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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.)
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