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 that there has been a 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 that the two positions are very far apart, but of course I understand that one reacts negatively if someone says that they “asked the wrong question”. What I wanted to say was that while 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 different terms 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 Keenan, 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, thanks for your comments. I’d just like to note that 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 format with a task meant to provide clear antecedents from the context, this figure went up to 74%, highlighting how Quechua adjectives, unlike Quechua nouns, are highly context dependent in their poseibiliti="cm tp d'http://dlc.hypojectives%no guerma, Günposr The3that tapproprf a sproperechuences beirms >Floy!-- .div class="commento+Fl

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