[Lingtyp] wordhood

Volker Gast volker.gast at uni-jena.de
Fri Nov 17 13:58:16 UTC 2017

I would like to endorse some of the more recent contributions to this 
discussion, specifically:

* It seems to me that the term 'comparative concept' is often used to 
legitimize cross-linguistic comparison, as a solution to the problem of 
"comparison of incommensurable systems". It describes common practice; 
but that doesn't mean, in my view, that its application or use renders 
our research more valid. If comparative concepts are subjective and 
arbitrary, their use amounts to violating some of the most important 
quality criteria of empirical research.

* As "we" (not sure who exactly that pronoun refers to, but it's widely 
used on this list) do not believe in innate concepts, we do not of 
course believe in "Platonic" words; but if we want to assume that "word" 
is a unit of classification relevant to human language, e.g. because 
there is some covariation between phonological, morphological, syntactic 
and semantic criteria, it should be defined in functional terms (and do 
we really want to abandon "word" order typology?). Proper names might 
provide a suitable prototype, as they can straightforwardly be defined 
in functional terms (e.g. in a pragmatic way à la Peirce). If I am not 
mistaken, prominent theories of language acquisition rely on the notion 
of "word". Perhaps there is a cognitive motivation after all.


Am 17.11.2017 um 13:22 schrieb Dryer, Matthew:
> I think that these five phenomena can be considered a single 
> comparative concept only if they are exhaustive in the sense that 
> there cannot be any other phenomena that are arguably instances of the 
> intended higher order concept they are instances of. In other words, 
> it is not enough that the phenomena share something in common. 
> Otherwise, we really have a disjunctive definition in disguise. After 
> all, Martin’s meggle people all share the property of being people. It 
> is not immediately obvious, however, that these five phenomena share 
> some property to the exclusion of all others.
> But I am puzzled by Martin’s asking whether there is evidence for such 
> an abstract property. It’s not clear what it would mean for there to 
> be evidence for such a property. One needs to give an argument, 
> perhaps, but surely not evidence.
> Matthew
> From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org 
> <mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org>> on behalf of 
> Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de <mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>>
> Date: Wednesday, November 15, 2017 at 7:53 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
> 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
> [bondedness].
> 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
> comparison.)
> Best,
> Martin
> 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 <mailto: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
>     <mailto: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 <mailto: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 <mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>)
> Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
> Kahlaische Strasse 10
> D-07745 Jena
> &
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Prof. Volker Gast
English and American Studies
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D-07743 Jena

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