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Linguistic Typology

Ed. by Plank, Frans

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Volume 11, Issue 1 (Jul 2007)


Pre-established categories don't exist: Consequences for language description and typology

Martin Haspelmath
  • Corresponding author
  • Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie.
  • Email:
Published Online: 2007-07-31 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/LINGTY.2007.011


1. Introduction

Structural categories of grammar (such as clitic, affix, compound, adjective, pronoun, dative, subject, passive, diphthong, coronal) have to be posited by linguists and by children during acquisition. This would be easier if they simply had to choose from a list of pre-established categories. However, existing proposals for what such a list might be are still heavily based on the Latin and English grammatical tradition. Thus, descriptive linguists still have no choice but to adopt the Boasian approach of positing special language-particular categories for each language. Theorists often resist it, but the crosslinguistic evidence is not converging on a smallish set of possibly innate categories. On the contrary, almost every newly described language presents us with some “crazy” new category that hardly fits existing taxonomies. Although there is thus no good evidence for pre-established categories, linguists still often engage in category-assignment controversies such as “Is the Tagalog ang-phrase a subject or a topic?”, “Is German er a pronoun or a determiner?”, “Are Mandarin Chinese property words adjectives or verbs?”, or “Is the Romanian definite article a clitic or a suffix?”

About the article

*Correspondence address:Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6, 04105 Leipzig, Germany

Received: 2006-11-07

Revised: 2007-01-19

Published Online: 2007-07-31

Published in Print: 2007-07-20

Citation Information: Linguistic Typology, ISSN (Online) 1613-415X, ISSN (Print) 1430-0532, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/LINGTY.2007.011. Export Citation

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