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.


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.


“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

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

The growing pains of pragmatic typology

Six months ago a linguistic factoid made global headlines: ‘huh?’ is a universal word. The New York Times described it as “the syllable that everyone recognises” and for the Süddeutsche Zeitung it was “the most important word in the world” because of its role in solving communicative mishaps. Some reports claimed it was the first human word or the only global word. The news was based on a paper by me and my colleagues Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, entitled, Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items (see the paper or download the PDF). For us, the newsworthy part was in the second part of the title. For the rest of the world, it was in the first part.

The global huh-laballoo (as one commentator called it) was an interesting experience. Continue reading

Dictionaries as open-access databases: A vision

Like many other media, dictionaries have tended to move into the internet, and many people nowadays use online dictionaries for everyday purposes (e.g. LEO, which has popular online dictionaries for translation between German and a number of widely spoken languages). Scientific, high-profile dictionaries like the OED or the Grimm Deutsches Wörterbuch are also increasingly used in their electronic version.

However, scientific dictionaries of small languages that have little or no practical use outside their speech communities have not often been published electronically so far, Continue reading

A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps

Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. This is something that perhaps I notice more than other linguists in the richer countries, because as a typologist I need access to works on many different languages. The commercial publishers would argue that this is unavoidable, but filesharing has become so easy that I expect fewer and fewer scholars to be willing to accept this argumentation in the future. What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? Continue reading

Languoid, Doculect and Glossonym: Formalizing the Notion ‘Language’

Martin Haspelmath’s (2013) recent post in this forum discussed the criticism by Morey et al. (2013) of the ISO 639-3 three-letter codes for language identification. In agreement with Martin, I would strongly urge linguists not to swim against the tide but to go with the flow and accept ISO 639-3 as a useful initiative for specific use-cases. The ISO 639-3 codes are not the holy grail that will solve all our problems concerning language-identification, but they have their merits. Most importantly, it is still one of the few resources that at least tries to provide a comprehensive catalogue of the world’s linguistic diversity. If one criticises SIL and their Ethnologue (which is the basis of ISO 639-3), then at least one should also acknowledge that they have been working on this catalogue for decades, and in all this time no other institutionalised linguist has tried to improve, or at least parallel, their effort. Continue reading

Can language identity be standardized? On Morey et al.’s critique of ISO 639-3

Since 2007, Ethnologue’s three-letter codes for languages have had the status of an ISO standard for languages. This has considerably enhanced their status in linguistics, and some linguists now use these codes (which were primarily intended as unique identifiers for technical and industrial purposes) in their prose texts, as additional identifiers of the language(s) they are talking about. But at the recent PARADISEC conference in Melbourne, Stephen Morey, Mark W. Post and Victor A. Friedman launched a direct attack on them (Morey et al. 2013). It seems to me that this is a very useful step, because it may lead to a serious public debate of what it is that we can expect from a standard language catalogue such as Ethnologue. (Some discussion of the issues has been taking place in closed circles or small workshops, e.g. at the Leipzig language catalogue workshop in 2007, but this is the first highly critical voice at a major conference, as far as I know.) Continue reading

Rethinking Ecolinguistic Diversity

In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brian F. Codding and Terry L. Jones (2013) suggest that ecological productivity (how ecologically rich an environment is in terms of water, plant, and animal resources) predicts and partially explains the linguistic diversity of a given region. Many linguists have commented on the correlation between ecological and linguistic diversity, typically echoing works by Nettle & Romaine (2000), Romaine (2012, 2013), and Maffi (2001, 2003) on this topic. Indeed, looking at EndangeredLanguages.com, it’s easy to see that linguistic diversity is most densely concentrated in the most ecologically rich areas of the world, such as Papua New Guinea or central Africa. Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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Peer selection vs. “peer review” – why papers in edited volumes should not be “reviewed” externally

I am often asked to review a paper for an edited volume (or special issue of a journal), but I am generally reluctant to do this, for reasons that take a little more space to explain. So here’s why. (This blog post is of course of more general relevance than the general theme of diversity linguistics, but I couldn’t think of a better venue for it.) Continue reading

Typology: The study of unity or diversity?

Michael Daniel, in his chapter ‘Linguistic typology and the study of language’ in The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology, sets out to define the field of linguistic typology and situate it within linguistics generally. He opens with this:

Linguistic typology compares languages to learn how different languages are, to see how far these differences may go, and to find out what generalizations can be made regarding cross-linguistic variation. (Daniel 2011:44)

He also notes that “Most linguistic disciplines have cross-linguistic comparison in the background, if not as their main method or object of inquiry […]” (Daniel 2011:44). This is unsurprising, Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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Deductive vs. aprioristic theories: Continuing the debate on word-class universality

Generative and nongenerative diversity linguists do not often engage in debates on general issues, but the topic of word-classes (nouns, verbs and adjectives) seems to be an area where some kind of dialogue seems to be not impossible (cf. Baker 2003, Croft 2009, and the 2005 LSA Institute class taught jointly by Baker and Croft, presenting their contrasting approaches to the students). Now the open-peer-commentary journal Theoretical Linguistics has published a very nice target article on word-classes in Chamorro by Sandy Chung (Chung 2012a), with commentaries by various linguists, including three nongenerativists (Bill Croft, Eva van Lier, and myself). Continue reading

Collaborative comparative linguistics via specialist consortia

To compare many different (including little-studied) languages around the world, comparative linguists need access to good data, which is often difficult to get. Many research questions cannot be answered easily by consulting reference works such as dictionaries and grammars. We often see some interesting variation between a number of languages we know well, and we’d like to know how the parameter in question is distributed elsewhere, ideally throughout the world. What should we do? Continue reading

Should linguistic diversity be conserved like biodiversity?

This is not a question that Gorenflo et al. (2012) ask in their widely publicized PNAS article on the “co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity”. They seem to subtly presuppose a positive answer, but one wonders about the precise implications of this.

The contribution appeared as a regular scientific paper in the high-profile Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, and it contains the usual trappings of such a paper: maps, charts and statistics. Like many PNAS papers on readily accessible topics, it was widely reported on in the media (e.g. here and here). But the major finding is neither new, nor do the authors have an explanation: Continue reading