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Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies

Authors: Haspelmath, Martin;

Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies

Abstract

In this paper I argue that cross-linguistic grammatical comparison cannot be based on grammatical categories, because these are language-specific. Instead, typology must be (and usually is) based on a special set of comparative concepts that are specifically created by typologists for the purposes of comparison. Descriptive formal categories cannot be equated across languages because the criteria for category-assignment are different from language to language. This old structuralist insight (called categorial particularism) has recently been emphasized again by several linguists, but the idea that typologists need to identify "crosslinguistic categories" before they can compare languages is still widespread. Instead, what they have to do (and normally do in practice) is to create comparative concepts that help them to identify comparable phenomena across languages and to formulate cross-linguistic generalizations. Comparative concepts have to be universally applicable, so they can only be based on other universally applicable concepts: conceptual-semantic concepts, formal concepts, general concepts, and other comparative concepts. If, by contrast, one espouses categorial universalism and assumes crosslinguistic categories, as many generative linguists do, typology works by equating comparable categories in different languages, which are said to "instantiate" a cross-linguistic category. But in typological practice, all that is required is that a language-specific category matches a comparative concept. For example, the Russian Dative, the Turkish Dative and the Finnish Allative all match the comparative concept 'dative case', but they are very different distributionally and semantically and therefore cannot be equated and cannot instantiate a cross-linguistic category 'dative'. Comparative concepts are not always purely semantically-based concepts, but outside of phonology they usually contain some semantic components. If one is not confident about the universality of meanings, one can substitute extralinguistic contexts for universal meanings. The view that descriptive categories are different across languages and different from comparative concepts leads to terminological problems, which are also discussed here. Finally, I observe that the adoption of categorial universalism has actually impeded, not facilitated, cross-linguistic research.

Related Organizations
Subjects by Vocabulary

Microsoft Academic Graph classification: Turkish Dative case Grammatical category Phonology Semantics language.human_language Linguistics language Sociology Comparative linguistics Generative grammar Allative case

Keywords

Linguistics and Language, Language and Linguistics

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    This indicator reflects the "current" impact/attention (the "hype") of an article in the research community at large, based on the underlying citation network.
    Top 1%
    influence
    This indicator reflects the overall/total impact of an article in the research community at large, based on the underlying citation network (diachronically).
    Top 1%
    impulse
    This indicator reflects the initial momentum of an article directly after its publication, based on the underlying citation network.
    Top 10%
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citations
This is an alternative to the "Influence" indicator, which also reflects the overall/total impact of an article in the research community at large, based on the underlying citation network (diachronically).
BIP!Citations provided by BIP!
popularity
This indicator reflects the "current" impact/attention (the "hype") of an article in the research community at large, based on the underlying citation network.
BIP!Popularity provided by BIP!
influence
This indicator reflects the overall/total impact of an article in the research community at large, based on the underlying citation network (diachronically).
BIP!Influence provided by BIP!
impulse
This indicator reflects the initial momentum of an article directly after its publication, based on the underlying citation network.
BIP!Impulse provided by BIP!
404
Top 1%
Top 1%
Top 10%
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