[Lingtyp] wordhood

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Wed Nov 15 09:53:08 UTC 2017

Christian Lehmann's paper on concepts and categories can be read as 
supporting the idea that comparative concepts can also be used for 
describing languages, but in a recent extended exchange with him, I 
understood that he actually supports the idea that structural 
descriptions and tertia comparationis (= comparative concepts) are on a 
different level.

In any event, we seem to agree mostly that disjunctive definitions are 
"pointless" or even "incoherent" (as I have put it).

David wants to argue that the diverse phenomena in different languages 
can be seen as reflecting some more abstract formal property. So for 
example, all of (1)-(5) could be seen to reflect phonological 
"bondedness" (or "same prosodic domain"):

(1) vowel harmony
(2) tone sandhi
(3) progressive ATR assimilation
(4) vowel reduction
(5) preoralization of final nasals

But my question is: Is there independent evidence for the existence of 
this abstract formal property?

To go back to my absurd example of "meggle people": I could set up an 
abstract feature [megglehood] and claim that the various observable 
properties (Huawei smartphone, Mendelssohn music, taxi-driving) are just 
manifestations of this abstract feature.

So is there reason to think that (1)-(5) are different? Well, for 
(1)-(3), one can give a substantive reason for their coherence: They are 
all assimilatory (though I'm not sure about tone sandhi). Intuitively, 
elements that are assimilated to each other have a strong "bond", so I 
would find it OK to regard them as manifestations of an abstract feature 

But (4)-(5) are not – they are merely restricted to particular domains, 
like all other grammatical rules. To the extent that different 
phonological rules appeal to the same domain, this gives us reasons to 
say that the domain has a privileged existence within the language 
(though even domains that are relevant only for one rule must be part of 
the grammar). But I don't see how such domains can serve as comparative 
concepts, if the reasons for setting them up are different from language 
to language.

(Again, as I said earlier: Comparative concepts must eventually be based 
on substance – phonetic substance or semantic substance. 
Language-particular abstract concepts such as domains are not good for 


On 15.11.17 10:25, Peter Arkadiev wrote:
> Thank you, David, this methodological (and theoretical) point of is utmost importance. I guess the point Christian Lehmann makes in his recent paper https://www.christianlehmann.eu/publ/lehmann_ling_concepts_categories.pdf is very similar in spirit.
> 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
> 15.11.2017, 09:07, "David Gil" <gil at shh.mpg.de>:
>> 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
>> typology.
>> David
>> --
>> 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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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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