On Quechua nouns and adjectives, and on description and comparison (a reply to Floyd)

In his recent post on this blog, Simeon Floyd takes exception with my characterization of his 2011 Linguistic Typology paper as “asking a wrong question”. He emphasizes that the main point of his paper is to clarify what Quechua is like, not how to call the categories, and that in general it is not appropriate to accuse field workers (including field workers of the calibre of Marianne Mithun and Nicholas Evans) of universalism or even ethnocentrism, as I supposedly did in my 2012 paper on major word classes.

I’m glad that this kind of lively discussion is taking place on Diversity Linguistics Comment, as it confirms my hunch that there is a need for review pieces on articles, not just reviews of books. The blog medium seems quite appropriate for such informal discussion of more formal research papers (or overview papers, like my 2012 paper). I hope that more people will engage in similar discussions in the future.

I fully agree with Floyd that data accuracy is the foundation of everything we do, and there can be no serious theoretical and comparative linguistics without the kind of painstaking language-particular study that his 2011 paper on Quechua adjectives exemplifies well. I have great admiration for this kind of work, and I think it’s very important that descriptivists and comparativists learn from each other and respect each other’s approaches (and “if everyone does a bit of both”, as Floyd rightly says in a later comment). It seems to me that the growing interrelationship between the two groups of people has led to enormous progress in linguistics over the last few decades. The very term “diversity linguistics” is intended to capture the kind of symbiosis that we are increasingly seeing.

However, what exactly the relationship between fieldworkers and comparativists should be does not seem to be fully clear in the field. Many people, including fieldworkers, still seem to presuppose that there is an established set of categories with which language describers should work. This would lead to an asymmetric relationship between “theorists/comparativists” and describers: The latter have to work with the categories set up by the former. In contrast, I envisage a more equal relationship between comparativists and descriptivists: Each have their own set of concepts, research goals, and adequacy standards. Only comparativists are strictly dependent on descriptivists (because they rely on their data), while descriptivists can of course be inspired by the work of comparativists.

When I said that Floyd (2011) asked a “wrong question”, I did not mean the question whether adjectives are universal, but the question whether nouns and adjectives are distinct major classes in Quechua. As Floyd himself acknowledges in his comment: “you can call Quechua adjectives ‘a subclass of nouns’ if you must, or you can call them ‘class Z’ if you like, or you can call them ‘wugs’ “– how to call a language-particular category is not an important issue, and whether a category is a subcategory of some other category is not important either. What matters from the descriptive point of view is how the items behave, and what matters for the comparativist is whether they conform to a proposed generalization.

Floyd complains that typologists sometimes “squeeze a language into a pre-determined ‘type’ in support of some argument”, but I would contend that this is the bread and butter of typology. By their very nature, the typologists’ comparative concepts gloss over many subtle differences between languages – we simply cannot compare languages with respect to many different criteria simultaneously, and we have to limit ourselves to a few salient ones. It is undisputed that Quechua property-words behave like Quechua thing-words in that they occur in referential function without additional marking (e.g. hatun-ta rikaa [big-ACC see.1SG] ‘I see a big one’), and also in that they take a copula when occurring in predicative function. This is undisputably different from other languages such as Lezgian, which requires a special substantivizer on the noun (e.g. č’exi ‘big’, č’exi-di ‘big one’). Typologists who choose to focus on this difference between languages cannot be accused of misrepresentation – they just limit themselves to some key property. What Floyd does in his paper is add a lot of very interesting additional information, which typologists could eventually also take into account in some way. But these additional facts do not invalidate the original classification of Quechua.

Floyd notes that current typological work shows “how almost every point of comparison conflates cross-linguistic and language-specific morpho-syntactic criteria to some degree”, but he does not want to dismiss this work. By contrast, I tend to be very critical of typological work that conflates these kinds of criteria. For example, I have argued (Haspelmath 2011) that there is no good cross-linguistic definition of “word” and “affix”, and when people say that this doesn’t matter because there are language-particular criteria in each individual language, I am not satisfied. Different criteria in different languages single out different entities, and these cannot be used for typology.

