Help! I don't understand linguistic terminology!

Title: Guide to linguistic terminology and reflections on typoloy and framework-neutrality
Author: Hedvig Skirgård
Date of last edit: 2016-01-20

So, first off: great that you're interested! This is a messy but fascinating area and there are plenty of people who have thought a lot about this in the past. This text contains information on different resources you can use when navigating linguistic terminology and some problems that you should be aware of when doing so, the primary one being that extensive motivations and elaborations for terms is good and cross-linguistic and language-specific categories need not be the same.

Quick, just help me immediately!

For those who need a quick solution for a definition of a specific linguistic term: go to Glottopedia and/or GOLD. You can also ask us questions (even anonymously) here if you want. We'll answer either by emailing you and/or make a blog post.

This text 

This is a guide listing several different sources of definitions of linguistic terms - online and offline. There's also commentary and reflections on why terminology matters and framework-neutrality. You'll find lots of advice and tips on where to turn, but also some worthwhile things to think about when if comes to standardisation of tearminology and typology.

It's directed to anyone and everyone interested in linguistics, academic or not, but the main focus is fellow junior diversity linguists/typologists.

What I'd like to give you here are some recommendations to already existing sources that can help you in understanding linguistic terms and secondly, some problems that you should be aware of. See the end of this post for full bibliographical references to everything mentioned.

This text started as an comment to a campaign on tumblr (microblogging platform) for crowdsourcing explanation of linguistic terms by All Things Linguistics (aka Gretchen McCulloch). This text is written by Hedvig and it is not a static document, but subject to updates. The current version is fairly stable though, my edits seem to have reached a sufficient level of saturation.  If you want to suggest something that should be added, complain or any other comment then please do so here.

I should also add that I'm currently thinking a lot about trends and polysemy in linguistic terminology, if you've got any nice suggestions on words you find unusually confusing or that seem to be very restricted in their use - email them to me at hedvig.public [snabel-a]

You're interested in help to navigate the overwhelming world of linguistic terminology. Don't feel stupid or scared, it's a lot and you should be overwhelmed if you're trying to take it all in and fit it all together, it's only natural. It is a jungle and everyone cannot know everything. There's lots to learn and much complexity - and there is help! It is possible to learn enough many paths in this jungle to triangulate your way around the rest. Make use of these sources below, take classes in linguistics and communicate with other linguists around you and don't be scared to ask questions.

Linguistics is a discipline full of mostly curious and kind people. Pretending that you have knowledge that you don't is not only counter-productive for you, but also for the field. 
We're here to advance our knowledge of the world, not maintain face at all costs. 

Online resources 
First we take a look at the online resources that you can use. There are a number of online initiatives aiming at clarifying the jungle of linguistic terminology. All of these resources provide definitions if linguistic terms, but also maps the relationship between terms making it possible to understand better which term is a subcategory of which etc.

Glottopedia (link) 

Basically Glottopedia is Wikipedia for Linguists by Linguists. Glottopedia is what happened when the people at WikiLingua at the University of Trier and Linguipedia at the MPI in Leipzig merged. It's free, it's directed to linguists and you can contribute yourself. There's already lots of articles and it's run by several very prominent scholars of linguistics. Also, our wonderful fellow linguistics tumblrer Linguisten (aka Jan Wohlegemuth) is an editor.

Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (link)

This work exists primarily in paperback, but there's also an online version. The online version is not freely available, it depends on your affiliation. I'm terribly sorry if you can't get to it. Perhaps you can go to a physical library and pick up:
  • Brown, K., editor (2006). Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (Second Edition). Elsevier Ltd.
It's a great collection of short articles by experts on different topics, not only grammatical terms but just in general on anything in linguistics. There's articles on clitics, aspect, grammatical voice, language politicies and face, for example. Many of the articles are written by the people who are considered the best experts of that field. This is a very respectable encyclopaedia, definitely one of the most informative and well-written work in this list.

The GOLD-project by Linguist List (link)

This is a very cool project by Linguist List  (LL). LL is an organisation serving the linguistics community with, among other things, lots of mailing lists  If you're not already on LL in some way, get over there now! GOLD that actually incorporates both the SIL glossaries and the Features Website that I'm gonna tell you more about below. So: Features + SIL glossaries -> GOLD -> ISOCat.

GOLD was originally planned as a solution to the problem of resolving disparate markup schemes for linguistic data, in particular data from endangered languages (Farrar & Langendoen 2003). Originally they intended to build a single term set that all could use, but this goal was soon seen to be unattainable (not unsurprisingly) : there was too much diversity in terms between linguists and sub-communities in linguistics, and considerable reluctance to change them. An ontology, through which these diverse term sets could be linked, thus made the more sense. It's called a community driven effort for a reason, lots of people have contributed and so can you!

