[Lingtyp] A "Swadesh List" of Ideophone semantic categories

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Fri Mar 22 12:17:37 UTC 2019

Edith Moravcsik makes an intriguing point here:

On 21.03.19 20:14, Edith A Moravcsik wrote:
> Crosslingustic generalizations justifying categories may of course be 
> of different kinds. They may be EXISTENTIAL, such as that “ideophones 
> defined by such-and-such properties occur in SOME languages”. Or they 
> may be UNIVERSAL, such as “ideophones defined by such-and-such 
> properties occur in ALL languages (sampled)”.

Is the first kind of statement ("Some language has ideophones") really a 

In any event, it seems to me that perhaps the most common use of 
(category-like) comparative concepts is in existence statements such as:

– Lithuanian has ideophones
– Niuean has incorporation
– Russian has a serial verb construction (Weiss 2012)
– Proto-Slavic lacked an [f]

These are fairly simple statements about particular languages, and it 
may appear at first glance that they do not involve any typological 
claims. But in fact, saying that "language L has phenomenon P" implies 
that phenomenon P is a comparative concept – a kind of phenomenon that 
other languages might have as well.

This is why I have started proposing definitions for terms that are not 
really needed for universal statements, e.g. "incorporation" (in my 2018 
paper on polysynthesis, DOI: 10.1515/lingty-2018-0011). I don't know of 
a good universal that makes use of this concept, but many people want to 
say things like "my language has/lacks incorporation", and for this to 
make sense, we need a clear definition of the term. So I have come to 
realize that in practice, comparative concepts are even more important 
than I claimed in my 2010 paper (where I said that they were required 
fro cross-linguistic studies).

So while I would not regard existential statements as "generalizations", 
I think we need comparative concepts not only for explicit comparison, 
but also in many statements about particular languages. Having clear 
definitions of well-known terms has thus become even more important in 
my perception.


Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de)
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10	
D-07745 Jena
Leipzig University
Institut fuer Anglistik
IPF 141199
D-04081 Leipzig

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