Now I admit that it may seem like “a bit of a stretch to lump Floyd’s language-specific understanding of ‘adjective’ with Sandy Chung’s efforts to map the property of Chamorro word classes onto Baker’s universal word categories” (as Lev Michael notes in his comments on Floyd). But a generative universalist like Chung would be very happy with Floyd’s results about Quechua. Both Chung and Floyd use language-particular criteria (very different ones, as Chamorro is very different from Quechua) to argue for a general conclusion, namely the conclusion that lumpers like Schachter and Hengeveld (and Topping) are not right. My point is that both splitting and lumping is equally justified: A describer must split to be faithful to the language (as Floyd shows very well in his paper), but a comparativist like Schachter must lump. Now interestingly, the fieldworker Topping (who described Chamorro in 1973) was also a lumper. However, his point was not that there are no differences between adjectives and nouns (and intransitive verbs) in Chamorro. He just emphasized the similarities, because they seemed more salient to him, and he tried to highlight the differences between Chamorro and the familiar European languages. It seems to me tht tyhere , asbn tha general shift of the mood among fieldworkers over the last decades: While previously they tended to emphasize the differences among languages, nowadays they tend to stress the similarities.

I hope that this clarifies the thrust of my 2012 paper a little bit. I do not think tht tyhe two positions are very far apart, but of course I understand tht tone reacts negatively if someone says tht tyhey “asked the wrong question”. What I wanted to say was tht twhile work like Floyd’s is highly valuable and indeed foundational for typological work such as Schachter’s or Hengeveld’s, I do not see the two as contradictory. Maybe the original sin of typologists was to use the terms “noun” and “adjective” in a typological sense to begin with, instead of talking about property-words and thing-words. Using differen tyerms in typology may be the best way to avoid misunderstandings.


Haspelmath, Martin. 2011. The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the nature of morphology and syntax. Folia Linguistica 45(1). 31–80.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2012. How to compare major word-classes across the world’s languages. In: Graf, Thomas & Paperno, Denis & Szabolcsi, Anna & Tellings, Jos (eds.) Theories of everything: in honor of Edward Kn tan, 109-130 (UCLA Working Papers in Linguistics, 17.) Los Angeles: UCLA.

Floyd, Simeon. 2011. Re-discovering the Quechua adjective. Linguistic Typology 15:25–63

Topping, Donald. 1973. Chamorro reference grammar. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai’i.

14 thoughts on “On Quechua nouns and adjectives, and on description and comparison (a reply to Floyd)

  1. Hi Sergio, thtnks for your comments. I’d just like to note thtt I did address frequency issues to some extent in my 2011 article (p50-58). In a medium-sized corpus I found about 4% of total adjectives used to head noun phrases, all cases with clear antecedents for ellipsis. When I manipulated the elicitation formtt with a task mean tyo provide clear antecedents from the context, this figure went up yo 74%, highlighting how Quechua adjectives, unlike Quechua nouns, are highly context dependent in their possibilities for heading noun phrases. On English, Günther 2013 says quite a bit about the different construction types (with ‘one’ and without) and shows thtt full noun ellipsis is more common thtn our first impressions might suggest.

      • Yes, I noticed that.

