Non-standard linguistic terminology

Lately I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about the non-standard linguistic terminology used in various subfields of linguistics. For me, this is obviously most pertinent for Eskimo-Aleut linguistics, but it’s certainly not an issue unique to any one area (e.g. masdar in Caucasian and Arabic linguistics or aizuchi in Japanese conversation analysis).

Some of the Eskimo-Aleut terms I’m inclined to abandon are:

  • relative (ergative)
  • fourth person (third person non-reflexive)
  • postbase (derivational suffix)
  • terminalis (allative)
  • vialis (perlative)
  • similaris (equative)
  • modalis (your guess is as good as mine)

So, for the few people who actually read my blog, I’d like to throw the following question out there: What are the pros and cons of not adhering to subfield-specific terminology norms? What are the consequences of bucking tradition in favor of wider accessibility and standardization?

The pro that immediately jumps to mind is that materials using standard linguistic terminology will be more accessible to linguists and others outside the subfield. Someone wanting Eskimo-Aleut data to support a theory, for example, might be baffled by the modalis case, which is ill-described even within the subfield. Nonstandard terminology may also make it more difficult for lay users.

One con would be that by not using the familiar subfield-specific terminology, you might be isolating yourself from fellow linguists in the subfield. Another, arguably more important, would be that by insisting on standard linguistics jargon, you might be forcing grammatical categories onto a language where they aren’t appropriate (particulary Indo-European-derived grammatical terms onto non-IE languages). Choosing ‘instrumental’ rather than ‘modalis’, for example, may imply a far more unified set of functions for the case than it may have in the data. Then again, maybe people started using terms like ‘modalis’ precisely because it was easier to label what is clearly one morphosyntactic case than figure out its various functions in more detail. (I’m not saying I can do any better – at least in Iñupiaq, modalis does have a dizzying array of functions.)

Intuitively, I feel that there’s been less use of subfield-specific terms in Eskimo-Aleut linguistics within the last twenty or so years. Sadock, for example, is one who tends to use standard terminology within the subfield. He uses instrumental where others use modalis. While it’s not a perfect fit, because this case clearly has some uses that aren’t instrumental, at least some of the uses are instrumental. Fortescue keeps some of the subfield terms (relative) but not others (similaris – he uses equative instead).

My dissertation advisor (Anggarrgoon) had the brilliant idea of defining case names as variables in my LaTeX files, which means that if necessary, I can change all of the case terms in an entire document easily and without rewriting everything. Indecisive to the last? Perhaps, but I suppose I see it as leaving options open. For the time being, I’m come to the conclusion that the pros of abandoning subfield-specific terminology outweigh the cons.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the pros and cons, especially others in subfields with lots of non-standard terms. Did you abandon non-standard terms and wish you hadn’t? Stuck with them but regretted it?


7 thoughts on “Non-standard linguistic terminology

  1. James Crippen February 6, 2008 / 11:30 am

    I hate the nonstandard terminology in use among Athabaskanists. Most of my experience is with Tlingit, which is sort of the bastard child of Athabaskany though it was a focus of major attention in Boas’s day. Several authors use a weird 4-way transitivity system with “objective” and “impersonal” as well as “transitive” and “intransitive”. The “classifier” is famous for not being a classifier except in Tlingit, for which Sapir coined the term. The term “theme” is used in a way that confuses everyone outside of the field; it refers to a verb template made of the root, the classifier, and several prefixes which have mostly derivational function. The latter prefixes are called “thematic” prefixes, and since they are lexically specified they could just as well be called lexical prefixes. Weird case names include “pertingent” (roughly “at, form of, concerning”) and “punctual” (roughly “at, to, about”), though the latter has nothing to do with time. The ergative case is sometimes called “instrumental”, despite there being a perfectly good instrumental-comitative which is also described. Ergativity is poorly understood by many writers, with people using “subject” and “object” when they should be talking about ergative versus absolutive arguments. “Salient” is used to mean “proximate”, and “recessive” for “obviate”, terms which I have summarily discarded as uselessly confusing. Some people use “fourth person” to describe what are basically indefinite human and nonhuman pronouns. One that gets under my skin is the use of “mediopassive” to describe the use of middle voice, even in languages which totally lack passive voice.

    Jeff Leer invented “schetic” to describe verb prefixes which are functionally either aspect, tense, or mood, and then lumps all of them together in his dissertation as “schetic categories” and “schetic prefixes”. He also uses the terms “mode” and “modal” in interesting ways, and creates “epimodes” to accompany them, along with “epiaspects”. This gets you things like “perfect imperfective” and derived forms termed “secondary imperfectives” which aren’t really even the same verb.

    Of course there are a bunch of other terms of art in the field, but they are unique because the structures don’t seem to appear elsewhere. These include things like the conjunct and disjunct prefix groups of verbs, horribly complicated forms like “yi-perfective neuter extensional”, and so forth.

