[Lingtyp] How do typologists use examples in grammars?

Martin Haspelmath martin_haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Fri Jun 4 18:47:07 UTC 2021

I would like to endorse Sebastian's proposal:

"provide a "vanilla" example to illustrate and discuss the phenomenon, 
and, after the discussion, a set of some less tidy examples which show 
the phenomenon in actual use"

This is what we do in morpholgical paradigms, too – even though 
inflected forms normally occur in natural discourse contexts, grammars 
usually provide paradigms of isolated forms, for the sake of transparency.

Syntax is no different from morphology: It is organized in paradigms, 
which are much more transparent for readers if they are presented in an 
isolated way. Showing the phenomenon in actual use is nice, but it isn't 
crucial for understanding. One would ideally direct the reader to a 
range of corpus examples for each grammatical point, and including one 
or two of them in the text of the grammar cannot hurt. But I find the 
"isolated examples" more important for understanding, and it is a pity 
that they are often missing in more recent grammars (maybe because some 
people think that they cannot be trusted – but why not?).


Am 03.06.21 um 12:11 schrieb Sebastian Nordhoff:
> On 6/1/21 10:10 PM, Doris Payne wrote:
>> I complete agree with Juergen. If the point of some grammar is to
>> illustrate forms, examples with one or a few words may work. But if the
>> point of a grammar is to illustrate function, multiple senses, and how
>> morphosyntax is used, context is nearly always essential.
> There is a paper from Jeff Good from 2004 which makes the distinction
> between "examples" and "exemplars"
> (http://emeld.org/workshop/2004/jcgood-paper-print)
> =========================
> I use the term exemplar here to refer to language data used in grammars
> to exemplify the phenomena under discussion. An exemplar is understood
> to be different from an example of some grammatical phenomenon in that
> it is specifically chosen by the author of a grammar to assist in
> descriptions of that phenomenon. It can generally be assumed that the
> particular examples chosen to serve as exemplars more clearly illustrate
> the phenomenon under discussion than many of the other examples would.
> ======================
> So, we have the "phenomenon under discussion", for which a suitable
> exemplar must be chosen. Depending on the phenomenon, more or less
> context will be required, but in general, for pedagogical purposes,
> distracting material should be avoided in my view.
> I am personally fond of the following setup: a "vanilla" example to
> illustrate and discuss the phenomenon, and, after the discussion, a set
> of some less tidy examples which show the phenomenon in actual use.
> Best
> Sebastian
>> Additionally, I understand that Eline Visser’s original question was
>> about how typologists use grammars. But there are many additional
>> audiences or uses for different kinds of grammars, including to leave a
>> good record of (some part of) a language. For this purpose especially,
>> context is essential because otherwise – as Juergen says – all we have
>> is some linguist’s claims from whatever biases that linguist might have
>> operated. A case in point is Maasai (Eastern Nilotic), which Tucker &
>> Mpaayei’s (1955) – and excellent – grammar presented as a “tense”
>> language, with largely one-word or simple sentence examples. But a
>> discourse/use perspective shows that the morphemes they referred to as
>> “tense” items do clause combining, aspect, modal, and “mental space
>> creation” jobs; and that even Tucker & Mpaayei’s so-called “present”
>> tense form often is used in past and perfective situations.
>>    * Doris Payne
>> *From:* Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> *On Behalf
>> Of *Nick Thieberger
>> *Sent:* Tuesday, June 1, 2021 12:45 PM
>> *Cc:* lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org; Eline Visser <eelienu at pm.me>
>> *Subject:* Re: [Lingtyp] How do typologists use examples in grammars?
>> An important additional matter related to examples is that they cite
>> their source and status. Ideally this is a reference to the media in
>> which they were recorded, located in a language archive. Their status
>> could include what kind of discourse they occur in, who the speaker was
>> (anonymised if necessary) and if the example was elicited or came from
>> narratives, experimental stimuli and so on.
>> And any subsequent use of that example should retain the links back to
