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

Edith A Moravcsik edith at uwm.edu
Sat Mar 23 01:15:17 UTC 2019

Martin is right: an observation about what is found in one language does not amount to a generalization: it is just an existential statement.

What is interesting, however, is that such a statement still manages to say something about language in general. It does not say that all languages HAVE a particular characteristic and not even that all languages are LIKELY TO HAVE a particular characteristic; but it does imply – as Martin said - that it is POSSIBLE that the observed characteristic occurs in other languages as well. If it is true that Lithuanian has ideophones, this means that having ideophones is compatible with “languagehood”: there is nothing about the general concept of language that excludes the existence of ideophones.

We use this kind of illogical but intuitively reasonable argument in everyday life: if it has happened once, it is possible that it will happen again. If I am mistreated in a store, I may be reluctant to return to that store thinking that I might encounter the same problem. Another example is that of the shoe bomber. Before that infamous individual decided to carry a bomb aboard on a plane in his shoes, this situation may have appeared to be beyond the realm of what a human mind might come up with; but ever since this happened once, air travelers in the US have been asked to take off their shoes at airport security points for checking.

While statements about ONE language having a particular property opens up the possibility that other languages might also have it, when SEVERAL  languages have been observed to have that property, we are progressing from possibility to probability. This is pointed out in Mark Dingemanse’s message and is illustrated by his examples.

All in all, an observation about a single language does not provide certainty about other languages have the same property and it does not even provide a probability; but it implies the possibility that we find the same in other languages. Whether this possibility does or does not become reality will depend on the specifics of particular languages.

Edith Moravcsik

From: Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>
Sent: Friday, March 22, 2019 7:18 AM
To: Edith A Moravcsik <edith at uwm.edu>; lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] A "Swadesh List" of Ideophone semantic categories

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 generalization?

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<mailto: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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