Linguist List, the organization that runs GOLD, is currently (2014-08-04) moving to Indiana University so they're having some technical issues with the website :,(. Should be solved soon though!

The Features website by the Surrey Morphology Group (link)
Main editors are Kibort and Corbett. Very cool and experienced people talking about matters they know very well. This website does not cover a lot of terms, but what it covers it covers well. As I said, they're in GOLD too, but it's still worth going there and having a look at those specific articles they've contributed.

The SIL Glossaries

These come in two editions, the only English one (Loos et al. 2004) and the French-English one (Bearth and Fennig 2014). It covers quite a lot of stuff, and the bilingual one is particularly appreciated by certain humans who read a lot of grammars in French on West African languages (i.e. us).

The glossaries provide short, easily understandable, definitions of a wide variety of linguistic terms. SIL are the ones who publish Ethnologue (a catalogue of the worlds languages) and ISO codes for all languages. They're also "faith-based", if you want to read more about linguistics and Christianity go here.

The people at the MPI Nijmegen have not only understood that the internet loves cats, but also created this repository of linguistic terminology. This is actually the official standard for linguistic terms in computational linguistics (t and ISCO TC 37*).

What you wanna do is go here and click your way around to see definitions of different terms. The website is not completely finished yet and not terribly user friendly unfortunately. ISOCat includes much of GOLD.

Most of ISOCat will move to CLARIN in the near future.

Offline resources
There's actually a quite substantial collection of works on linguistic terminology in offline format. I've already mentioned the encyclopedia edited by Brown, but there's also these excellent pieces of works that are still relevant and informative. If you are privileged with having access to a decent library, you might want to check the following out:
  • Crystal, D. (2008). A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics (6th edition). Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Matthews, P. (2005). The concise Oxford dictionary of linguistics (2nd ed). Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Shopen, Timothy A. 1994. The encyclopaedia of language and linguistics. In Asher, R E Simpson, J N Y (ed.), 262-263. Oxford: Pergamon.
In addition to Crystal, Matthews and Shopen there's also several works by Trask that you might want to get your hands on if you can.
  • Trask, R. L. (1993). A dictionary of grammatical terms in linguistics. Routledge, London.
  • Trask, R. L. (1999). Key concepts in language and linguistics. Routledge, London.
  • Trask, R. L. (2000). The dictionary of historical and comparative linguistics. Edinburgh Univeristy Press, Edinburgh.
Not technically lists of definitions, but used as such
There's other types of work that are not technically meant to be dictionaries of linguistic terms, but that are used as such at times. 

There's the work by Dixon and Dryer on Basic Linguistic Theory (BLT). BLT is a framework, but a rather unusual on as it is more a compilation of what many linguists already do, than a new and concisely constructed theory. One can say that it's a summary of lots of assumptions that many linguists take for granted and might not always make explicit. Besides reading this short text introducing BLT, you can also turn to the published works, starting with this volume:
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (2010). Basic linguistic theory. Vol. 1, Methodology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
There is a somewhat similar work from the 80's edited by Timothy Shopen that has in a way fills a similar function to BLT. It comes in three volumes and provides a good foundation in terminology, categories and definitions in linguistics. It starts with:
  • Shopen, T., editor (1986). Language typology and syntactic description, volume 1, Clause structure, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
And finally, there's the series of Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics and Blackwell's Handbooks. There's 37 and 68 of them respectively. There's one on Case, one on Historical Linguistics, Typology, Syntax, Speech disorders, Acquisition, Natural Language Processing und so weiter. These are written for a linguists crowd, but aren't completely unintelligible for outsides and provide a very good overview of many subfields of linguistics. These are particularly useful if the above resources aren't enough specific on a certain subtopic. Along with definitions, they also contain much needed overview of the topics, their current state and history.


Of course, there's also the different very important works on certain topics, like Comrie's on tense and aspect, Kemmer on voice, Aikhenvald on nominal classification, serial verbs, evidentiality and much more. But those are a bit too specific for us right now. If you need that kind of sources they're not hard to find. If you want advice on overview literature on a specific topic in linguistics, you can let us know that here and we'll try and help you.


Linguistics is full of different approaches, theories, models and frameworks of grammar.  We have for example the latest edition of the generative school: the minimalist program, we have Role & Reference grammar, Lexical Functional Grammar or all the different kinds of Construction Grammar. These all come with terminological luggage that needs to be acquired in addition to the basic terms you get from the sources above or your introductory course in linguistics.

The issue with theories when engaging with first hand data is of course that it can influence your analysis in such a way that you "only find what you're looking for" and become blind to things outside of those boxes. 

The sources listed above in this text, most often, represent a more or less theory/model/approach/framework-neutral definition. That does not, however, make them unbiased or universal. They're often biased towards a specific langue or langue family (often eurocentric or at least WEIRD). In some ways we might always be slightly "off" because we are imposing discrete categories on a study object that seems to be inherently fluid on all levels. And we really mean ALL levels.

