Published December 2, 2023 | Version v1
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Criteria for words and inverses

  • 1. ROR icon Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


This talk was presented at the workshop in honour of Fernando Zúñiga, at the University of Bern (December 2023).


The concepts of “word” and of “inverse” have been prominent in Fernando Zúñiga’s work (e.g. Zúñiga 2014; 2023), and related ideas have come up in my own work as well (Haspelmath 2021; 2023). Here I will focus on the question how one could delimit words and inverses in such a way that the criteria can be applied to all languages equally while still including the bulk of what linguists have called “words” and “inverses”.

     I will propose a rather complex and disjunctive definition of the notion of word which basically says that a word can be a free morph, or a clitic, or a root or compound that is combined with its affixes. One advantage of this definition is that it does not require any phonological criteria or knowledge of constituency. I will discuss this definition in relation to some of the points made by Zúñiga (2023).

     For “inverse”, I will propose a retro-definition in the same spirit, i.e. a definition that is precise and generally applicable, but does not necessarily correspond to everyone’s intuitions. Here I will also make a connection to my earlier work on the role-reference association universal (Haspelmath 2021).



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