[Lingtyp] wordhood

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Wed Nov 15 12:53:40 UTC 2017

On 15.11.17 13:42, Eitan Grossman wrote:
>     David wrote:
>     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 ...)
> I agree, and it strikes me that the term 'abstract' is too loose to be 
> useful without being careful about its scope. "Sonorant consonant" 
> involves several, perhaps many layers, of abstraction. First of all, 
> over individual tokens of events in speech (and even the notion 
> 'segment' has been argued about in phonetics and phonology), resulting 
> in something like a phone [n] or a phoneme /n/ (the latter often 
> involving another stage of abstraction) within a particular language; 
> so even descriptive categories are abstractions.
> Comparing such such types across language involves even more 
> abstraction - and maybe we need a third type of brackets for that kind 
> of comparative concept. Bundling together things like [m], [n], [l] 
> and so on into 'sonorant' is yet another abstraction. And this goes 
> all the way up.
Yes, it's true: "abstract" is too broad – what I mean is concepts (such 
as zero, or transformation, or rule ordering, or phonological domain, or 
syntactic category) that don't have a straightforward connection to 
phonetic or semantic substance. (All of Matthew's examples inhis recent 
message are substantive in this sense.)
One might of course try to typologize on the basis of such 
non-substantive notions (e.g. languages with zero or languages without 
zero, languages with "late merge" vs. languages with "early merge", 
languages with syntactic categories and categoryless languages), but 
usually such typologies don't work well, if at all.

(Incidentally, it's very odd to say that "even descriptive categories 
are abstractions" – because descriptive categories CAN EASILY be very 
abstract/nonsubstantive, while comparative concepts must normally be 
more substantive. It's the substantive aspects that carry over to other 
languages, not the abstractions. Concepts like transformations and 
zeroes are important for description, but not for typology. In my view, 
this is the main reason for the failure of generative typology.)


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

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lingtyp/attachments/20171115/5159518e/attachment.htm>

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list