Abstract - Martin Haspelmath

Course: Comparability in comparative grammar and grammar-writing

Instructor: Martin Haspelmath

This course discusses a foundational question of comparative linguistics: On what basis do we compare language structures? Can one equate categories or features from one language with categories or features of another language? Is there a small set of possible sounds or possible morphosyntactic structures from which languages may choose? And if not, what else makes language comparison possible? This is an issue not only for comparative linguists, but also for linguists who aim to describe a single language, because their view on comparability will shape their choices of concepts and terminology.

Martin HaspelmathMartin Haspelmath is senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena) and Honorary Professor at Leipzig University. He received his PhD degree from the Freie Universität Berlin and also spent time in Vienna, Cologne, Buffalo, Moscow, Bamberg and Pavia in his earlier career. Between 1998 and 2015, he was a member of the linguistics department of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig). His research interests are primarily in the area of broadly comparative and diachronic morphosyntax (Indefinite Pronouns, 1997; From Space to Time, 1997; Understanding Morphology, 2002) and in language contact (Loanwords in the World’s Languages, co-edited with Uri Tadmor, 2009). He is one of the editors of Oxford University Press’s World Atlas of Language Structures (2005), and of the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures (2013).

Schedule of topics

Prerequisites and expected knowledge: I expect attendees to have general linguistics knowledge, as well as a strong interest in comparing the structures of diverse languages from around the world.

Monday November 27th:  Language-particular categories and comparative concepts

In the first session we will first review seemingly unproblematic comparisons (of which there are many), but then move on to cases where phonological, morphosyntactic and semantic categories look incommensurable across languages. These are numerous as well, and they pose a problem to naive category-based comparison. The proposed solution is to distinguish clearly between language-particular categories and concepts designed for comparison, though alternative views will be considered at every turn.

Tuesday November 28th:  The role of comparative knowledge in language description

In this session we will focus on the consequences of different views of comparison for language description: What kinds of assumptions can we make at the start? What is needed to justify language-particular analyses? What is are best terminological choices? What do gloss abbreviations (as in the Leipzig Glossing Rules) mean?

Thursday November 30th: From comparison to universals and to general theories

Linguists often pursue highly general goals in addition to studying a single language, and at least implicitly they make claims about comparison and universals. In particular, generative linguists often make larger claims on the basis of language-specific analyses. In this session we ask how well-founded this methodology is and how we can best approach these more ambitious goals.

Friday December 1st:  How to compare words and word-classes

In this final session, we will consider two particularly prominent issues: How can one compare languages with respect to notions like “word”, “affix”, “clitic”, “compound”, “morphology”? And how can one compare languages with respect to notions like “noun”, “verb”, “adjective”, “numeral”? Does it make sense to say that some languages are “isolating”, or that some languages lack a distinction between adjectives and verbs?

Some key references

Croft, William. 2016. Comparative concepts and language-specific categories: Theory and practice. Linguistic Typology 20(2). 377–393.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663–687.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2007. Linguistic typology requires crosslinguistic formal categories. Linguistic Typology 11. 133–157.

Though the three last sessions build on the results of the first one, students should be able to follow the discussion of the later sessions separately after familiarizing themselves with the three key references. 

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

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