[Lingtyp] wordhood

Dryer, Matthew dryer at buffalo.edu
Tue Nov 14 06:02:09 UTC 2017

I have a number of problems with Martin’s proposal:

"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."

If one examines the notion of “bound” from his 2013 paper, I believe it implies a comparative concept of affix that differs greatly from what most linguists (at last most non-generative linguists) understand by the term. That’s not a problem for it as a comparative concept, but it is a comparative concept that differs considerably from the stereotype.

Martin’s definition of “free and “bound” from his 2013 paper is as follows:

"But distinguishing in a general way between bound elements and free elements is quite straightforward, because there is a single criterion: Free forms are forms that can occur on their own, i.e. in a complete (possibly elliptical) utterance (Bloomfield 1933: 160). This criterion correlates very highly with the criterion of contrastive use: Only free forms can be used contrastively."

First, I find the notion of complete utterance ambiguous. Does it mean utterances in normal speech or does it include metalinguistic uses (like “What is the last word in the sentence “Who are you going with”? Answer “with”). I would assume that it does not include such metalinguistic uses. But then many if not most so-called function words in English would count as bound since they cannot be used as complete utterances. Perhaps other speakers of English would have different intuitions, but if so that only indicates the lack of clarity in the notion. Furthermore, for many function words in English, I am not sure how to judge whether they can occur alone as utterances. Many such so-called function words would appear to count as bound by Martin’s definition, though they would not count as affixes since they lack other properties in his definition of “affix”.

Second, many languages have grammatical morphemes that must occur adjacent to an open class word but which behave as separate words phonologically. These would all apparently count as affixes by Martin’s definition. Again, I have no problem with this as a comparative concept, only that it means his notion of affix deviates considerably from the stereotype.

Third, Martin says that his criterion “correlates very highly with the criterion of contrastive use”. But by my intuitions, the ability to occur as complete utterances does not correlate closely with the criterion of contrastive use, since most so-called function words CAN occur with contrastive use (such as can in this sentence!), as can some morphemes that are conventionally treated as affixes, like un- in “I’m not happy, I’m UNhappy”. Of course, Martin might argue that un- is more like so-called function words and less like morphemes conventionally treated as affixes. But the fact remains that un- is easily the locus of contrast but cannot be used as a complete utterance. I thus see no evidence of a close correlation between the ability to occur as a complete utterance and the ability to be the locus of contrast.

Finally, it is my experience that languages differ in their conventions regarding what can be a complete utterance. Imagine two closely related languages that differ in their grammatical rules governing what is a complete utterance. By Martin’s definition, there might be a large number of morphemes that count as separate words in one language but as affixes in the other language. This strikes me as odd. It seems odd to have a criterion for what is a word and what is an affix so dependent on the grammatical rules in the language for what constitutes a complete utterance.


From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org>> on behalf of Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de<mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>>
Date: Sunday, November 12, 2017 at 10:47 PM
To: "lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>" <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto: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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