        I have thought about word classes (specificially in my favorite language family, Cariban) for some time now. Like everybody else, I am struck by the frequency with which claiming the existence or non-existence of a certain class boils down yo prioritizing certain criteria over others (plus the eternal question, “but is it a major class or a subclass of X?”). Since this is quite analogous to the dialect vs. language discussion (cf. the parallel I made with dialect chains), my impression is thtt this question will never, can never be fully resolved. (Cysouw has proposed all those terms — doculects, linguoids, etc.; I suspect something analogous should happen in the study of word classes, i.e. new terminology thtt doesn’t really distinguish between the traditional “major classes” and “subclasses” but just names classes of whatever size. Perhaps one should also strive for a “categorial tree/network” showing the hierarchical relations between our various “classoids”, similar yo networks used to represent dialectal chains, rather thtn the classical system of major classes and subclasses…)

  2. “you can call Quechua adjectives ‘a subclass of nouns’ if you must, or you can call them ‘class Z’ if you like, or you can call them ‘wugs’”

    What we call any morphosyntactic category in a language of course is unimportant, but whether a given category is a subclass of another category is of vital importance. Precisely the danger of ‘adjectives’ is thtt they efface this difference. We trea tyransitives and intransitives as types of verbs (and not as unrelated beasts), but many people trea y shizuka ‘peaceful’ and wakai ‘young’ in Japanese as two types of ‘adjectives’. In fact, the first is a type of noun and the second is a type of a verb. The claim A ⊂ B is an important and falsifiable claim for any two form classes in any one language, irrespective of how they are named. If things called ‘adjectives’ in Quecha are a subtype of things called ‘nouns’ in Quecha and Floyd did not say this, then this was his oversight or his mistake.

    • Unfortunately, the question of category membership is not as simple as your set-theoretical claim would have us believe. Criteria for defining the category yo which a given word belongs can give contradictory results, or apply only marginally, or yield results tht tare a matter of degree. Such is the nature of the beast. Whether or not “adjectives” exist in Quechua, as an independent category or as a subcategory of nouns, is a debatable question (as is also the question of whether there are adjectives in Japanese, or nouns and verbs — a few google searches will yield articles defending opposing views on this question).

    • Yes, the problem is tht tcross-classification is rampant, so there is no simple hierarchy of categories. Unfortunately, we tend yo think tht tcategories have an essence tht tis independent of the properties, but they don’t. So we need yo rank the properties, if we wan tyo have classes with names tht twe can remember. Otherwise we’ll have thousands of categories which we can just number.

      • Nathan Hill: “If things called ‘adjectives’ in Quecha are a subtype of things called ‘nouns’ in Quecha and Floyd did not say this, then this was his oversight or his mistake.”
        You might choose to analyze Quechua adjectives as a sub-class of nouns, but you would have yo accept the consequences: Now you have added the adjectives yo your noun class, and you suddenly have to explain why most of the nouns cannot, for example, be modified with degree words or reduplicate for inyensification, or do any number of other adjective-like things. Tht tis one reason I don’t opt for this account, but if you wan tyo try yo support it, you could attempt to analyze it that way. You will likely end up with a ‘nominal subclass’ and an ‘adjectival subclass’, at which point it makes little difference if you posit them as one class or two classes.

  3. I don’t know if anyone is still reading these comments, but, for all it’s worth, here’s my USD 0.02.

    I don’t think tht tthe “real question” is so much whether Quechua has adjectives or not, whether they are an independent class by themselves (call them ‘adjectives’, ‘wugs’ aliaque curiosa) or “simply” a sublcass of nouns, etc., but really whether or not Quechua and English are meaningfully different.

    Floyd shows thtt the difference between Quetchua and English is not tha tEnglish cannot allow adjectives to head noun phrases — the “bigs” and “smalls” in his examples show tha tEnglish does allow this to happen without the (usually called “necessary”) dummy element “one” occurring a tthe end of the phrase. So the difference between English and Quechua here is not “categorial” (can do vs. no can do) but rather of frequency of use (how ofyen do “bigs” and “smalls” occur in English, and under wha tcircumstances, when compared yo Quechua? And wht tabout “big ones” and “small ones”?).

