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

Martin Haspelmath 1 , 1
  • 1 Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie.


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?”

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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.