[Lingtyp] terminology

Daniel Ross djross3 at gmail.com
Thu Jul 26 04:46:44 UTC 2018

Thank you for bringing the topic up for discussion, Martin.

I think this is a very important but complex issue, and I'm not quite sure
how I feel about it, even though I also have some strong feelings. I spend
my days going through grammars and trying to decide if languages "have"
some feature. Of course I can simply look at the data myself and use a
comparative concept to do that, but it is glaringly obvious how much
terminology differs from author to author-- whether it is slightly (or
very) different usage of the same term(s), or referring to similar
phenomena with different terms. So it is a personal frustration just how
little consistency there is in the field.

I'm unsure about prescribing any standard usage though, partly because I
wouldn't want to hinder others from describing things clearly or in novel
ways, and most importantly because it doesn't seem like we generally agree
about much of anything at all, so I'm not sure who'd be put in charge of
naming things, and much less who would follow those conventions. It sounds
like a great idea that wouldn't work well.

If there is a way to organize a workshop to discuss these topics, I think
that could be helpful, but I think it would be important to attempt to
reach some sort of consensus rather than just sharing very different
views-- without the right design for the workshop, I imagine it would just
become the latter. And until there is some way to imagine what that
consensus could be (including how to agree to disagree), I'm not sure
whether the workshop could still be productive.

The only thing I am sure about is that everyone should be very clear about
the definitions they are using when they use them. Either cite another
work, or propose your own definition, but make it explicit. Even that very
basic step is often lacking (admittedly partly because we are often
referring to older sources for comparative work).

Just to supply this conversation with a particular example for discussion,
here is a paragraph from a draft paper of mine about Associated Motion (AM)
and Directional (DIR) morphology on the verb:

"Descriptive linguistics has recognized motion-related morphemes for a long
time, albeit through the lenses of a wide array of often confusing and even
contradictory terminology that may, in part, explain why a broad
cross-linguistic typology has not yet been established. Browsing through
descriptive grammars and other publications, the range of terminology used
by different linguists to describe AM would be impressive if it were not
for the inconsistency and missed opportunity for insights from comparative
work. Trends mostly fall into regional traditions but may be inconsistent
even there. Most problematically, terminology for AM and DIR is rarely
distinguished, the same terms often being used for both, or one term
ambiguously used to describe a particular instance in a language that might
be either. In some cases, AM morphemes have been thrown into the grab bag
of *aspect* (e.g., Talmy 1985) or other existing categories, but much of
the time terms that might more appropriately be used for DIR, including
*directionals*, have been used for AM. In Africa, the terms *itive*/
*andative* (‘going’ from Latin roots) and *ventive*/*venitive* (‘coming’)
have gained some traditional status (Bourdin 2005), alongside *centrifugal*
(‘outward’) and *centripetal* (‘inward’) especially for Chadic languages
(Frajzyngier 1987). In North America, the terms *translocative* (‘away’)
and *cislocative* (‘toward’) are in relatively common usage (Mithun 1999).
These pairs all have the same significance, just representing different
descriptive traditions. Indeed, directionally-oriented verb markers often
come in pairs contrasting away vs. toward, with that contrast often
emphasized over their shared function of marking AM and/or DIR. Elsewhere
the terms from one of those descriptive traditions may be adopted by
individual researchers, as well as idiosyncratic terms."
Notice that these terms are often used without a clear definition, as shown
by the fact that they often are not specified as to describing AM or DIR or
both, so even setting aside the terminological variation, as a reader of
the descriptions I'm sometimes left without enough information to
understand what is going on empirically.
(Note: AM adds a motion (sub)event to a non-motion verb, e.g., "*go and*
do", whereas DIR specifies the path of a lexical motion verb, e.g. "run

The important point is that these terms have the same (sometimes vague)
range of interpretations, so there is no empirical or definitional issue
regarding their usage. (In some specific instances there may be a narrower
usage where some might consider one term better than another, but not
across the full range of usage for any of them.) So this is a relatively
extreme but also easy-to-solve example, if of course we could all agree on
a single set of terms.

Philosophically, I have to say that it is somewhat disturbing just how
little we are confident and consistent about in linguistic description (not
to mention explanation). If we want to be taken seriously as a science,
then I think this is as important an area as any for us to work on. Imagine
if, for example, physics, were as terminologically inconsistent as
linguistics. Recent discussions on this list, for example have shown that
typologists approach languages with wildly different assumptions (and
sometimes different goals), and that is partly why there is so much
variation in terminology. But I hope that, one way or another, some of this
gets sorted out in the future. There are also some theoretical issues that
necessarily get bundled up with some of these terminological issues, so one
suggestion I would have for investigation on the topic would be to
determine the range of topics that are NOT (especially) controversial and
might work as a common ground for building terminology and other standards
in the field. What topics, if any, do 90% of typologists or linguists in
general agree about (and why)? I'd genuinely be fascinated to read the
results of that study. If there is no consensus (or cannot be) then what
does that say about the field?


On Wed, Jul 25, 2018 at 4:57 PM, Mark Post <mark.post at sydney.edu.au> wrote:

> Surely the most difficult issue regarding standardization of terminology
> in linguistics is not standardization of terminology per se, but rather
> agreement on the nature of the denotata? In case any committees or
> workshops are interested in adjudicating the boundaries of denotata - in
> which case, best of luck! - I see little point in attempting to adjudicate
> among terms.
> [Note that this is distinct from List's point regarding the descriptive or
> explanatory content of any given term.]
> Mark
> ------ Original Message ------
> From: "Gontzal Aldai" <gontzal.aldai at gmail.com>
> To: "Martin Haspelmath" <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>
> Cc: "LINGTYP at listserv.linguistlist.org" <LINGTYP at listserv.linguistlist.org
> >
> Sent: 25/07/2018 9:25:06 PM
> Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] terminology
> I do think it could be a good idea to try and create a committee (say,
> within the ALT or the typological community) which would make proposals or
> "suggestions" on terminology.
> G.
> 2018-07-25 12:59 GMT+02:00 Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>:
>> 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
>> bodies.
>> 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
>> https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/zfsw.2017.36.issue-2/zfs-20
>> 17-0009/zfs-2017-0009.xml
>> <https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/xBISCjZrzqHpEmL2S7A4u1?domain=degruyter.com>
>> ).
>> 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
>> <https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/aUO9C0YZWVF6vBOKiDcnWe?domain=dlc.hypotheses.org>
>> ).
>> Martin
>> --
>> 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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> --
> ******************************************************
> Dr. Gontzal Aldai
> Associate Professor
> Department of Linguistics and Basque Studies
> University of the Basque Country
> Paseo de la Universidad, 5
> 01006 Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, Spain
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