I feel the need to repeat this first-world-problems-meme we made for an old tumblr post.

Many scholars, both of descriptive and comparative studies, argue that description and comparision must be done from an as framework-free perspective as possible. We want to find what's out there and be as unbiased as possible. This will be elaborated on further in the "Fieldworkers are not babies"-section.

Remember, though, when we do systematic cross-linguistic comparison (linguistic typology) we might not need "true" definitions or categories, it might be more important that they are consistently applied and interesting. It's advisable to first study many languages before setting up a systematic cross-linguistic survey so that the categories are as interesting as possible, but they might never become "perfect". The "perfect" scenario that would fairly incorporate all languages would after all be an infinite number of categories that we can't use to predict anything, just describe. This is why typologists lump, and hopefully lump interestingly. 

The possible danger with standardisation and broadcasting out definitions is that it might lead to stagnation and "only finding what you're looking for"Dictionaries and list of terms like this does not have to lead to standardization and stagnation. Remember, dictionaries are meant to describe not prescribe. Having said that... enterprises like these ones above do probably lead to some standardization. And there are problems with standardization that one should be aware of. 

Basically what I want to say is this:

When we standardize more and use the same terms both cross-linguistically and in language-specific instances we become less critical of the terms since we don't need to discuss, define and motivate them as often and that might make us less diverse in our biases we have when we analyze language and that could lead to use hiding diversity & disparity and only finding what we're looking for. I want to find things I wasn't looking for.

The danger here is more to do with the mixing of language-specific and comparative. 
There are of course lots of terms that are fairly uncontroversial and are easily used both in language-specific cases and comparatively. They're surprisingly few though..

In olden times one could find so called "translation grammars", i.e. descriptions of how categories of a large European language were expressed in an more "exotic language". This is not good and most likely produces too much similarities and hides diversity & disparity. Now on the other hand, I’ve noticing grammars that are described as being created primarily for typologists or written in a "typological perspective". Often I worry that they’re missing this point of keeping language-specific terminology separate from concepts of cross-linguistic comparison and describing the language bottom-up. I don’t want a translation-grammar from “typologese” to a specific lg. 

I, as a human who read grammars a lot, would like to see 

  • clearer distinctions between terms used comparatively and language-specifically 
  • more motivations and elaborations behind analysis' 
  • more examples in language-specific descriptions
  • more first hand typology. 

This will require longer grammars (which is less of a problem in the digital age) and more first-hand data collection by comparativist as opposed to typology based on grammar-reading (ironic, I know).

Haspelmath (2010a & 2010b) argues that it is essential for the field of cross-linguistic comparison to keep language-specific terminology and comparative terminology separate. This is very similar to the so called `Bybee & Dahl-approach' of 'language specific grams 'versus cross-linguistic gram-types' (Bybee & Dahl 1989). The main distinction is that gram-types are related to a psycholinguistic category, have a typical formal expression and aren't "only" tools of comparison. 

Bickel (2009), on the other hand, argues for a much more fine-grained approach of comparison instead. It is, however, possible to combine these approaches since useful comparative concepts/gram-types arise from clusters of fine grained language-specific features (p.c. Dahl 2012).

Perhaps we should have dictionaries of linguistic terms, i.e. records of usage of terms, (as opposed to standardized list) with several definitions (Skirgards verb, Collins verb). This is actually not that different from ISOCat.

There's a great discussion on all of this at the Diversity Linguistics Comment-blog and in Levinson and Evans (2010, free PDF here). If you want to read more about comparative concepts, gram-types and semantic maps you can read my old term paper here. It's not a great paper, but it's perhaps an easier read.

Fieldworkers are not babies
Field workers aren't naive babies, they're no tabula rasa and we can't pretend otherwise. They come with all kinds of assumptions. Also, the comparative definitions that are out there have been worked at for a long time and are often highly useful. There's also the linguist community-specific jargons and conventions in the study of language families or areas, such as that the Bantuists or South Americanists.

That kind of jargon and the use of common standards in linguistics serves a purpose, they're high in information density and reduces the workload for everyone involved. We don't have the time for complete bottom-up description and perhaps we're also utterly incapable of accomplishing that perfectly.  But we can make our stab at it by critically re-evaluating the definitions we are provided with, test all the inclusion-criteria and make explicit what assumptions we arrived with. 

And finally, we can list lots of examples with consistent glosses so that poor Humans Who Read Grammars can understand the motivations for that category in that language properly. Starting out from a framework dependent perspective from the very first go is the worst alternative, even if the ideal utopia "cannot" be accomplished. For more on this topic, read this blog post on Diversity Linguistics Comment.

