[Lingtyp] wordhood

Dryer, Matthew dryer at buffalo.edu
Wed Nov 15 11:33:39 UTC 2017

Let me try to bring the discussion a bit closer to earth by describing three instances of what are superficially disjunctive definitions of comparative concepts that I use in my WALS chapters.

1. I have a chapter on adnominal demonstratives and I use a disjunctive definition: they must be used either (1) with a “distance contrast” involving at least proximity to the speaker versus some lack of proximity to the speaker; or (2) in situations where they are directing the hearer to something in the shared perceptual space (exophoric usage). There are instances of words I treat as demonstratives which have only the first property and also instances of words I treat as demonstratives which have only the second property. However, in the vast majority of languages, there are words that possess both properties. I take this to be a case where Martin’s notion of high correlation applies, making this an acceptable instance of a disjunctive definition.

2. I have a chapter on affixes indicating tense or aspect. That is, at least superficially,
disjunctive. It is not obvious to me that tense and aspect correlate strongly. But this is where David’s higher abstraction comes into play. There is intuitively something that tense and aspect share; as a first approximation, both involve temporal properties of the predication.

3. I have a chapter on markers of definiteness, though I define this broadly to include morphemes that are restricted to previous reference as well as markers of specificity. Again this is superficially disjunctive. But I argue in Dryer (2014) that they share a higher abstraction in that all are associated with one end of a referentiality hierarchy.


From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org>> on behalf of David Gil <gil at shh.mpg.de<mailto:gil at shh.mpg.de>>
Date: Wednesday, November 15, 2017 at 4:10 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

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

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