    In the process of compiling my grammar of Tlingit I’ve had to make a lot of terminological decisions. I’ve gone with standard terminology in most places, but in some spots it’s really hard to kick the habit, e.g. “theme” and “thematic” which have nothing to do with roles. The 4-way transitivity is descriptively convenient, but doesn’t jive with my desire to analyze ergativity and split intransitives and so I’ve tossed it out as well, going with unergatives and unaccusatives plus a big pile of lexically specified case verbs, which ends up being unsatisfying in its own right. I’ve also felt compelled to invent new terminology for weird corner cases, such as the shore-based directional prefixes – these are “adlitoral” (to shore from inland), “ablitoral” (inland from shore), “admarine” (out to sea from shore), and “abmarine” (in to shore from sea). However, unlike other writers, I’ve made sure to include footnotes which describe the derivation from the Latin words in no uncertain terms, and provide plenty of description and examples.

    As I read in other language fields, I’ve begun to notice that the level of terminological proliferation in Americanist areas is far greater than in most other areas. I’m hypothesizing that this is because Americanist description, under Boas, was largely independent of early descriptive work done by Europeans. The decline of descriptive linguistics in North America after the Chomskyan “revolution” is correlated with the decline of Americanist phonetic symbology as well as with the decline of Americanist descriptive usage. So the European terminological tradition won out, except among people working in American languages where existing work done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries pushed towards a continuation of the Americanist terminological tradition. That leaves us with North American languages described with weird terms that are either obscure or otherwise conflicting with what we learn in more globally oriented classes. Not to say that language groups don’t have their own terminological oddities – the Phillipine “voice” or “focus” system comes immediately to mind – but instead it’s that North American description has a lot more weird terminology than most other areas.

  2. tulugaq February 6, 2008 / 6:10 pm

    Sounds like you have it a lot worse than I do! I also sympathize with the folks in Austronesian with that whole voice/focus/topic/theme terminology mess, especially Formosan and Philippine. Another favorite of mine, though, is “half-transitive” (or “semi-transitive”), which crops up fairly frequently in Eskimo-Aleut work despite most syntactic theories assuming that transitivity is binary (syntactically, anyway – semantic transitivity is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish).

    Inventing new terminology doesn’t bother me as long as there’s a need for it. It’s far better than stubbornly sticking to terms that aren’t appropriate for the sake of keeping the list of terminology static. When you need it, you need it. The key then is to define it well, and preferably sticking with terminology norms within the field.

  3. James Crippen February 7, 2008 / 9:34 am

    Okay, I’ll bite. What does “half-transitive” mean? I can’t see how it would work.

  4. Claire February 8, 2008 / 9:36 am

    Semi-transitive is a standard term, it just doesn’t have a standard meaning.

  5. tulugaq February 8, 2008 / 11:08 am

    That’s probably worse.

    I rarely see “semi-transitive” in Eskimo-Aleut work, but it pops up sometimes. Half-transitive is fairly common in E-A work, though. Usually the authors don’t explain what they mean by it, but it tends to be used to describe either antipassives (another source of contention) where intransitive verbs have indefinite objects or intransitive verbs that are semantically transitive. They’re applying it as a syntactic term, however.

  6. Lev Michael February 15, 2008 / 1:57 pm

    I work in quite a different neck of the woods (Peruvian Amazonia), but I have encountered a similar issue with idiosyncratic ‘legacy’ terminology stemming from work in the 1960s and 1970s by people who did not have a lot of descriptive linguistic experience at the time, and sort of had to make it up as they went along.

    When I first started writing papers, I stuck to the ‘traditional’ terminology I had encountered, but got a lot of negative reaction to it. I think that unlike certain North American language families, most Amazonian families don’t have large academic constituencies, and so there is not as much support for non-standard terminology. So I have since been incrementally updating the terminology, which has also had the side benefit of having to think more seriously about certain aspects of the corresponding linguistic description. Personally I don’t see much of down-side, as I have found that even the creators of the legacy terminology see the pros of standardization.

    I wanted to comment, btw, on the use of defining LaTeX variables for morpheme gloss codes. I have been doing it for about a year now, and have found it to be very useful — especially when half way through the grammar one decides that a given morpheme should really be called something else!

  7. David Marjanović February 20, 2008 / 2:02 pm

    Even in Indo-European oddities happen. For example, in the 4 years I had Russian at school I was taught to call the 6th case (7th in most other Slavic languages) the “prepositional” because it only occurs with prepositions, never alone. The “instrumental” and the “prepositional” together fulfill the functions of the Latin “ablative”. Great was my surprise when I found out that almost everyone else calls this case the “locative”. That’s silly, because “locative” means that it means “in” without needing a preposition, right? Like Latin domi “at home”, ruri “in the countryside”, and Romae “in Rome”, right? The prepositional just happens to be the case that the preposition v, literally “in”, requires.

    And the “instrumental” is indeed an instrumental when it occurs alone — except where it doesn’t: “be” and “become” also require it most of the time, which must be the function of an equative, right? –, but it can also occur together with a large number of prepositions, such as “with”, meaning it has about half the functions of the Latin “ablative”.

    And… when a Latin “ablative” occurs alone, in the majority of cases it doesn’t mean “away from” but has instrumental function. In contrast, the preposition a(b) “away from” governs the “ablative”. Hmpf.

    Also, the “middle voice” or “mediopassive”. Why isn’t it simply called “reflexive”? Were the terms invented by native speakers of English who weren’t used to reflexive pronouns, or what?

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