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The polycategoriality parameter: Noun-verb similarities in some languages of the Americas (conference talk, SSILA New Orleans)

Haspelmath, Martin

The polycategoriality parameter: Noun-verb similarities in Wakashan, Salishan, Eskimoan and Mayan

For over a century, linguists have repeatedly claimed, for various non-European languages, and in particular for North American languages, that the noun-verb distinction is not made in the same way as we know it from Latin or English. For the verb-adjective distinction (and also the noun-adjective distinction), an analogous claim has been even more common. In recent years, however, the pendulum seems to have swung back to a general universalist attitude, and it has been claimed, for example, that “for the last decade there has been a consensus among linguists working on Salishan and Wakashan languages that a noun-verb distinction must be recognized at both the morphological and syntactic levels” (Davis et al. 2014: e198).

     In this presentation, I reexamine and compare the facts of Wakashan (e.g. Swadesh 1938; Davidson 2002), Salishan (e.g. Davis & Matthewson 1999), Eskimoan (e.g. Sadock 1999; Mithun 2017) and Mayan (e.g. Lois & Vapnarsky 2003), and I argue for a shift in perspective: Instead of asking “whether all languages have a noun-verb distinction” (e.g. Evans & Osada 2005), or “whether all languages have a verb-adjective distinction” (e.g. Dixon 2004), it is more productive to ask how languages are classified on the polycategoriality parameter:

(1) The polycategoriality parameter

     Value A: Predicative nouns require a copula, and/or referential verbs require a relativizer

     Value B: Nouns do not require a copula, and verbs do not require a relativizer

Latin and English have value A for this parameter, and Nuuchahnulth has value B, as noted by Swadesh (1938). This striking difference remains unaffected by recent claims of category universality (as exemplified by Chung 2012; Davis et al. 2014). If we ask HOW languages distinguish nouns and verbs rather than WHETHER they distinguish them at all (even if they distinguish them in a “very subtle” way), we arrive at an interesting parametric contrast that allows us to continue to ask Swadesh’s macrotypological questions.

     In the bulk of this paper, I will discuss how Wakashan, Salishan, Mayan and Eskimoan relate to the polycategoriality parameter in (1), noting how this framing of the similarities leads both to further research questions and to a better explanation of what is truly universal. (There are no expected social outcomes or implications, other than perhaps suggesting that these languages are more interesting than implied by the plain universalist view.)


Chung, Sandra. 2012. Are lexical categories universal? The view from Chamorro. Theoretical Linguistics 38(1–2). 1–56.

Davidson, Matthew. 2002. Studies in Southern Wakashan (Nootkan) grammar. PhD dissertation.

Davis, Henry, Carrie Gillon & Lisa Matthewson. 2014. How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest. Language 90(4). e180–e226.

Davis, Henry & Lisa Matthewson. 1999. On the functional determination of lexical categories. RQL 27(2). 29–69.

Dixon, R.M.W. 2004. Adjective classes in typological perspective. In R.M.W Dixon & Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald (eds.), Adjective classes: A cross-linguistic typology, 1–49. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Evans, N. & T. Osada. 2005. Mundari: The myth of a language without word classes. Linguistic Typology 9(3). 351–390.

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Mithun, Marianne. 2017. Polycategoriality and zero derivation: Insights from Central Alaskan Yup’ik Eskimo. In V. Vapnarsky & E. Veneziano (eds.), Lexical polycategoriality, 155–174. Amserdam: Benjamins.

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Swadesh, Morris. 1938. Nootka internal syntax. International Journal of American Linguistics 9(2/4). 77–102.

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