Why should we bother about terminology in linguistics?

Those who know me better will be aware that I keep insisting on careful use of terminology in linguistics, especially in grammar (my main area of research), but also in other areas – for example, I often point out that it’s very problematic to use the term borrowing only for cases of copying (of words and other features from a donor language) that were NOT due to imperfect learning of a second language (i.e. substrate effects). The reason is that we need a general term for all kinds of copying, because in many or most cases we don’t know the circumstances under which the copying took place. But copying as a general term, with borrowing as a special kind of copying, simply won’t work: The terms borrowing and loan have been deeply entrenched in linguistics for over a century, and changing terminology so that a more general term comes to mean something more special simply won’t work for the whole discipline. Those who want to use borrowing in this narrow sense will perpertually have to say “borrowing in the sense of Thomason & Kaufman (1988)”.

I don’t have a good recipe what to do to avoid the constant creation of new confusion due to new meanings of old terms, and maybe not everyone feels it in the same way as I do. Many linguists inhabit only small corners of the discipline, and they have no trouble communicating with the other specialists of their (sub-)subfield. But those of us who are trying to get a bigger picture notice the problems quickly (and of course it gets worse when trying to learn from adjacent fields such as psychology or cultural evolution studies).

If you’ve read till here, then you probably have some interest in problems of terminology, so here are some more relevant considerations:

– One way in which one could improve the situation is by setting up nomenclature committees in linguistics associations, as they exist in fields such as astronomy and biology. Or at least one could organize sessions at big linguistics conferences (such as the SLE or the LSA) to discuss questions of terminology.

– Linguists often react negatively to the creation of new terms, even though they create new concepts all the time. In word-formation studies, this negative reaction to new words has a name: neophobia. But like all pathological fears, this can be cured, and it is clear that a proliferaton of technical terms is much better than a proliferation of meanings of an existing term. Synonyms can be easily mapped onto each other (in some contexts even automatically), while disambiguating polysemous terms requires a lot of knowledge.

– In the age of powerful search engines, terms that consist of unique strings have an edge over terms that just new metaphors. It is thus better to coin a term like quark than a term like string, because the latter has many different meanings in different domains. This extends to the use of hyphens with compounds – it is for this reason that I put hyphens in the terms thing-root, action-root, and property-root (as comparative concepts for nouns, verbs and adjectives, Haspelmath 2012).

– It is not true that terminological confusion is unavoidable, because a century ago the situation was much worse: Almost only terms that people knew were the terms of classical grammar, and it was very difficult to communicate across countries (let alone continents), and to look up earlier usage. Many new terms have been coined in the meantime, and with Wikpedia and internet search engines, we have excellent ways of looking up information.

– One principle of good terminology is that one should not give a new narrow meaning to an old term with very vague meanings. Some terms are so polysemous that it’s better to dispense with them entirely (e.g. markedness, Haspelmath 2006).

– Another principle is that a precise definition of a previously widely used (but ill-defined) term should not diverge too much in its extension from previous usage, because of retro-compatibility. The term aorist may not have a precise and consistent definition in the earlier literature, but if giving it a new definition involving some kind of irrealis modality or illocution would only cause confusion, because previous usages are in the domain of aspect.

– It is important to note that grammatical terminology for comparative concepts is essentially different from terminology for particular languages (Haspelmath 2010). Language-particular terms are best capitalized (e.g. the German Subjunctive mood), but here standardization is much easier anyway. The truly challenging aspect of linguistic terminology is the development of widely understood comparative concepts for grammar.

References

Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. Against markedness (and what to replace it with). Journal of Linguistics 42(1). 25–70.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663–687.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2012. How to compare major word-classes across the world’s languages. In Thomas Graf, Denis Paperno, Anna Szabolcsi & Jos Tellings (eds.), Theories of everything: in honor of Edward Keenan, 109–130. (UCLA Working Papers in Linguistics 17). Los Angeles: UCLA.
Thomason, Sarah Grey & Terrence Kaufman. 1988. Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

Dictionaria: Farewell to linear dictionaries

Dictionaries are structured databases, and they are linear only because of the inflexible paper medium of earlier times. Like linear phonebooks, linear timetable books, or antiquarian book catalogs, they are bound to disappear, but the process seems to be much slower. I’ve been wondering if there is a reason for this – does linearity perhaps serve a useful purpose in dictionaries? Continue reading

Do we need a “framework” for syntax? A conversation between Richard Larson and Martin Haspelmath

(The following is a slightly edited conversation that took place on Facebook recently, on Roberta D’Alessandro’s page. There’s also one comment by Roberta. It’s reproduced here with permission.)

Martin Haspelmath (Reacting to a Facebook comment that it’s hard to understand the syntax of human languages): Syntax suddenly starts working if it’s framework-free! But I admit it may not be so cool…

Richard Larson: Same is true for physics! It suddenly “starts working” if you toss out all this silly theorizing about forces, particles and least effort principles! 🙂

Martin Haspelmath: Have you read my paper about framework-free theory, Richard? I’d be curious to hear what you’d say about it. I find the reasoning quite compelling, and I’d like to hear counterarguments. Continue reading

“Haspelmath goes minimalist”: A memorable workshop on universals in Abruzzo

Last week I was at one of the most unusual and stimulating events I’ve attended in a long time – a workshop on “Variation and universals” organized by Roberta D’Alessandro and Marc van Oostendorp, bringing together syntacticians and phonologists, macrotypologists and microvariantionists, and generativists and linguists who were unsure how to describe themselves. The goal was to think at a higher level than usually about the role of typological data and universal claims in understanding language(s). Continue reading

Should descriptive grammars be “typologically informed”, and what does this mean?