>> the primary records to avoid the notorious second and third life of
>> example sentences to illustrate a particular grammatical point.
>> See a more detailed discussion here:
>> Andrea L. Berez-Kroeker, Lauren Gawne, Susan Smythe Kung, Barbara F.
>> Kelly, Tyler Heston, Gary Holton, Peter Pulsifer, David I. Beaver,
>> Shobhana Chelliah, Stanley Dubinsky, Richard P. Meier, Nick Thieberger,
>> Keren Rice and Anthony C. Woodbury. 2018. Reproducible research in
>> linguistics: A position statement on data citation and attribution in
>> our field. Linguistics. Volume 56 Issue 1.
>> https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/ling-2017-0032/html
>> <https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/ling-2017-0032/html__;!!C5qS4YX3!XlYlqEpIs9wPzyuBcIuEXBUNWiah1Vi-6JeRSkgxQRwAaq1kbpP4Q3lIgygrMZ_QsQ$>
>> Nick
>> ***********************
>> Assoc.Prof. Nick Thieberger
>> School of Languages and Linguistics
>> The University of Melbourne
>> Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia
>> +61 3 8344 8952
>> http://
>> <https://urldefense.com/v3/__http:/languages-linguistics.unimelb.edu.au/thieberger__;!!C5qS4YX3!XlYlqEpIs9wPzyuBcIuEXBUNWiah1Vi-6JeRSkgxQRwAaq1kbpP4Q3lIgygBjeGeAw$>_nthieberger.net
>> <https://urldefense.com/v3/__http:/nthieberger.net__;!!C5qS4YX3!XlYlqEpIs9wPzyuBcIuEXBUNWiah1Vi-6JeRSkgxQRwAaq1kbpP4Q3lIgyirTbLH5A$>_
>> Social and Cultural Informatics Platform (SCIP)
>> <https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/scip.unimelb.edu.au/__;!!C5qS4YX3!XlYlqEpIs9wPzyuBcIuEXBUNWiah1Vi-6JeRSkgxQRwAaq1kbpP4Q3lIgyjc2Q38kg$>Manager
>> Director, Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered
>> Cultures (PARADISEC)
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>> CI in the  ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language
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>> image.png
>> On Wed, 2 Jun 2021 at 05:13, Juergen Bohnemeyer <jb77 at buffalo.edu
>> <mailto:jb77 at buffalo.edu>> wrote:
>>      Dear Florian and Eline — I don’t disagree with brevity as a default
>>      principle, but I want to point out a very important exception to this:
>>      When an example is supposed to illustrate a semantic or pragmatic
>>      property/phenomenon, it is often crucial that the context in which
>>      the utterance was observed is made explicit. If that does not
>>      happen, the author’s translation becomes the only representation of
>>      the semantic/pragmatic property in question, which renders the
>>      example essentially useless. I’m pointing this out because I still
>>      see it happen far too often.
>>      Let me illustrate, beginning with an example of the practice I’m
>>      criticizing:
>>      (1) Ts’o’k in=mèet-ik                        le=nah=o’
>>          TERM A1SG=do:APP-INC(B3SG) DEF=house=D2
>>          ‘I (will) have/had built the house’
>>      Suppose you want to use (1) to show that this Yucatec utterance is
>>      tenseless, i.e., can be used with reference/topic times in the
>>      present, past, or future of utterance time. As it is, (1)
>>      illustrates this solely through the translation. But the translation
>>      wasn’t observed - it’s my interpretation, and I’m not an L1 speaker
>>      of the language! My translation is not admissible as evidence of the
>>      competence and practices of Yucatec speakers.
>>      So what to do? Well, if I want to be able to claim that (1) can be
>>      used with reference/topic times in the present, past, or future of
>>      utterance time, then I had first of all better observed it in all of
>>      these kinds of contexts. And of course, I have - in elicitation.
>>      Now, one way to make the context explicit is by paraphrasing it:
>>      (2) [Context for future topic time: Jorge will soon return to his
>>      country. He knows
>>      that Pedro wants to build a house. But he doesn’t know whether he
>>      will be able to
>>      do it. He sees Pedro in the street and asks him. Pedro responds:
>>      ‘When you return
>>      next year, ...]
>>       Ts’o’k in=mèet-ik                        le=nah=o’
>>       TERM A1SG=do:APP-INC(B3SG) DEF=house=D2
>>       ‘I will have built the house’
>>      (3) [Context for past topic time: Jorge had learned that Pedro had
>>      built a house. He
>>      asked him whether the house was new. Pedro responded: ‘When you came
>>      here
>>      two years ago, ...]
>>       Ts’o’k in=mèet-ik                        le=nah=o’
>>       TERM A1SG=do:APP-INC(B3SG) DEF=house=D2
>>       ‘I had built the house’
