LINGUIST List 9.642

Sat May 2 1998

Disc: Part-of-Speech

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. manaster, Part-of-Speech

Message 1: Part-of-Speech

Date: Sat, 2 May 1998 09:49:45 -0400 (EDT)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Part-of-Speech

I thought this was a topic that called for a general discussion.
Ji Donghong's questions about how well-defined part-of-speech
is as a concept seems to suggest that there ARE well-defined
concepts in linguistics, well defined enought so given a 
language we can mechanically identify instances of that concept.
But I dont think that, outside of phonetics perhaps, there are
any such concepts. I think linguistic concepts, whether part-of-
speech, subject, ergative, past tense, perfective, or anything
else, come into existence on the basis of someone describing one
or a small number of languages, producing a term which refers to
fairly (though not always precisely) well-defined set of entities
in that (those) lg(s), and then the same person or more likely
others trying to use the same term for entities in some other
language(s) which SEEM to have somehting in common with those
in the original language(s).

There are many instances where this seems to work OK, because
luckily all (or many) languages are sufficiently similar
in teh relevant respects. Categories like noun and verb
probably belong here, because they seem to be applicable
to all kinds of languages (NB languages that may not
have noun and verb words still have nouna nd verb stems,
as far as I know, and also NPs). But this does not mean
that we have coherent definitions of these concepts.
We do not.

And other concepts have proven
much more difficult, e.g., subject, topic, the various aspects,
the various cases, etc. In these more difficult situation,
we often find what borders on complete chaos and many instances
of complete misunderstanding. As I have shown in some
papers written a decade ago or so, there are several cases
where the same term has been used by different people for
enitrely different things (which is still OK) but then
someone comes along and equates these things (which is NOT OK).

For example, the man who introduced the term 'topic' into
Philippine linguistics thought 'topic' meant what most of
us think 'subject' means, and that 'subject' means what
we all think of as 'agent' or 'actor'. (The source of
the misunderstanding lies in some work of Bloomfield's).
Once he realized the problem, he published a paper (which
has been ignored by almost everyone) in which he took
it back, and even said "please forgive me, reader" for
creating the confusion. But in the meantime the term
topic became standard ind escriptions of Philippine
languages, and also of Japanese, Chinese, and some other
languages, although no one bothered pointing out that
the term applies to entirely different things in Philippine
lgs and in Chinese and Japanese. 

Li and Thompson's work on Lisu, a language alleged to have
only topics but no subjects, and a whole literarture
that flourished in the 70s and early 80s (and maybe
still does) was largely based on such misunderstandings.

In these more difficult cases it is not just that we do not
have definitions, we do not even have the "luck" which would
allows us to be pretty sure how to apply these terms to a new
language in the absence of a definition (as we do with noun
and verb). 

As far parts of speech in general are concerned, the whole
concept originated in a confusion by the Greeks between
syntactic and morphological or semantic categories, and
indeed the whole idea of parts of speech originated before
anyone has realized that there was such a thing as syntax
(NB part of speech seems to be a mistranslation, it should
be 'part of sentence').

Some references:

1995 On the subject of Malagasy imperatives. Oceanic Linguistics 34:

1994 On the origin of the term 'ergative'. Sprachtypologie und
Universalienforschung 47(3): 207-210.

1993 Malagasy and the subject/topic issue. Oceanic Linguistics 31:

1992 On intensional vs. extensional grammatical categories. Papers from
the Second Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society (ed.
Karen L. Adams and Thomas John Hudak), 201-212. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State
University Program for Southeast Asian Studies.	

 What's a topic in the Philippines? Papers from the First Annual
Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society (ed. Martha Ratliff and
Eric Schiller), 271-291. Arizona State University Program for Southeast
Asian Studies Monograph Series. 

1988	What about Lisu? Languages of the Tibeto-Burman Area 11(2):

 Karen L. Adams and AMR. Some questions of
topic/focus choice in Tagalog. Oceanic Linguistics 27: 79-101.
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