[FdL & Cog] M. Haspelmath (MPI-SHH Jena & Universität Leipzig)

Description and comparison of language structures: Measurement uniformity vs. building block uniformity

Salle de conférences

Journée Faculté du langage & cognition 

Martin Haspelmath (MPI-SHH Jena & Universität Leipzig)
Description and comparison of language structures: Measurement uniformity vs. building block uniformity

Structural categories of languages are known to be identified by structural criteria, not substantive criteria (e.g. Nouns in French are not identified as “words denoting people, places and things”). But cross-linguistically, we often have no more than substantive (e.g. semantic) criteria, because the structural criteria work differently in different languages. So how can we compare languages (cf. Haspelmath 2009), and thus contribute to general linguistics?

Two proposals have been made for solving this problem: (i) It has been proposed that all languages basically consist of the same innate building blocks, though they are often not immediately apparent; (ii) it has been proposed that rather than relying on building block uniformity, our comparisons should be based on measurement uniformity: While the building blocks of individual languages differ, we can apply uniform yardsticks for “measuring” the similarities and differences between languages.

The main point of this talk is to show that these two ways of approaching comparisons are conceptually rather different, and I would say that in the interest of unity of science, their respective merits need to be discussed. While building block uniformity represents a fascinating vision, I will argue that measurement uniformity is a more tractable approach at the moment. As in my other work (e.g. Haspelmath 2014; 2018), I will give examples from a diverse range of grammatical phenomena.


Haspelmath, Martin. 2009. Pourquoi la typologie des langues est-elle possible? Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 104(1). 17–38. https://zenodo.org/record/3519203

Haspelmath, Martin. 2014. Comparative syntax. In Andrew Carnie, Yosuke Sato & Dan Siddiqi (eds.), The Routledge handbook of syntax, 490–508. London: Routledge. https://zenodo.org/record/344909.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2018. How comparative concepts and descriptive linguistic categories are different. In Daniël Van Olmen, Tanja Mortelmans & Frank Brisard (eds.), Aspects of linguistic variation: Studies in honor of Johan van der Auwera, 83–113. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. https://zenodo.org/record/3519206.