[Lingtyp] wordhood

William Croft wcroft at unm.edu
Wed Nov 15 16:03:47 UTC 2017

I try to ban the word “abstract” from my student’s essays. It is unhelpfully polysemous. In the recent discussions here, it seems to be used in at least three ways -- though I think there is a family resemblance.

The first is Martin’s immediately below: a concept defined in terms without a straightforward connection to phonetic or semantic substance. This is a rather specialized use of “abstract”, albeit relevant to the current discussion.

The second is roughly synonymous with “schematic” (as the cognitive linguists and some others use that term), i.e. a more general concept, i.e. one with fixed intension but broader extension. In my interpretation of David’s recent post, he is suggesting that a seemingly disjunctive description actually can be interpreted as a more schematic description that subsumes the phenomena initially described by a disjunctive definition. If so, then the relevant definition is no longer disjunctive. And it is of course true that definitions based directly on phonetic or semantic substance may be highly schematic.

The third seems synonymous with an essentialist category, with an essence that is only inferrable indirectly from the accessible accidents (in the philosophical sense). This use is the use I interpreted in some earlier posts, particularly Dan’s that I responded to.

The family resemblance is this. Highly schematic definitions often end up being vague and either too broad or difficult to apply consistently in particular cases -- so people could differ radically in how they apply it to specific linguistic cases, and there would not be much hope in adjudicating such disputes. Concepts defined without a straightforward connection to phonetic or semantic substance would also be hard to apply consistently and consensually (at least outside the core members of the formal syntactic community). And essentialist concepts are also hard to apply consistently and consensually.

Apologies for going back into the stratosphere with this post,

> On Nov 15, 2017, at 5:53 AM, Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de> wrote:
> 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
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