Comparative concepts and language-specific categories: Theory and practice

William Croft 1
  • 1 Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico, MSC03 2130, Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001, United States of America.
William Croft


What are comparative concepts and how are they related to language-specific categories used in language description? Three general categories of comparative concepts are defined here: purely functional comparative concepts and two types of hybrid formal-functional concepts, constructions and strategies. The two hybrid types provide more explicit and precise definitions of common typological practice. However a terminological issue is that Western grammatical terms are frequently used to describe strategies which are not universal rather than constructions which are. Language-specific categories appear to be radically different from comparative concepts because the former are defined distributionally whereas the latter are defined in universal functional and formal terms. But language-specific constructions have functions, that is, they are instances of constructions in the comparative sense and their form is an instantiation of a strategy. Typology forms generalizations across language-specific constructions in both their form and their function. Finally, a major issue is the confusion of terminological choices for language-specific categories. Four rules of thumb for useful labeling of language-specific categories, largely following best descriptive practice, are offered.

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Linguistic Typology publishes research on linguistic diversity and unity. It welcomes articles that report empirical findings about crosslinguistic variation, advance our understanding of the patterns of diversity, or refine typological methodology.