[Lingtyp] terminology

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Wed Jul 25 10:59:08 UTC 2018

On 25.07.18 11:51, David Gil wrote:
> But it's the nature of the scientific enterprise that one person's 
> hair-splitting is another person's crucial distinction. Ultimately, 
> nobody's trying (or at least should be trying) to impose their 
> terminology on anybody else; rather, what we should be doing is using 
> reasoned argumentation to convince other people that one's proposed 
> terminology is better, and to lead by example. 

Well, I guess one could find me guilty of "trying to impose my 
terminology" when I suggested that one should talk about agent/source 
coexpression (rather than "polysemy").

Unlike other fields, linguists have no tradition of codifying agreed 
terminology, so there is no way in which a committee could impose a term 
on anyone. And David's parenthetical remark ("no one should be trying") 
suggests that linguists would not be happy to have such authoritative 

But then how do we improve the terminological situation? I mean cases 
where we all agree that there are conceptual distinctions that are worth 
making, but we don't have a way of agreeing on a term?

How do we "work harder" to address Mattis's desideratum:?

On 22.07.18, Mattis List wrote:
> We should all work harder in establishing a purely descriptive 
> terminology in our field. Explanatory terminology should be restricted 
> to the situations where we really know what happened. 

There have never even been conference workshops or plenary talks about 
linguistic terminology, as far as I know. We seem to think that the 
terminology will somehow sort itself out once we gain more knowledge.

And when someone makes a proposal for a new term, people sometimes start 
objecting without proposing better solutions (I realize that 
"coexpression" does not immediately please everyone, but I have not 
heard an alternative suggestion).

There seems to be a general reluctance to accept new terms, maybe simply 
because new words often sound strange when one first encounters them. I 
recently published a paper about "adpossessive constructions" 
(specifically about alienability contrasts, in open access, see 

I first submitted the paper to "Glossa", where one reviewer objected to 
the neologism "adpossessive" (short for "adnominal possessive"), as well 
as other neologisms found in the paper. There were no substantive 
objections – s/he simply didn't see the need for these new terms. I 
refused to address this "reviewer's concern" because I find it important 
to enrich our terminology, and in the end the paper was rejected by 
"Glossa" because of my stubbornness.

So I think it's really nice that LINGTYP is engaging in this kind of 
discussion of terminology, and maybe ALT might consider organizing a 
workshop or discussion of this topic at some point. After all, most ALT 
members are not committed to finding universal categories, so one could 
try to have some kind of standard set of terms even before solving all 
our problems (somewhat like the IPA, which is a standard set of symbols 
that we agree on even though we have not solved all issues in phonology, 
see https://dlc.hypotheses.org/1000).


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

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