Describing a language means finding recurring elements in texts: not only recurring phonemes and words, but also recurring constructions – and to describe a construction, one needs to have classes (= categories) of forms that can go into a constructional slot. Everyone knows this, so where is the problem, and what is the General Category Fallacy (described in my 2018 paper, in §1 and §7)?
By General Category Fallacy, I described the widespread (though often implicit) idea that in order to describe a language, one must make use of general categories that were originally proposed for a different language (in other words, that one must use a pre-established framework, rather than working in a framework-free way). But when saying that a form (say, the English word ago) is a member of some general class (say, the class of adpositions), we do not learn anything about it that we didn’t already know. In fact, the English adposition ago is quite idiosyncratic – not only in that it is a postposition but also in that it can have a postposed deictic modifier (as in three years ago today; Kortmann & König (1992: 678) even argue that it is in fact a preposition, paralleling from in three years from now). This may be an unusual example, but the general point remains valid: language-particular description can be complete and fully clear without making reference to general categories. Language-particular categories are sufficient. (As Edward Sapir noted in 1921 (p. 118): “Each language has its own scheme [of parts of speech]. Everything depends on the formal demarcations which it recognizes.”)
Why do linguists often think that the language-particular (p-)categories that they set up must be linked to general categories? On the on hand, they may not be fully aware of the important distinction between p-categories and g-categories (because the same labels are generally used for both). But on the other hand, they may want to make their work more generally relevant. For example, although I only have data on a single p-language (e.g. Lezgian), I may want to make general (g-)claims, because general linguistics is more prestigious. (In fact, some linguistics journals make “theoretical relevance” a requirement for submission, by which they seem to mean “general relevance”.)
So for example, I may want to dispute Dixon’s (1979: 64) claim that “all morphologically ergative languages are in fact split ergative”, by citing Lezgian, which has no split ergativity (in its grammatical marking), but is fully and gloriously ergative (its ergative suffixes like -a/-u/di occur with nominals of all types). Since Dixon is a famous typologist, I may be successful in having an abstract accepted – and then I can use my description of Lezgian to question a prominent general claim. I can thus make a contribution to general linguistics, even though I only study one language.
What is the (potential) problem here?
Languages are structurally (somewhat) unique – they not only have different phonemes and words, but also different constructions and different classes (= categories) of forms. Such classes are defined with respect to the constructions they occur in (as emphasized especially by Croft, e.g. 2001). So how do I know that what I call “Lezgian ergative construction” is in fact an ergative construction in the same sense as what Dixon calls “ergative”? Mel’čuk (1988) claimed that Lezgian does not have an ergative construction at all, so what if he is right? (see Haspelmath 1991; 2020 for more discussion of Lezgian and ergativity)
And maybe even Dixon’s Dyirbal does not have an ergative construction – if one adopts the perspective of Baker (2015: 22-25) (who follows Legate 2008), then Dyirbal and other Pama-Nyungan languages really have tripartite rather than ergative alignment, even though the ergative/accusative exponents are often zero.
So whether there is an ergative case in Lezgian is unclear (and depend on one’s perspective), but this has no effect on my description of Lezgian. (I called the -a/-u/di suffix set Ergative case in my 1993 grammar, using upper case for a language-particular category.) Description does not need general categories – and comparison can be based on clearly defined, objectively applicable comparative concepts which do not depend on a particular perspective or theoretical assumptions.
By contrast, the General Category Fallacy is built on the presumption that p-categories must be linked to cross-linguistic (g-)categories because these have an independent existence, probably as natural-kind categories of the innate grammar bueprint. If this were the case, then we would indeed have to find out what the “true nature” of a category of a language is before we can compare it with other languages – it would matter whether English ago is a preposition (rather than a postposition), because it would be mentally represented as such by English speakers. Likewise, it would matter whether the Lezgian suffixes are indeed ergative in Mel’čuk’s or in Baker’s senses. And if we did successfully identify a p-category with a g-category, then we would gain additional insights, because everything we know about the g-category would necessarily be true of the p-category (e.g. we could make further predictions about English ago, which go beyond its distributional characteristics that we already know).
But there is very little evidence for natural-kind categories, so identifying a p-category with a g-category is not a sensible goal of p-linguistics at this stage. For example, when confronted with a case marker, it is hardly helpful to limit one’s activities to asking whether it is an “oblique marker” or an “ergative marker” etc. – this would be a sensible research question only if these categories were innate. But since they are not innate (as virtually everyone now agrees – even Chomsky seems to have given up the idea of a rich innate grammar blueprint), the task of linguists is different: P-linguists must describe each language exhaustively, i.e. examine all the constructions which may be relevant to its distribution. Which label they use in the end is a purely practical question.
Comparison is then a second step, making use of concepts that allow us precise measurements. Thus, for the study of ergativity, we must provide a definition of “ergative case marker”, and then see whether Lezgian ergative case markers and Dyirbal case markers match this definition (they do, on my favourite definition, which follows Comrie 1978; Bickel 2011; and much related work).
