[Lingtyp] A list of 50 basic sentences

Martin Haspelmath martin_haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Sun May 9 08:36:26 UTC 2021

This is a great project – I have long thought that somone should come up 
with a standard list of "comparative sentence meanings" of this sort, 
analogous to the "comparative word meanings" as found in Swadesh-type 
lists (the Concepticon brings together 353 lists of this kind: 

Parallel-word studies have enormously profited from standard word 
meaning lists, and likewise, parallel-text studies will profit from 
standard sentence meanings in many languages.

We already have quite a few parallel texts, but they are typically 
unglossed – so if linguists started to collect such "mini parallel 
sentence sets" (also from smaller languages), this would be very useful, 
I think.

Of course, there are many individual ways in which Ian Joo's list could 
be improved, and there are also many larger issues (of the sort 
mentioned by Sandra). But maybe we should think of these as limitations 
that are inherent in the method, not as problems that make the method 
unsuitable. So I think it would be nice if a project like this got off 
the ground. (It was actually suggested to me by Michael Cysouw over 15 
years ago, and I have kept thinking about something of this sort on and 


Am 09.05.21 um 09:25 schrieb Sandra Auderset:
> Hi Ian,
> Following up on Hartmut, Yunfan and others, I have some questions:
>   * What do you do with variation? I’m not familiar with the languages
>     you work on, but ’Tense Future’ in German could be translated as
>     “Ich werde morgen gehen” or “Ich gehe morgen”. The latter would be
>     more frequent in spoken language, but you might get the former
>     because of translation bias. Would you include both? You say that
>     your method accounts for the choice of the speaker, but again I
>     wonder if this isn’t just translation bias.
>   * You say that this method has the advantage of including more
>     frequently observed features. I wonder how you know whether that’s
>     the case or not? Do you mean in spoken or written language? As
>     Yunfan pointed out, with 50 sentences you might easily miss some
>     common features.
>   * How do you standardize the glosses? For example, how do you decide
>     whether something should be glossed as ‘be’ or copula? That seems
>     important to me, since glossing is very subjective and you might
>     inadvertendly bias the whole calculation. Especially since you
>     already wrote up the conclusion.
>   * Lastly, I find it odd that Example 2) is calculated as having
>     distance 1. To me, there are two differences: presence/absence of
>     nominative and the presence/absence of a copula. How do you
>     determine that the copula is in the same slot as the nominative
>     for calculation?
> Best,
> Sandra
>> *Sandra Auderset <https://sauderset.github.io/>*
> PhD Candidate | [she/her]
> Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
> MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology
> &
> Department of Linguistics
> University of California Santa Barbara
>     On Saturday, May 08, 2021 at 19:16, Hartmut Haberland
>     <hartmut at ruc.dk <mailto:hartmut at ruc.dk>> wrote:
>     Dear Ian,
>     I have a few comments.
>     I was wondering about
>     Genitive
>     Alienable
>     Genitive
>     Inalienable
>     Is it a good idea to use ‘genitive’? Would ‘possessive’ not be better?
>     Also I wonder about languages like Finnish which express contrast
>     between definiteness and indefiniteness by word order:
>     Auto on kadulla. ‘_The car_ is in the street.’
>     Kadulla on auto. ‘There is _a car_ in the street.’ (-ulla is
>     inessive case.)
>     Also think of Italian
>     La macchina è rotta.
>     È rotta la machina.
>     both ‘The car is broken’, but are answers to different questions
>     (Where is your car?, Why are you late?, resp.); same (SV vs. VS)
>     in Greek. How would you get these results?
>     Best, Hartmut
>     *Fra:*Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> *På
>     vegne af *JOO, Ian [Student]
>     *Sendt:* 8. maj 2021 15:08
>     *Til:* LINGTYP <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
>     *Emne:* [Lingtyp] A list of 50 basic sentences
>     Dear all,
>     I am trying to make a list of 50 basic sentential meanings.
>     The goal is to make parallel corpora of different languages based
>     on this list of sentences.
>     Each sentence on the list serves to check whether a language has a
>     given grammatical feature, and if so, in what form the language
>     expresses it.
>     When creating each sentence, I tried to limit its vocabulary to
>     basic words that are found in most languages, avoiding
>     culture-specific words.
>     I would appreciate it if you could have a look at the attached
>     file and advise what I should add/remove/modify.
>     From Hong Kong,
>     Ian
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Martin Haspelmath
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
D-04103 Leipzig

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