[Lingtyp] homeostatic property clusters

Martin Haspelmath martin_haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Sat Feb 6 14:31:10 UTC 2021

Erich Round mentions Spike's (2020) paper and suggests that Spike showed 
that one need not distinguish descriptive categories and comparative 
concepts – and here I would like to bring up the notion of "homeostatic 
property concepts" that Dahl (2016) brought into the discussion.

Erich Round wrote:
>   * You’re right I want to “have it both ways”, to treat languages as
>     systems and compare them. This is a familiar red line that has
>     separated your views from other typologists for a while now. I
>     appreciate that you had an argument couched in philosophical terms
>     that seemed to lead to your conclusion. Formulating such arguments
>     is hard and valuable work, but in my view Spike (2020)
>     demonstrates that the argument fails, predominantly because it’s
>     based on premises that turn out to be false. This is fine;
>     typology benefits from such debates: you raised some interesting
>     problems; Spike engaged with them and showed them to be apparent,
>     not real.

Spike's discussion is mostly at an abstract philosophical level that 
many linguists will find hard to understand (see some reactions from me 
here <https://dlc.hypotheses.org/2410> and here 
<https://dlc.hypotheses.org/1963>), but he cites the concrete example of 
Östen Dahl's work on tense-aspect categories. What was innovative about 
is was that it was based on a parallel questionnaire and other parallel 
texts, and Dahl found "gram clusters" such as "perfect grams", 
"imperfective grams", "habitual grams".

According to Dahl (2016: 435), we can see these as similar to Boyd's 
(1999) homeostatic property clusters (HPC):

"Accordingto HPC theory, a natural kind is a group of entities with 
stable similarities, where there may however be no properties shared by 
all and only the members of the group. The only condition is that the 
similarities are stable enough to make better than chance predictions 
and that there are maintained by “homeostatic causal mechanisms”. In the 
case of biological species, these mechanisms are inheritance of shared 
genetic material and environmental pressures."

So this is presented by Spike (2020) as an alternative to the 
tripartition between descriptive (p-)categories, comparative 
(g-)concepts, and innate natural-kind categories.


(i) Dahl and Spike do not really suggest that such "clusters" can serve 
as language-particular descriptive categories (the English Perfect still 
needs to be distinguished from the Spanish Perfect, because they don't 
have exactly the same conditions of use)

(ii) HPC theory does not help us understand how generative grammar 
operates (the main reason I introduced the notion of a "natural-kinds 
programme" was that I wanted to explain why generative linguists are 
doing what they are doing; e.g. here: https://dlc.hypotheses.org/1012)

(iii) Even though the Dahlian tense-aspect clusters are of course 
extremely interesting typological generalizations, we do not understand 
their "homeostatic causal mechanisms" well.

(iv) Clearly, in order to arrive at Dahlian clusters, one needs 
comparative concepts of the token-based type, e.g. questionnaire 
translations, or parallel texts. There is no counterpart to this in 
biological HPCs – the "similarities" are not defined in the same 
(semi-arbitrary) way as in linguistics.

(v) Spike argues that“Theutility of some kind does not require 
clear-cut, exceptionless definitions, but rather a track record of being 
used in successful inferences... Agronomists can tell you what to plant, 
geologists have a good idea of where to look for oil...”

But while agronomists and geologists have had successes which are 
evident from usesful applications, the same can hardly be said about 
theoretical linguistics. So we don't have an independent way of 
assessing how successful or concepts are.

So while Spike (2020) made some interesting contributions (just like 
Round & Corbett 2020, on which see https://dlc.hypotheses.org/2415), 
there's no reason to think that there is a problem with the usual way of 
dealing with uniqueness <https://benjamins.com/catalog/alal.20032.has> – 
but on the other hand, I also wish Erich a lot of success with his 
attempts at having his cookies and eat them too :-) Maybe it will 
eventually turn out that both (or all three) approaches are right, but 
for different domains.



Boyd, Richard. 1999. Homeostasis, species, and higher taxa. In Wilson, 
R. (ed.), /Species: New interdisciplinary essays/. Cambridge MA: MIT Pres.

Dahl, Östen. 2016. Thoughts on language-specific and crosslinguistic 
entities. /Linguistic Typology/ 20(2). 427–437. 
(doi:10.1515/lingty-2016-0016 <https://doi.org/10.1515/lingty-2016-0016>)

Round, Erich R. & Corbett, Greville G. 2020. Comparability and 
measurement in typological science: The bright future for linguistics. 
/Linguistic Typology/. De Gruyter Mouton 24(3). 489–525. 
(doi:10.1515/lingty-2020-2060 <https://doi.org/10.1515/lingty-2020-2060>)

Spike, Matthew. 2020. Fifty shades of grue: Indeterminate categories and 
induction in and out of the language sciences. /Linguistic Typology/. De 
Gruyter Mouton 24(3). 465–488. (doi:10.1515/lingty-2020-2061 

Martin Haspelmath
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
D-04103 Leipzig

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