[Lingtyp] "clitics": recent historical origins

Martin Haspelmath martin_haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Wed Dec 8 14:34:29 UTC 2021

I'm not sure about physics, but for biology, there's a nice recent paper 
in "Linguistic Typology" by biologist Lindell Bromham:

Bromham, Lindell. 2020. Comparability in evolutionary biology: The case 
of Darwin’s barnacles. /Linguistic Typology/ 24(3). 427–463. 
(doi:10.1515/lingty-2020-2056 <https://doi.org/10.1515/lingty-2020-2056>)

Before Darwin, biologists were struggling with concepts for comparison, 
attributing homologies to an obscure "unity of type" or "pure form" 
(this is actually the origin of Goethe's "morphology", which was later 
adopted by linguists; see also this blogpost: 

But when it comes to terms like "wing" (in comparative biology) or 
"money" (in comparative anthropology) (as recently discussed by Nick 
Evans, see https://dlc.hypotheses.org/2421), there may be terminological 
issues in these fields, but biologists (and anthropologists) don't seem 
to confuse their terminological problems with theoretical problems. 
Nobody thinks that "wing" or "money" might be pre-established building 
blocks – very clearly, they are *comparative concepts* specifically 
designed for the purpose of biological/anthropological comparison.

As Adam Tallman noted: If we have specific "views" about the innate 
building blocks of grammar (as in Chomsky 1970), we may well interpret a 
traditional term like "clitic" (coined by Nida 1946) as a kind of innate 
building block – and if we do this, then indeed one may say that our 
definitions are dependent on our findings about innateness. (In other 
words, our terminology is bound up with our theories.)

But if we are non-committal about innateness, then it seems to make more 
sense to regard the meaning of "clitic" as purely a matter of arbitrary 


Am 08.12.21 um 13:05 schrieb Sebastian Nordhoff:
> Dear all,
> two observations:
> - physics by definition deals with things that we can experience 
> first-hand with our senses. This is true for the other experimental 
> sciences as well. Language use on the other hand, has to be inferred 
> via complicated procedures. You can easily get people to agree that 
> the current temperature of a substance is 97.4°C It is more difficult 
> to get people to agree on how many sounds/formatives/morphemes/words 
> there are in a given string.
> - at a workshop at the MPI-EVA about 10 years back on terminology, all 
> present linguists were surprised to hear from a participating 
> biological morphologist (dealing with bones and joints and skeletons 
> and so on) that there is a "linguistic problem in morphology", meaning 
> that one person's "wing" is completely different from another person's 
> "wing". One could have easily replaced the terms in his presentation 
> with our typological concepts and it would still have made sense. So, 
> I do think that linguists tend to overestimate the beauty and neatness 
> of the natural sciences, a case of 
> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physics_envy
> Best wishes
> Sebastian
> On 12/8/21 12:47, David Gil wrote:
>> Dear all,
>> Adam poses the question ...
>> On 08/12/2021 13:10, Adam James Ross Tallman wrote:
>>> /why /we appear to be in so much disagreement about terminological 
>>> issues. It's not as if any linguists are purposely trying to 
>>> obfuscate things - so how did we end up where we are?
>> Adam proposes one answer, which is kind of specific to clitics, and 
>> about which I have nothing to say.  But I think that, in addition, 
>> there is a more general answer to Adam's question.
>> Let's compare linguistics to physics.  Although physics has 
>> foundational questions every bit as far-reaching as those of 
>> linguistics, to the best of my knowledge, physicists don't spend 
>> their time fretting over terminological issues the way us linguists 
>> do.  So why is this the case?  I think there's actually a relatively 
>> straightforward reason why.  Most of the things that physicists deal 
>> with are either so small (sub-atomic particles) or so large (galaxies 
>> etc.) that they have little or no interface with our everyday 
>> experiential universe.  So there's no big reason to care what 
>> physicists choose to call things.  On the other hand, linguistics 
>> deals with stuff that impinges directly on our lives on an everyday 
>> basis.  So calling something a clitic, or a DP, or an antipassive, 
>> seems to be saying something about the language that is an integral 
>> part of our everyday lives.  Of course, as conscientious scientists 
>> we ought to be able to divorce our technical analyses from our 
>> everyday experiences and reflections; but in practice there seems to 
>> be seepage.  And it is this seepage, I would like to suggest, that 
>> may be at least one reason why we seem to care so much more than say 
>> physicists about what we call things.
>> (Of course, the seepage is not just terminological but also 
>> substantive, a prime example of that being the notion of word. We all 
>> deal with the layman's notion of word in our everyday lives, every 
>> time we press the space bar on our keyboards, and then do a word 
>> count of our texts; but then in many cases we uncritically import the 
>> layman's notion of word into our grammatical analyses.)
>> David
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Martin Haspelmath
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
D-04103 Leipzig
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