Against trivializing language description (and comparison)
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.
- 2.On the inevitability of comparison
- 3.Distributional analysis needs theoretical and substantive controls
- 4.Language comparison does not need its own set of concepts
- 4.1What is the problem with crosslinguistic comparative concepts?
- 4.2Can language-specific categories and crosslinguistic cluster concepts be ontologically different?
- 4.3Are crosslinguistic cluster concepts arbitrary?
Published online: 12 April 2021
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