>>      (4) [Context for present topic time: Jorge has just arrived in the
>>      village of Yaxley. He
>>      has been away for two years. He knew that Pedro wanted to build a
>>      house, but he
>>      didn’t know whether he was able to do it. He sees Pedro in the
>>      street and asks
>>      him. Pedro responds:]
>>       Ts’o’k in=mèet-ik                        le=nah=o’
>>       TERM A1SG=do:APP-INC(B3SG) DEF=house=D2
>>       ‘I have built the house’
>>      This example is a bit elaborate, and often, the example you want to
>>      cite come from recorded texts or spontaneous observation, so there’s
>>      only one context per sentence - obviously, observing a single
>>      sentence or phrase across a variety of contexts is something that
>>      usually only happens in elicitation.
>>      The second method of making the context explicit is of course to
>>      reproduce the context itself in the target language. However, to the
>>      extent that information about the nonverbal = situational context
>>      matters for the interpretation of an example, a metalanguage
>>      description is usually the only option.
>>      To reiterate: I’m not suggesting that we always include the context
>>      in our examples. I am, however, suggesting that we always do so when
>>      we are attempting to illustrate a semantic or pragmatic property
>>      that requires information about the context to as evidence that the
>>      utterance in question indeed had the purported meaning.
>>      This has become standard practice in the semantic literature on
>>      lesser studied languages, but it still needs to be adopted more
>>      among linguists more broadly.
>>      Best — Juergen
>>      > On Jun 1, 2021, at 2:35 PM, Florian Matter
>>      <florian.matter at isw.unibe.ch <mailto:florian.matter at isw.unibe.ch>>
>>      wrote:
>>      >
>>      > 1. for the purpose of illustrating a particular phenomenon:
>>      shorter is better, since the relevant part(s) will form a bigger
>>      part of the presented material.
>>      > 2. -
>>      > 3. -
>>      > 4. brevity, as unproblematic glossing as possible
>>      > 5. clearly 5/5 — if they exist!
>>      >
>>      > Best,
>>      > Florian
>>      >
>>      >
>>      > On 1 June 2021 at 19:30:35, Eline Visser (eelienu at pm.me
>>      <mailto:eelienu at pm.me>) wrote:
>>      >
>>      >> Dear typologists,
>>      >>
>>      >> I’d like to learn more about how you use the examples given in
>>      grammars. I have just finished a grammar myself, and will continue
>>      to do descriptive work in the future, and this is a topic that
>>      fascinates me. I'm especially interested in knowing if one can
>>      discern the traits of a good example (for typological use). I’d be
>>      glad if some of you could take the time to answer the questions
>>      below, either briefly or elaborately. You can email me the answers.
>>      Also, if there’s is anything published on this topic please do let
>>      me know.
>>      >>
>>      >> 1. In general, do you prefer short (let’s say <1 line) or longer
>>      (> 1 line) examples? Elaborate if you wish.
>>      >>
>>      >> 2. In general, do you have a preference for examples from a
>>      certain genre? Which? You can interpret genre broadly or narrowly,
>>      in which ever way you like: monologue, dialogue, anecdotes, recipes,
>>      hymns, picture-matching tasks…
>>      >>
>>      >> 3. In general, do you have a dispreference for examples of a
>>      certain genre?
>>      >>
>>      >> 4. Say you have two examples that illustrate your point equally
>>      well. What could be a deciding factor for choosing one over another?
>>      >>
>>      >> 5. Say you can’t find an example that illustrates your point
>>      well. On a scale from 1-5, how likely is it that you will go to the
>>      language’s corpus or the attached texts in the grammar to find one
>>      yourself? (1= very unlikely, 5 = very likely)
>>      >>
>>      >> 6. Anything else you’d like to share about examples in grammars?
>>      Feel free to rant.
>>      >>
>>      >> Eline
>>      >>
>>      >> P.s. For those who ordered a Kalamang grammar hard copy - they’re
>>      in Sweden, I’m in Norway, traveling isn’t as easy as I thought yet,
>>      so this takes a bit longer than I thought, sorry!
>>      >>
>>      >>
>>      >>
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Martin Haspelmath
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
D-04103 Leipzig

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