[Lingtyp] wordhood

David Gil gil at shh.mpg.de
Wed Nov 15 11:08:39 UTC 2017

Dear all,

On 15/11/2017 17:53, Martin Haspelmath wrote:
> 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?
I'm a little surprised to see Martin ask this question.  My 
understanding of comparative concepts (which I got from Martin's papers, 
and from conversations with him) is that they don't "exist" or "fail to 
exist", but rather they turn out to be "more useful" or "less useful" to 
us in our endeavors to gain new typological insights into the diversity 
and unity of human languages.  And of course, I think that most or all 
of us feel that a typology is "useful' to the extent that it leads 
beyond itself into other and perhaps unexpected phenomenological 
domains.  (Not much point in typologizing languages in accordance with 
what the initial segment of their word for "dog" is, as that probably 
won't lead to anything interesting.)

So in the case at hand, the question is not whether the word as a 
comparative concept exists, but rather whether a comparative concept of 
word can take us beyond the features on which its definition is based, 
in order to tell us new stuff.  Here are three quite different domains 
for which I have high hopes that a comparative concept of word might 
prove to be useful.

1. Making it possible to couch a diachronic generalization to the effect 
that a certain kind of radical contact situation involving massive 2nd 
language acquisition will lead to a reduction in the size of words, i.e. 
towards an isolating typology.  (Some of you will recognize this as a 
topic that came up in discussion of the recent Blasi, Michaelis and 
Haspelmath paper.)

2. One of my personal favourites: Making it possible to couch 
generalizations concerning ludlings, e.g. that the word is the largest 
domain within which the rules of  a ludling can apply.  For example, a 
ludling can reverse the order of segments in a word, but not in a larger 
unit such as a phrase.

3. And finally, getting back to the "scene of the crime", as it were:   
it can enable us to make cross-linguistic generalizations about 
orthographic systems, namely that in some, certainly not all, systems, 
there is a tendency for symbols such as spaces to be inserted at word 
boundaries — a tendency which can be observed on the fly as speakers of 
hitherto unwritten languages adapt them to social media.

Of course I could be wrong about any or all of these, but it's still a 
reasonable and coherent way to approach things.  Finally,

On 15/11/2017 17:53, Martin Haspelmath wrote:
> Comparative concepts must eventually be based on substance – phonetic 
> substance or semantic substance. Language-particular abstract concepts 
> such as domains are not good for comparison.
I beg to differ.  Language IS abstract, highly so, and I don't see why 
"abstract concepts such as domains" can't be used as a basis for the 
definition of comparative concepts.  The only requirement is for the 
definition to be objective and applicable cross-linguistically. An 
example of such a definition is my attempt, below, to develop a 
universal definition of syntactic categories defined in purely formal, 
distributional terms, with no reference whatsoever to substance.

Gil, David (2000) "Syntactic Categories, Cross-Linguistic Variation and 
Universal Grammar", in P. M. Vogel and B. Comrie eds., /Approaches to 
the Typology of Word Classes/, Empirical Approaches to Language 
Typology, Mouton, Berlin and New York, 173-216.

I would just add that would-be substantive notions such as, say, 
"sonorant consonant" or "kinship term" are themselves every bit as 
abstract as purely formal notions such as domains, or syntactic 
categories.  (After all these years working on Indonesian, I still can't 
make up my mind whether it even HAS kinship terms ...)

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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