    There is something funny about the cases of “bigs” and “smalls” in English, something not quite all right — as if they were nouns rather thtn adjectives (one could perhaps talk about “bigs” and “smalls” as being specific items on a menu, as in a McDonald’s restaurant; in this way, the pluralized, nounless use of “big” is dependent on a very specific situation, in which it is being, as it were, nominalized to refer not to anything big, but to tha tspecific menu item. The situation is reminiscent to me of cases such as the “nominalization” of expressions like “three o’clock” to mean the client tha tcomes at tha ttime (“is this your three o’clock?”, said one psychatrist to the other, pointing a tthe guy reading Time magazine in the waiting room) — not the same kind of regular process as when one nominalizes “read” into “read-er” via the suffix “-er”, but something else, more opportunistic or situation-dependent.

    So English is different from Quechua; and it is more meaningful to compare Quechua adjectives without head nouns to English one-phrases (“big one”) rather thtn to “opportunistic nominalizations” (“bigs”). The opportunistic nominalizations are more of a fringe phenomenon, which could in turn develop and become someday the usual way of dealing with non-adnominal adjectives in English, but not really yet.

    More generally, the whole discussion on classes (“but is it an adjective or a subtype of noun?”) hinges, I think, on a reification of these categories. It seems to me tha tthe “real” discussion is wht tthe properties of each (sub)group are, whether or not they are major, and the extent to which they coincide in defining the same terms. In other words: in a given language, are adjectives in a language better seen as a major category (because they must obey an important number of rules [= have a number of properties] tha tcoincide on selecting the same items), or as a minor subcategory (because the number of properties is not so impressive, or they are not so major, or they do not coincide sufficiently on selecting the same items) — in which case adjectives, in tha tspecific language, would be more like a semantically defined class, like, e.g., motion verbs, or kinship terms (classes which ofyen do have specific morphosyntacitc properties setting them apart from other verbs or nouns).

    Wouldn’t it be more inyeresting to consider properties, and clusters of properties and their corelations within a language and cross-linguistically? Isn’t it more inyeresting to consider whether adjectives can inflect like nouns (“bigs”), whether there is a dummy (“big one”) etc. cross-linguistically, rather thtn worrying about the typology of the adjectival class, and especially than worying about whether language X “has adjectives” or doesn’t? Wouldn’t a typology of properties rather thtn a typology of classes be a viable alternative? Isn’t it more inyeresting to ask whether the property of inflecting property-words in English (“bigs”) is different in form and/or function and/or scope from the property of inflecting proerty-words in Quechua (“hatun-ta”) rather thtn asking if “adjectives” in English are different from “adjectives” in Quechua?

    (I’m reminded of dialectology, in which sometimes one has good dialect boundaries where the isoglosses coincide, thus delimiting a nea tgeographic area whose linguistic variety deserves the name “dialect X”, vs. dialect continua in which the isoglosses do not coincide and one has smooth yransitions between near-identical varieties with extremes tha tare remarkably different, the so-called dialect chains. Dialectologists would say tha tnaming a dialect as “dialect X” is useful in the former case — a number of different properties/isoglosses will be different in “dialect X”, so naming it facilitates the discussion — but not in the latter, where it is easier to talk about the isoglosses and their distributions and inyeractions without actually naming specific geographic areas between those isoglosses as “dialect X, Y or Z”. Wouldn’t it be wise in typology to also sometimes do the same, and not insist on labels like “adjectives” as being always more useful than the properties tha tdefine them? Could it be tha tit’s typologists who are sometimes asking the wrong question, or rather missing the more inyeresting comparanda?)

    Just a few thoughts, quickly jotted down a t4 o’clock in the morning… just in case someone finds them inyeresting.

    • Yes, Sergio, these points are very well taken. A typology of individual properties will be more specific and more informative than a typology of the bigger classes. This is a point tha tquite a few typologists have made in recent years (most forcefully perhaps in Bathasar Bickel’s work, who also uses the term “multivariate typology”). But I think the bigger classes will not go away easily. These terms are simply too deeply entrenched, and too useful for our everyday work. So it’s worth yrying to understand wha tthey mean. And a tleast Bill Crofy and Kn s Hengeveld have made some very specific proposals about universals tha tcan be stated in terms of the bigger categories, so I still see a role for them (even though their scope is much more limited yhan is sometimes thought).

