[Lingtyp] wordhood

David Gil gil at shh.mpg.de
Wed Nov 15 06:10:14 UTC 2017

In response to Bill's ...

On 14/11/2017 23:37, William Croft wrote:
> A definition “variably interpreted in each language” is a disjunctive 
> definition. If I use fact A to define ‘word’ in Language X, fact B to 
> define ‘word’ in Language Y, and fact C to define ‘word’ in Language 
> Z, then ‘word’ is defined as “defined by either A or B or C”. Or else 
> ‘word’ means something different in Languages X, Y and Z, i.e. it is a 
> language-specific concept, and the fact that it’s called ‘word’ in 
> each language is just a coincidence.
Sorry, but I just don't get this.  If language X has a significant 
pattern involving, say, vowel harmony and some idiosyncratic rule 
preoralizing final nasals, language Y has a structurally somewhat 
different pattern involving tone sandhi and progressive ATR 
assimilation, while language Z makes use of patterns of stress and vowel 
reduction to define particular phonological domains, then they're 
obviously as different from each other as we all know languages to be.  
So yes, if John describes X as having an X-Word, Mary describes Y as 
having a Y-Word, and Bill describes Z as having a Z-Word, then these are 
indeed three language-specific and (in one sense of the word) 
incommensurate notions.

And sure, defining a would-be comparative concept of word disjunctively, 
as X-Word OR Y-Word OR Z-Word OR ... would be unrevealing and rather 
pointless.  (I was going to say "uninteresting", but that sounded too 
Chomskyan.)  However, and here's the rub, there is no principled reason 
why it should not be possible to take John, Mary and Bill's descriptions 
of X, Y and Z and abstract away from them a shared formal property which 
we then might choose to refer to as a comparative concept of word.  Yes, 
the comparative concept of word would be "variably interpreted in each 
language", but no, the definition of the comparative concept would not 
involve disjunctions; it would simply obtain at a higher level of 
abstraction than the language-specific phenomena that formed the basis 
for the original three language-specific descriptions.  (Such 
abstractions are the bread and butter of our work as typologists, just 
stop and think for a moment how many cycles of abstraction are involved 
in a comparative concept such as "passive".)  And crucially, it need not 
necessarily involve the kind of "clustering" that Martin was taking about.

This is what I am trying to do with my proposed definition of 
comparative-concept word.  Granted, the proof of the pudding is in the 
eating ... and I'm still a bit of a way from getting my definition to 
work, by which I mean being both implementable and interesting.  But my 
point here and now is not to defend my (or any other) definition of 
word, but merely to argue that there is nothing incoherent in the 
attempt to define a comparative concept of word — even for those of us 
(myself included) who share a radically relativist view of linguistic 


David Gil

Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

Email: gil at shh.mpg.de
Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-81281162816

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