[Lingtyp] Resources on glossing choices

Daniel Ross djross3 at gmail.com
Tue Dec 31 16:20:24 UTC 2019

Dear Kate,

I'm glad you're asking about this, because this is an important factor in
the readability of grammars. As a frequent reader of grammars, I often find
myself needing to "decode" glosses (or worse, of course, unglossed forms).
>From my perspective, the most important consideration is identifiability:
if I am quoting an example from a grammar, I want to be able to identify
each part, including multi-functionality of morphemes. That allows me to
compare them to similar forms in other languages (including comparing
multi-functionality of similar morphemes) and also, if needed, adapt the

There are two obstacles that I often encounter in that task:
1. Obscure or idiosyncratic morpheme/category labels that make me uncertain
about identifying a form.
2. Inconsistent glossing such that the (potentially) same morpheme is
glossed differently and I'm unsure about drawing a connection.

I would think that problem #2 is more significant, although both of these
can be solved by having a clear explanation somewhere in the grammar: for
example, use a single abbreviation for the form (that's somewhat
arbitrary), then have a list of abbreviations at the beginning, with a
label clearly corresponding to some section in the table of contents. From
my perspective, if it's hard to understand a gloss to begin with, it's
probably then necessary to read some background (e.g., how tense marking
works in the language) to be confident in interpreting and quoting the

Another consideration is that I often skim grammars, if they are available
as PDFs, by searching for the morpheme form and/or the gloss. If the gloss
changes in context that would be confusing, but similarly if there is a lot
of allomorphy then searching by form might not be possible either.

Regardless, the most important point is as you stated to be consistent*,
and if anything is not transparent to explain it clearly. That should be
sufficient. Explicit comments on uncertain cases of multi-functionality vs.
homophony are also useful.

If the glossing is complex enough (and for some languages it must be), then
you could include an explicit section in your introduction: I rarely see
this, but would appreciate it. Sometimes I do see footnotes when
potentially confusing glosses are presented, but those can be hard to
locate (or even know to look for) when reading elsewhere in the grammar.

[*By "consistent" here I mean using a principled methodology, not
necessarily having one-to-one pairings of morphemes to labels, although if
possible that seems helpful too.]


On Tue, Dec 31, 2019 at 7:35 AM Christian Lehmann <
christian.lehmann at uni-erfurt.de> wrote:

> Dear Kate,
> the best system of glossing that I know of is on my website (:-)):
> https://www.christianlehmann.eu/ling/ling_meth/ling_description/grammaticography/gloss/index.php
> which expands on an earlier publication referenced there.
> As for your particular problem, I agree with you that the main concern
> is consistency. Assume you can distinguish between homonymy and
> polysemy, then even enumerating all the polysemous senses of a
> morph(eme) may be much to cumbersome for the gloss to be helpful. In
> such a case, my recommendation would be to treat the set of functions of
> each morpheme in the respective chapter of your grammar, relieving thus
> the interlinear gloss of this task, and adding a note that your glosses
> are, in this respect, context-dependent. To be sure, this is against a
> more general principle of consistent glossing. However, interlinear
> glosses serve a practical, not a theoretical function.
> Best,
> Christian
> --
> Prof. em. Dr. Christian Lehmann
> Rudolfstr. 4
> D - 99092 Erfurt
> Tel.:   +49/361/2113417
> Fax:    +49/361/2113418
> E-Post: christianw_lehmann at arcor.de
> https://www.christianlehmann.eu
> _______________________________________________
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