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

Bernhard Wälchli bernhard at ling.su.se
Sat Mar 23 13:33:28 UTC 2019

Dear Edith, dear Martin,

>Martin is right

No, Martin is wrong. Martin would be right under the premises
(i) that language-internal variation is always negligible and
(ii) that variable properties across languages are always best captured in terms of discrete and simple (binary) features.
However, these premises are not acceptable (even though typology has a strong bias toward investigating properties where these premises somehow arguably do not do much harm; see, e.g., Wälchli 2009), and they are certainly mistaken for ideophones in Lithuanian. I agree with Martin that it is useful to start with clear definitions. Let us assume we have a suitable definition for ideophones. We will then (depending on how exactly we define ideophones probably) find in Lithuanian that certain texts abound with ideophones while there are many others where there is just nothing nada niente (and that that distribution is not at all random, but has interesting extra-linguistic correlates) and probably that different speakers of Lithuanian have different inventories of ideophones. Some maybe none at all or just very few.

Martin rejects the idea of UG that features are a priori given and argues that pre-established categories do not exist. Fine! But why then retaining the idea that typological features should be discrete (even though this may be convenient when using reference grammars as data source)? It is strange that many typologists who have given up the premises of UG still exclusively or almost exclusively conceive of structural properties as discrete features inherent in languages. There are exceptions such as Koptjevskaja-Tamm (2013) recognizing alternatives: “Discrete classifications, or typologies, operate with a restricted number of types (typically 2 – 6, cf. the chapters in the WALS) and are opposed to continuous typologies, which involve quantitative characterizations of phenomena.” In many instances, discrete classifications are nothing else but tremendous data reduction that make claims about properties in languages entirely non-falsifiable ( “Lithuanian has ideophones” is as true as “Lithuanian has no ideophones” depending on what Lithuanian data you happen to look at and where your threshold is for recognizing the presence of certain properties as a feature, even if everybody agrees about the comparative concept).

It still puzzles me and will probably never stop puzzling me with which self-evidence many typologists – occasionally the same people who favor terms such as “diversity linguistics” – neglect language-internal variability despite works such as Miller & Weinert (1998) and Kortmann (2004). Cross-linguistic diversity is just one kind of variability in language (the one that typologists happen to be most interested in). Languages are not homogeneous (the idea of homogeneity is probably a heritage from the Romantic roots of typology when languages were considered to be organisms). When investigating a property, the null-hypothesis for typology should be: language-internal variability is as relevant as cross-linguistic variability. Ideally, the typologist should then demonstrate that cross-linguistic variation actually matters more than language-internal variation and that that null-hypothesis can be rejected. It is not self-evident for all structural properties that “language” is the most relevant or only variable, certainly not for ideophones. (And that cross-family variability is as relevant as family-internal variability. The omnipresent idea of stratified sampling considered to be good methodology testifies of this. If the property investigated happens to be diachronically stable, fine! But what is the point of stratified sampling if you happen to come across properties that are maximally unstable diachronically?)

An observation about a single language does not provide certainty about that language.

Bernhard Wälchli

Miller, Jim & Weinert, Regina. 1998. Spontaneous Spoken Language. Oxford: Clarendon.
Koptjevskaja-Tamm, Maria. 2013. Typology, theories and methods. In Schierholz, Stefan J. & Wiegand, Herbert Ernst (eds.) Wörterbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft (WSK) Online: Theories and Methods, ed. by B. Kortmann.
Kortmann, Bernd (ed.). 2004. Dialectology Meets Typology (Dialect Grammar from a Cross-Linguistic Perspective). Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Wälchli, Bernhard. 2009. Data reduction typology and the bimodal distribution bias. Linguistic Typology 13.1: 77-94.

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