[Lingtyp] homeostatic property clusters

Erich Round erichslists at gmail.com
Sun Feb 7 04:09:27 UTC 2021

Hi Bill,

Excellent point.  I wouldn’t want to imply that the issues I discussed presuppose or require a structuralist approach to analysis.  My mistake to imply otherwise.  Where I wrote “structuralist” you could read “structural/ functional/ categorical-in-general”.  Where I write “system” I don’t mean to restrict it to a structuralist notion, but rather a “complex system” (of the kind that leads naturally to thinking in terms of complex systems dynamics, including universals that might constrain it).  Thanks for picking me up on it.

A case in point is Adam’s original topic, tone and stress. The question here is often, does prosodic event P group together – functionally – with other instances of: prominence lending, constituent demarcation, rhythm, contrast, signalling of information structure, or of paralinguistic or sociolinguist information.*  There may be multiple, well-motivated answers.  Owing to all the challenges and complexities of language description, a linguist might choose just one (or a few); another linguists might choose a different one.  Sociological factors might guide our choices.  So, I suspect that non-uniqueness remains an issue, and the same care is needed when typologising.  Coming back to prosodic event P, of course we can answer that it has many of these functions, and then (looking at it from my angle) we’re doing a kind multivariate analysis, language internally.

Bickel (2010) explicitly states that variables in multivariate analysis can be structural or functional.
Round & Corbett (2020) discuss language-internal multivariate analysis.


Bickel, Balthasar. 2010. “Capturing Particulars and Universals in Clause Linkage.” In Clause Linking and Clause Hierarchy: Syntax and Pragmatics, edited by Isabelle Bril, 51–101. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of William Croft <wcroft at unm.edu>
Date: Sunday, 7 February 2021 at 5:39 am
To: "lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org" <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] homeostatic property clusters

Dear all,

   I basically agree with Martin's comments in this thread, but I'd like to elaborate on one of them, perhaps in a direction that he would not want to take.

   Martin commented yesterday about Round (2019) wanting to 'have it both ways: "carve languages at their joints", but in a way that still allows comparison, by "choosing judiciously" among different (equally possible) analyses'; and Erich agreed that that is what he wanted to do.

   I agree with Martin's concern that this will lead to subjectivity in cross-linguistic comparison. But that is not the point I want to make here. The discussion here appears to assume that the model of individual language description should be essentially structuralist, as implied by terms such as "building blocks" (Martin), "carve languages at their joints" (Martin and Erich), and a language as a single "system" (Martin and Erich). And it is assumed that comparative concepts are, or should be, of the same type as concepts for language description. It seems to me that the responses to Martin's papers on comparative concepts in the past decade react most strongly to his rejection of the latter assumption.

   But many of us do not accept the first assumption. There is a now pretty long tradition of functionalist, usage-based, construction-based linguistics (continuously since the 1970s, though there are certainly a number of earlier antecedents). Many typologists consider themselves "functional-typological linguists". Such linguists, in some sense, don't want to have it both ways. But we would change the structuralist model of individual language grammars, not the typological model of comparative concepts.

   That actually raises the question of the status of the second assumption. Martin rejects it because he argues that "descriptive categories" are building blocks that are inferred from distributional analysis, that is, occurrence in language-specific constructions (for morphosyntax); and comparative concepts can't be based on something that is defined in a language-specific fashion in this way.

    I agree with that critique (see Croft 2001). But if we take a functionalist, usage-based, constructional approach to language description, then I think that "descriptive categories" will be rather different from what Martin refers to, and will turn out to have more in common with comparative concepts. After all, meanings and discourse functions are part of language-specific description; a usage-based view of constructions and the roles they define would not posit abstract language-specific categories but a conceptual space of uses that are comparable across languages; and the universals found in typological research both define and constrain relations between language-specific constructions, including their variation and evolution (see Croft 2001, 2013). And I think that a lot of language description does much of this in practice, even if the authors aren't particularly concerned about these theoretical issues.

    (I think I am here largely agreeing with Nikolaus Himmelmann's paper in review that was cited by Erich.)


Croft, William. 2001. Radical Construction Grammar: syntactic theory in typological perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Croft, William. 2013. Radical Construction Grammar. The Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar, ed. Graeme Trousdale and Thomas Hoffmann, 211-32. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Martin Haspelmath <martin_haspelmath at eva.mpg.de>
Sent: Saturday, February 6, 2021 7:31 AM
To: lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: [Lingtyp] homeostatic property clusters

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):
"According to 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 “The utility 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<https://doi.org/10.1515/lingty-2020-2061>)


Martin Haspelmath

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Deutscher Platz 6

D-04103 Leipzig

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