syntactic argument (by whatever 
> criteria there are in particular languages that make one of their 
> arguments privileged)". I may be wrong, but this seems to be the 
> definition of subject in Role and Reference Grammar. Of course, for 
> those who believe that comparability requires identification, this is 
> a bad comparative concept, since in principle it does not exclude the 
> possibility that there are two languages whose subjects have nothing 
> in common. But still this is a workable concept allowing typologists 
> to ask reasonable questions, e.g.:
> 1) Are there languages where subjects in this sense cannot be single 
> out, and if yes, for what reasons? As far as I know, there are 
> linguists who claim that the answer to this question is "yes", 
> therefore the concept is not vacuous.
> 2) What are the grammatical properties that languages with subjects 
> thus defined employ to render them privileged as opposed to other 
> arguments? Well, much of the grammatical relations typology is just 
> about this.
> 3) Do subjects thus defined cross-linguistically correlate with 
> certain admittedly universally applicable comparative concepts such as 
> "agent" or "topic" and is there a common "core" to subjects in all 
> languages? Note that under the definition proposed, this becomes an 
> empirical question with a potentially negative answer, rather than is 
> built into the definition a priori.
> I think it is possible to define words, affixes, clitics etc. in such 
> a way and get consistent and interesting results.
> 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

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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