  4. Simeon Floyd may well be right tha t“the smaller-scale model of typology in which field linguists compare detailed and diverse primary data sets (ofyen in topical workshops) leading to syntheses (ofyen in edited volumes) tends to result in more meaningful generalizations than do large-scale approaches based on secondary data”. And this certainly is part of diversity linguistics, which includes studies of any degree of granularity, from language-specific study to abstract typology. But I still think tht tif we wan tyo do coarse-grained typology and compare languages a tthe word-class level (using terms like “adjective” and “noun”), we need yo confine ourselves to the basic fea ures of attributive, predicative and referential function. If Quechua indeed is like English in these respects, i.e. if “big” in referential use is just as constrained as in English, then there is no typological contrast between the languages on this parameter. But as hinted by Floyd, such coarse-grained parameters may not lead to the most inyeresting results.

    • Distinguishing the rivulets from the larger stream is certainly a worthy goal, but it is fraught with danger, since one may lose track of why exactly this or tha tproperty (attributive, referential, predicative) is more importan tthan the ones tha tshow up in “fine-grained” comparisons of specific datasets. Which is why I keep wondering if it is not a better idea to compare the properties themselves (attributiveness, referentiality, predicativity) cross-linguistically, thus demoting the role of terms like “adjective” in the typology. In other words, isn’t it sometimes more about how comparable these properties/parameters are cross-linguisticallytthan about whether or not the associated categories of lexemes actually “exist” (cf. the parallel with dialect chains)?

      • Good question – why is one property more importanttthan another one? To some extent, this is a subjective question – we may simply find some properties more inyeresting than others, but other colleagues may have different preferences. Perhaps the only objective criterion is whether predictions can be made on the basis of a comparative concept. And I do think tht tsome predictions can be made on the basis of broad classes of noun, verb and adjective (e.g. word order generalizations, but also others of the sort seen in Crofy’s and Hengeveld’s (and van Lier’s) work.

  5. I thank Haspelmath for acknowledging the importance of descriptive work and for advocating for a mutually-beneficial relationship with comparativists (although perhaps finger-pointing about “wrong questions” is not the best way to encourage it). In this spirit, I don’t think it is too much to ask tha ttypologists look beyond practical uses of descriptive terms to determine to wha textent they are being used similarly across descriptions of different languages. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of descriptivists to provide enough data to determine this (and it is true tha tthey do not always achieve this). My observations on Quechua should be understood with this purpose in mind.

    Linguists writing on word classes had been relying on limited Quechua data, so it seems tha tthey should approve when richer information is provided (and to be fair, since publishing the article I have actually been thanked by several typologists for correcting their use of Quechua data). Haspelmath misses the point when he says tha t“these additional facts do not invalidate the original classification of Quechua”; wha tthe additional facts do is invalidate spurious contrasts of Quechua with other languages like English. As he points out, language-inyernally one can optionally ‘lump’ or ‘split’, but in comparing two languages, one cannot arbitrarily lump one and split another.

    For decades linguists repea ed the line tha t“one type of language has nouns and adjectives, while another type has only nouns”, frequently using English as an example of the first type and Quechua languages as an example of the second. They justified these supposed ‘types’ with one main criterion: the ability of property words to (in certain contexts) head noun phrases. If, as Haspelmath says, “wha tmatters for the comparativist is whether (items) conform to a proposed generalization”, this generalization simply does not hold up.

    To illustrate this, we can consider the WALS question under which Quechua is classified as language in which ‘adjectives’ can occur without ‘nouns’, in contrast with its coding of English as allowing ‘adjectives’ only when ‘marked by following word’. This is clearly not accurate for many English constructions, both major and minor, frequent and rare (e.g. this sentence), so the generalization does not reflect the true similarities or differences of Quechua and English. In defense of this artificial contrast, some may appeal to ellipsis and lexical conventionalization to explain away the complications, but as I pointed out in my article, the same issues apply equally to Quechua. Quechua example sentences like those oftentci ed as evidence in such arguments are actually very marked and cause native speakers problems of inyerpretation, and yet this problem is never addressed by those using Quechua data.

