Against trivializing language description (and comparison)
Nikolaus Himmelmann
March 2021

This paper argues that recent proposals to sharply distinguish between language description and comparison are ill-conceived for two reasons. First, comparison is unavoidable and hence an integral part of description. Second, the proposals for a strict separation are based on an unrealistic and anachronistic conception of descriptive categories, assuming that these can be defined in purely distributional terms. Here it is shown that description and comparison make use of, and struggle with, the same kind of empirical evidence; namely, crosslinguistically identifiable properties of grammatical formatives and constructions. If descriptive categories and crosslinguistic comparative concepts did not share such properties, language comparison would be devoid of empirical content. Hence claims that they are ontologically different do not stand up to further scrutiny. In short, said recent proposals portray language description and comparison in too-simplistic terms. They ignore, or at least downplay, most of the complexities involved in both descriptive and comparative projects, many of which in fact result from the inseparability of description and comparison.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/005705
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Studies in Language
keywords: comparative concepts, descriptive methods, noun phrase structure, austronesian, syntax, phonology, semantics, morphology
previous versions: v1 [November 2019]
Downloaded:364 times


[ edit this article | back to article list ]