The IPA is so immensely useful for linguistics that nobody questions its use, even though it sometimes creates misunderstandings (e.g. the misconception that the characters defined in the IPA represent the set of possible sounds in the world’s languages).
But so far, nobody has suggested that there could be something analogous in the domain of morphosyntax. Morphosyntactic concepts like “subordinate clause”, “genitive case”, “second declension”, “suppletion”, “ditransitive construction”, or “aorist” seem to be too idiosyncratic across languages, or maybe simply too complex and subtle to allow for a standardization.
However, I would argue that the similarities between the IPA characters and our morphosyntactic terms are much more striking than their differences. First of all, both kinds of notations are used in two ways. On the one hand, they are used as language-particular descriptive terms: For example, the English phoneme /t/, and the Turkish Genitive case are language-particular categories that cannot be equated with similar categories in other languages (say, the French phoneme /t/ and the Russian Genitive case). But the terms are also used for comparative concepts that help us compare the languages: Thus, both these phonemes are realized by the sound [t], and in this regard they can be said to be quite similar. And likewise, the Russian Genitive and the Turkish Genitive are both genitives in the sense that they are grammatical markers occurring on adnominal possessor nominals. The slash notation for phonemes is thus the counterpart of the capitalization of language-particular terms (as discussed in Haspelmath 2010: §5).
Now one might argue that in morphosyntax, there are simply too many different comparative concepts, as has recently been suggested by Matthew Dryer (on the Lingtyp list):
“There are thousands of perfectly reasonable comparative concepts and it is completely impractical to invent a new label for each one. For any familiar notion like affix, there are dozens of perfectly reasonable comparative concepts, varying depending on one’s interests and the type of research one is engaged in.”
Dryer is of course right that the set of comparative concepts is completely open-ended. Typologists have worked not only with category-like comparative concepts, but also with token-based comparative concepts (e.g. visual stimuli, or even the individual passages of the Pear Story), and it would not make any sense to try to find technical terms for these.
However, we have many other terms in linguistics that we use every day as comparative concepts, even if we only work on a single language. These are terms like plural, 1st person, incorporation, applicative, infix, ergative, participle, associated motion (as well as those mentioned above, except second declension and perhaps aorist).
For example, at the ALT conference next week, there will be many conversations of the following type, among linguists who primarily work on one language (it seems that about one third of ALT abstracts concentrate on a single language):
– (Talking about benefactive applicatives:) Does your language have an instrumental applicative as well?
– My language has two rather different associated motion constructions.
– These two languages express ditransitives quite differently, even though they are spoken next to each other.
– This construction is phrasal, not a complex word, because a clitic can come between the two elements.
In such contexts, these terms are used as comparative concepts: They are understood to have a meaning that goes beyond the structures of individual languages (otherwise these linguists would not go to an ALT conference).
And of course, it would be completely impractical to specify each time when using a term in what sense exactly one uses the term. These are basic-level terms of our everyday lives as linguists, and we treat them much like the symbols of IPA. We expect that textbooks explain what they mean, and we expect that our interlocutors understand them when we use them.
But unfortunately, in a significant number of cases, communication fails – because our textbooks do not explain the terms properly. (I spent a whole chapter in “Understanding morphology” trying to explain the difference between clitics and affixes, but failed to provide proper definitions.)
So for these kinds of terms, one may well discuss whether it would be desirable to have some mechanism for uniform term usage – just as the IPA would have to be invented if it hadn’t been invented already.
This does not mean that everyone would have to use the terms in the agreed-upon sense – after all, many linguists deviate from the IPA in some cases (especially when they use practical orthographies, but also in other cases when there are good reasons). Nevertheless, it is very practical to have a default understanding of a term, so that when one has no reason to deviate from standard usage, one can trust that one’s colleagues understand what is meant.
It seems that the GOLD ontology was created with similar intentions, as well as some other concept registries (which did not have any impact beyond computational linguistics so far).
Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in cross-linguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663-687.