Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2017 Fund Drive.

E-mail this page

Conference Information

Full Title: Linguistic Categories, Language Description and Linguistic Typology

Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Start Date: 10-Sep-2017 - 13-Sep-2017
Contact: Giorgio Francesco Arcodia
Meeting Email: click here to access email
Meeting Description: The workshop is planned as a part of the 50th Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europea (SLE), which will take place in Zürich, 10-13 September 2017.

The recent discussion in the LINGTYP mailing list (on multiple threads) on linguistic categories and universals has sparked a heated debate which highlighted the existence of vast differences (as well as much common ground) in the understanding of the basics of the whole typological enterprise among typologists, and of persisting uncertainties as to fundamental issues in the discipline, as e.g. the distinction between ‘comparative concepts’ and ‘language-specific categories’, or about the dichotomy (or non-dichotomy) between language description and ‘doing typology’ − and how the latter should be done. Position papers summarising the views of some of the participants to the LINGTYP mailing list have been collected in a forthcoming issue of Linguistic Typology.

The question is hardly a new one. But the discussion on LINGTYP has shown that even the most basic statements as ‘the basic word order of Cantonese is SVO’ may be understood in a significantly different way by different typologists: namely as an actual statement about the ‘default’ order of the constituents Subject (as a syntactic pivot), Verb and Object in a language; as a generalisation about a preferred order of constituents which however are not necessarily a Subject and an Object, but possibly an Agent and a Patient; or even a meaningless association, given that the categories at issue may have no relevance for Cantonese.

Moreover, the opposition between ‘categorial universalism’ – the assumption of a set of universal cross-linguistic categories from which languages may pick – and ‘categorial particularism’ – the idea that there are no universally valid crosslinguistic categories, and that languages should be described in their own terms (Croft 2001, Haspelmath 2010) – does not necessarily overlap with the distinction between generative approaches and functional-typological approaches to language; actually, typologists themselves seem to be divided between these two opposed standpoints (compare Dixon 2010 and Haspelmath 2010). Even among ‘particularists’ there are important divergences of opinion as well: while usually they “agree that language description should be inductive and based on the facts of the language”, and that “there are no cross-linguistic categories”, not everybody agrees on the separation between language description and comparison – that is, that categories identified for individual languages should not be taken as the base for typological comparision (LaPolla forthcoming). Lastly, a compromise view between particularism and universalism has also been proposed (Moravcsik forthcoming).

After a fruitful preliminary meeting in Naples (SLE 2016), we decided to submit a proposal for a workshop for the next annual annual SLE meeting in Zürich.


Croft, William, 2001. Radical Construction Grammar. Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dixon, Robert M.W., 2010. Basic Linguistic Theory. Volume 1: Methodology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Haspelmath, Martin, 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3), 663-687.
LaPolla, Randy J., forthcoming. On categorization: Stick to the facts of the languages. Linguistic Typology 20(2).
Moravcsik, Edith, forthcoming. On linguistic categories. Linguistic Typology 20(2).
Linguistic Subfield: General Linguistics; Language Documentation; Linguistic Theories; Philosophy of Language; Typology
LL Issue: 27.3964

This is a session of the following meeting:
50th Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea

Calls and Conferences main page