Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Matt Spike (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)

Title: Do nouns and verbs exist? Cross-linguistic categories as property clusters

Abstract: Can we define linguistic categories in a way which accounts for cross-linguistic variation? Not according to Haspelmath (2007,2010,2018), who argues that because there are no natural kinds in language (like 'gold' in chemistry or 'species' in biology), we should instead make a fundamental distinction between descriptive and comparative linguistic categories. As neither of these are any good for making meaningful generalizations, we should abandon most use of radical notions like 'noun', 'verb', and 'adjective', which is bad news for the language sciences. On the other hand, despite categories like 'species' and 'gene' in biology having all sorts of similar problems, biologists seem to be doing all sorts of science which refers to them, so there may still be hope. In this talk, I first look at how problematic categories have been dealt with in philosophy and the sciences: fuzzy categories are fine, as long as they have clusters of properties which are somewhat consistent over time and space, and if they can play a successful role in explanation and prediction. I then see if this is true of linguistic categories: using data from the Universal Dependencies tree-bank, I show that linguistic categories do differentiate themselves into clusters of properties both within and across languages, and that categorical labels predict features of individual languages. Finally, I look at some cognitive and evolutionary implications of this perspective on linguistic categories.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Andres Karjus

Centre for Language Evolution

Jan 22 2019 -

Language evolution seminar

2019-01-22: Do nouns and verbs exist? Cross-linguistic categories as property clusters

Room G32, Psychology Building, 7 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9JZ