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

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Mon Mar 25 13:50:03 UTC 2019

On 23.03.19 14:33, Bernhard Wälchli wrote:
> Dear Edith, dear Martin,
> >Martin is right
> No, Martin is wrong.

Edith basically said what I meant (and I agree that the issue of 
variation is orthogonal), but let me briefly explain why I think it's so 
important to note that a statement like "language L has phenomenon P" is 
a comparative statement.

If there were no comparative definition of concepts like "palm tree" or 
"panda" in biology, or "ideophone" or "incorporation" in linguistics, 
then statements like the following would make no sense:

– Europe has palm trees
– India has pandas
– English has ideophones
– Vietnamese has words (not just morphs and clauses)

The second statement should actually be questioned, because while India 
has animals of the /Ailurus/ genus ("red panda"), it has no animals of 
the /Ailuropoda/ genus ("giant panda"). These two genera are unrelated, 
so saying that "both India and China have pandas" makes no sense (like 
saying that Mérida is larger in Venezuela than in Spain).

So if we don't have a general definition of "ideophone" that makes use 
of the same criteria in all languages, then it makes no real sense to 
claim that English has (or lacks) ideophones. And if we don't have a 
definition of "word" that makes use of the same criteria in all 
languages, then what does it mean to claim that Vietnamese has (or 
lacks) words?

All this is orthogonal to Bernhard's (very laudable) preoccupation with 
language-internal variation (India and China also have country-internal 
variation with respect to how many pandas there are in which regions, etc.)


> 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.

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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