It should be said that the benefit of working within a theory when doing language description is that it makes it clear what to test and falsify rather than "describe everything". This has an enormous value for developing interesting and relevant theories of language. It is my opinion though, and I hope I'm not alone, that currently we are not at a phase where we can do this and that we need more to stand on  before doing this type of testing. Until then, the negative effects of theory internal description are too great - mainly that they become inaccessible and biased.

Framework neutral language specific description is not impossible, lots of field workers already work after these principles. It might mean more work, but not necessarily, and it makes for better science. 

We're not describing languages and doing comparative research simply for the sake of placing items into categories and be done with it (that's what the hemul, featured right, does with his stamps and flowers). We want to understand the communicative, historical, areal and cultural, cognitive constraints on language change, diversity, disparity and complexity. We don't want to find only what we were thinking to look for.

Yes, that's it for now. Leave comments below or contact us in the form in the right sidebar if you've got any questions or comments or just general thoughts.

Many love,

P.S.. if you're really into this meta-perspective, check out this department.

P.P.S  If you're interested in language universals and the impact theories of linguistics has had in the other cognitive sciences, read this article linked to below, there's also a brief summary of it and the debate here.

Evans, Nicholas; Stephen C. Levinson (2009). "The Myth of Language Universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 429–492.)

Bearth, T. and Fennig, C., editors (2014). French/English Glossary of Linguistic Terms [Accessed: 2014- 02-03, last modified 2010-02-19]. Summer Institute of Linguistics. 

Bickel, B. (2009). Typological patterns and hidden diversity (Plenary Talk). In 8th Association for Linguistic Typology Conference, Berkeley, CA. 

Brown, K., editor (2006). Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (Second Edition). Elsevier Ltd. 

Bybee, J. and Dahl, Ö. (1989). The creation of tense and aspect systems in the languages of the world. Studies in Language, 51-103.

 Cole, P. and Good, J., editors (2014). Typological tools for field linguistics [Accessed: 2014-03-11]. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology: Department of Linguistics. 

Crystal, D. (2008). A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics (6th edition). Blackwell, Oxford. 

Dixon, R. M. W. (2010a). Basic linguistic theory. Vol. 1, Methodology. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 

Dixon, R. M. W. (2010b). Basic linguistic theory. Vol. 2, Grammatical Topics. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 

Dryer, M. S. and Haspelmath, M., editors (2013). WALS Online. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig.

Floyd, S. (2013). Do field linguists really ask the “wrong questions”? A reply to Haspelmath (2012a). Blog post on Diversity Linguistics Comment. Glottopedia (2014). Glottopedia - the free encyclopedia of linguistics [accessed on 2014-03-12]. 

Haspelmath, M. (2010a). Comparative concepts and descriptive categories and in cross-linguistic studies. Language, 86:663–687. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 

Haspelmath, M. (2010b). Framework-free grammatical theory. In Heine, B. and Narrog, H., editors, The Oxford Hhandbook of Linguistics Analysis. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (free PDF here) 

Haspelmath, M. (2012). How to compare major word-classes across the world’s languages. In Graf, T., Paperno, D., Szabolcsi, A., and Tellings, J., editors, UCLA Working Papers in Linguistics, Theories of Everything : In Honor of Ed Keenan, volume 17. Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Californ., Los Angeles 3 

Haspelmath, M. (2013). On Quechua nouns and adjectives, and on description and comparison (a reply to Floyd). Blog post on Diversity Linguistics Comment. 

Kibort, A. and Corbett, G., editors (2014). Features website by the morphology group at University of Surrey [accessed on 2014-03-12]. The Morphology group at University of Surrey, Guildford, UK. 

Levinson, S. C., & Evans, N. (2010). Time for a sea-change in linguistics: Response to comments on 'The myth of language universals'. Lingua, 120, 2733-2758. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2010.08.001. Loos, E. E., Anderson, S., Jr., D. H. D., Jordan, P. C., and Wingate, J. D., editors (2004). Glossary of linguistic terms. Summer Institute of Linguistics International. Matthews, P. (2005). The concise Oxford dictionary of linguistics (2nd ed). Oxford University Press, Oxford. 

Shopen, T., editor (1986). Language typology and syntactic description, volume 1, Clause structure, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 

Trask, R. L. (1993). A dictionary of grammatical terms in linguistics. Routledge, London. 

Trask, R. L. (1999). Key concepts in language and linguistics.Routledge, London. 

Trask, R. L. (2000). The dictionary of historical and comparative linguistics. Edinburgh Univeristy Press, Edinburgh.

* ISO 12620 is a standard from ISO/TC 37 which defines a Data Category Registry, a registry for registering linguistic terms used in various fields of translation, computational linguistics and natural language processing and defining mappings both between different terms and the same terms used in different systems.

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