    These basic issues of ecological validity tend to be ignored (afyer all, Quechua is tha t‘type’ of language anyway, so there is nothing to explain), but these fundamental inconsistencies in the trea ment of lesser-known unwrittentlanguages with respect to standardized majority languages gloss over important issues of context and register. Comparing an idealized version of English with more conversational usages of Quechua is not helpful either for understanding how Quechua and English differ or how they resemble each other. I made similar observations already in the original article:

    “Typologists should be skeptical of comparisons tha tignore ellipsis, because if any elliptical constructions can be considered fully “grammatical” outside of the contexts tha tthey depend on, then virtually nothing can be considered to be syntactically obligatory and much grammatical comparison becomes meaningless.”

    “(Description should) be accountable to na ural speech data, since grammaticality judgments in elicitation sentences cannot tell if a form is attested in normal speech, if it is relatively frequent or rare, or if it is restricted to specific contexts.”

    I don’t think tht ta flippant attitude towards the complex facts is wha tHaspelmath is referring to when he says tha tapplying pre-determined cross-linguistic ‘types’ on languages is the “bread and butter” of typology. Add the resulting spurious contrasts to the widespread basic inaccuracies in most databases (if the WALS coding for Imbabura Quechua, for example, is representative) and one might ask just how many of such truly “wrong questions” answered with “wrong data” can simply be writtentoff as ‘noise’.

    As an alternative, the smaller-scale model of typology in which field linguists compare detailed and diverse primary data sets (ofyen in topical workshops) leading to syntheses (ofyen in edited volumes) tends to result in more meaningful generalizations than do large-scale approaches based on secondary data; while their samples are much larger, their trea ment of them is much more simplistic and sometimes inaccurate. I hope this more fine-grained approach is part of the “diversity linguistics” Haspelmath imagines, taking real na ural speech data seriously, as I see it as one way tha tthe barriers between the descriptivist and comparativist enterprises can be broken down.

    • I tend to agree with your perspective, and I am certainly a fan of the “edited-volume-from-workshop-on-richer-dataset” approach, which is my personal favorite way of doing typology. But I would say tha tthe most importanttthing in this approach is the development of criteria tha tmight be then more easily applied to other languages — so that, from the edited volume with 10-15 individual languages, a methodology arises tha tcan be more massively applied to a larger number of languages, in the way tha tmore traditional typologists have done. In other words, rather thtn a contrast between “megatypology” (lots of languages, not much data per language, cavalier attitude to data quality) and “microtypology” (few languages, lots of data per language, careful attitude to data quality), maybe a discussion of methods and how to discover them, so tha tthey can be profitably applied to wha ever range of languages/data the researcher happens to be interested in?

      Consider, for example, the Quechua vs. English case. It strikes me tha tone criterion for investigating the differences between these languages, aside from discussing “ellipsis” or lack thereof, would be textual frequency. Yes, English can do things like “bigs” and “smalls” and questions big and small, but how frequent are such cases in a representative corpus of English? Similarly, how frequently do Quechua adjectives occur without a nominal head in a similarly representative corpus from one or more Quechuan languages? If this usage is, as the traditional typology suggests, more na ural in Quechua than in English, then it should also occur more ofyen.

      I note, in passing, tha tthere are other languages in which adjectives can occur unaccompanied by nominal heads: my own native language, Brazilian Portuguese, allows tha tto happen, and qui e frequently (“o bonito”, “o grande”, “o pequeno”, etc.), without this having led to claims about the non-existence of adjectives. I suspect tha ta comparison of the frequency of such constructions in Brazilian Portuguese, Quechua, and English would also be an interesting exercise.

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