A recent issue of the journal “Linguistic Typology” contains a number of articles on the usefulness of typology, among others one by Nikolaus Himmelmann on the usefulness of typology for language documentation (2016). Himmelmann bluntly criticizes the theoretical stance of separating description from comparison: Continue reading

Why is configuration expressed by adpositions, and direction by case? A discussion of Lestrade et al. (2011)

Complex spatial flags often consist of two or even three elements, of which typically one corresponds to the configuration (‘inside’, ‘on’, ‘under’, ‘next to’, etc.), and one to the direction (‘to’, ‘at’, ‘from’, ‘via’), as illustrated by English, Finnish and Lezgian below. These sorts of phenomena are the topic of an interesting typological paper by Lestrade, de Schepper and Zwarts (2011). Continue reading

An interview with Sonia Cristofaro about diachronic change and typological explanation

(The following conversation reflects some of the discussions that we had over the last few years, and particularly at a recent mini-workshop at WIKO Berlin.)

Martin Haspelmath:  In the typological literature of the last decade, one finds more and more instances of people claiming that this or that typological generalization actually has a diachronic explanation. Continue reading

How can diachrony help explain typological distributions?

Quite a few people have argued in recent times that typological distributions should be explained with reference to diachronic change (e.g. Bybee (1988; 2006; 2008), Blevins (2004), Anderson (2005; 2016), (Plank 2007), Creissels (2008), and Cristofaro (2010; 2013; 2014)). As Bickel et al. (2015: 29) put it:

“statistical universals are not really synchronic in nature, but are rather the result of underlying diachronic mechanisms that cause languages to change in preferred or ‘natural’ ways”

This view seems to have been articulated first by Greenberg (1969; 1978), Continue reading

Number suppletion vs. case suppletion: Does “locality” provide an explanation?

Whenever generative approaches claim that they can account for broadly cross-linguistic regularities, I try to pay close attention. In a recent short paper in Linguistic Inquiry, Moskal (2015) is concerned with the generalization that nouns may show number suppletion (e.g. Russian rebënok ‘child’, deti ‘children’), but almost never suppletion for case, whereas personal pronouns often show number suppletion (e.g. English I/we) as well as case suppletion (e.g. English I/me, we/us). This seems to be a robust observation, Continue reading

The evolution (or diachrony) of “language evolution”

Oxford University Press just published the first issue of its new Journal of Language Evolution, seemingly a logical consequence of the increased popularity of evolution-oriented studies at least since the first Evolang conference in 1996. But what is “language evolution”?

One would think that the opening editorial of a new journal would say something about its scope, i.e. that it would tell us a bit more about what falls under “language evolution” in the sense of the new journal. But Continue reading

Stephen Anderson on “diachronic explanation” (of what?)

In a number of publications over the years, Stephen Anderson has advanced the idea that phonological and morphosyntactic phenomena should often be explained diachronically, rather than with reference to the innate Language Faculty (a.k.a. Universal Grammar) (cf. Anderson 2005; 2008; 2016). For someone who has been a very prominent generative phonologist and morphologist (cf. Anderson 1974; 1992), this is remarkable. In the generative meaninstream, very few linguists have even entertained the possibility that core properties of grammars (such as distinctive features and alternations in phonology, or case-marking rules in syntax) might be explained by anything other than UG. The notion that “linguistic theory” (= what generative linguists are engaged in) consists in elucidating the constraints of our cognitive apparatus on possible mental grammars is still widely taken for granted. Thus, Anderson’s arguments are interesting Continue reading

Hypothesis-testing in comparative linguistics: Aprioristic categories cannot be disproven!

A few months after their (2014) target article with comments from de Reuse, Dryer and me were published in the “Perspectives” section of Language, Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson have published their response (DGM 2015). Their original claim was that a UG-oriented approach is better suited to the discovery of linguistic diversity, in contrast to some of the claims made by Levinson & Evans (2010). In particular, they stressed the need for systematic hypothesis-testing, which turned out to be uncontroversial.

In my commentary (Haspelmath 2014b), I noted that the main difference between two types of approaches is not between “C-linguists” and “D-linguists” Continue reading

Preposed function items are less likely to coalesce because speakers tend to pause before content items

Himmelmann (2014) makes a fresh attempt at explaining the suffixing preference in the world’s languages that was observed long ago by Sapir and Greenberg, and for which Hawkins & Cutler (1988) and Hall (1992) had proposed a processing explanation. But while these authors argued from word recognition, Himmelmann’s explanation starts from language production and combines research on spontaneous spoken language and clitic typology in a novel way. Continue reading

Marrying Boas and Chomsky: Davis, Gillon and Matthewson on “formal” diversity research

I was happy to see the recent methodological article in the (online-only) “Perspectives” section of Language by Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson: “How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest”. The three authors (henceforth, DG&M) defend the approach of their very interesting work on Salishan, Wakashan and Tsimshianic languages, e.g. on the semantics of determiners and quantifiers. The main point of their paper is that elicitation-based negative evidence is often crucial for discovering the full depth of linguistic diversity Continue reading

Is Special A Marking the mirror image of Special P Marking?

Fauconnier & Verstraete (2014) examine “Differential A Marking” (DAM, where ergative flagging is different in prominent and less prominent nominals), compare it with “Differential O Marking” (DOM, where accusative flagging is restricted to prominent nominals), and conclude that the two are not each other’s “mirror image”. Whatever the explanation of (better-known) DOM, the explanation for DAM must thus be different. Continue reading