By classifying a Lezgian Ergative marker as an “ergative flag” in a general-comparative sense, we have engaged in the activity of comparing languages, but we have not thereby learned anything about Lezgian. Thinking that we learn something about a p-category by classifying it as an instance of a g-category is committing the General Category Fallacy.
In a recent philosophical paper about grammatical comparison, Spike (2019) criticizes my description of what good comparative linguistics looks like. His own proposals (in his §6) are fully compatible with what I think of as good comparative linguistics, so there is no disagreement. But he seems to misunderstand what I mean by “comparative concept”, because he insists that comparative concepts need to be “natural” to allow induction (which they are in my understanding if they lead to interesting results – though we do not always know this in advance of the comparison). At the same time, Spike does not understand my point that observer-made concepts do not lead to additional insights. I noted in the 2018 paper that “mountain” or “wing” or “respiratory disease” are like linguistic comparative concepts (e.g. “ergative flag”) in that they serve to classify for comparison, while successful classification does not in itself provide additional knowledge (this is different with natural kinds, where, for instance, classification of a disease as tuberculosis can save a life). Spike says (in his §5):
“despite Haspelmath’s pronouncement that a geologist gains no information upon learning that some landform is a mountain, there is a great deal of knowledge this could impart: mountains are formed via a limited number of processes of plate tectonics and subsequent erosion, they have predictable effects on the climate and environment, they foster similar patterns of ecology, and certain types of rocks and minerals are more likely to be brought to the surface depending on the context of their formation and region. There is a whole science dedicated to orogeny, the process of mountain formation. The label ‘mountain’ allows us to make any number of reasonable inferences about the history, makeup, and interactions of a specific mountain”
But how do we recognize a mountain? Wikipedia does not cite any authoritative orologist, but merely the definition used by the UN Environmental Programme, which presumably gets its authority from the “UN” label. According to this definition, a mountain of at least 2500 m, or 1500 m if the slope is greater than 2 degrees, or 1000 m if the slope is greater then 5 degrees. This definition is thus quite arbitrary, and merely a simple operationalization of the OED’s definition: “a natural elevation of the earth surface .. [which is] is impressive or notable.” Clearly, knowing that an elevation is 2505 m (and thus officially a mountain) high or merely 2495 m (and thus not a mountain) does not give us “a great deal of knowledge”. Mountains (like meteor craters, discussed on this blog in October 2018) are comparative concepts, not natural entities which by definition all have the same causal origin (like chemical elements or physical particles). The UN definition gives us a precise yardstick, but this yardstick is essentially arbitrary (like many other definitions that the UN provides, e.g. a “small or medium sized enterprise”, with less than 250 staff). Just like other measurements, comparative-concept classifications are essential for comparisons, but they do not give insights beyond the classification.
Getting back to our ergatives: Employing the standard definition, Lezgian has an ergative pattern, and the fact that it is not split is counterevidence to Dixon’s claim that all ergative languages are split in some way. This is not a great advance of the science of language, but it is something that we know for sure (and something that may get me an accepted abstract). If an ergative pattern could not be observed directly, but had to be inferred in a complex way using different criteria for different languages (as seems to be the case for Baker 2015, cf. the discussion in Haspelmath 2018b; 2020), then we would not even know this. We would be permanently locked in eternal category-assignment controversies (Haspelmath 2007: §3.3), with no exit in sight. Fortunately, comparative linguistics is better off, as it has very often managed successfully to avoid the General Category Fallacy.
Baker, Mark C. 2015. Case: Its principles and parameters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bickel, Balthasar. 2011. Grammatical relations typology. In Jae Jung Song (ed.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic typology, 399–444. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Comrie, Bernard. 1978. Ergativity. In Winfred P. Lehmann (ed.), Syntactic typology: Studies in the phenomenology of language, 329–394. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Croft, William. 2001. Radical construction grammar: Syntactic theory in typological perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dixon, R.M.W. 1979. Ergativity. Language 55. 59–138.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2007. Pre-established categories don’t exist: Consequences for language description and typology. Linguistic Typology 11(1). 119–132. https://zenodo.org/record/1133882
Haspelmath, Martin. 2018. How comparative concepts and descriptive linguistic categories are different. In Daniël Van Olmen, Tanja Mortelmans & Frank Brisard (eds.), Aspects of linguistic variation: Studies in honor of Johan van der Auwera, 83–113. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. https://zenodo.org/record/3519206.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2018b. Review of “Baker, Mark. 2015. Case. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.” Studies in Language 42(2). 474–486.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2020. Ergativity and depth of analysis. Rhema.
Kortmann, Bernd & Ekkehard König. 2009. Categorial reanalysis: The case of deverbal prepositions. Linguistics 30(4). 671–698. doi:10.1515/ling.1918.104.22.1681.
Legate, Julie Anne. 2008. Morphological and abstract case. Linguistic Inquiry 39(1). 55–101.
Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
Spike, Matthew. 2019. Fifty shades of grue: Indeterminate categories and induction in and out of the language sciences. https://twitter.com/matspike/status/1174373361121673216.