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Grammatical categories in macro- and microcomparative linguistics
March 5-7, 2014 (Marburg, Germany)

Workshop at the DGfS Annual Meeting 2014 (March 5-7, University of Marburg)

Workshop coordinators

  • Aria Adli (Humboldt University Berlin)
  • Andreas Dufter (LMU Munich)
  • Martin Haspelmath (MPI-EVA Leipzig)


Invited speaker

  • Balthasar Bickel (U Zurich)


This workshop will address the question which categories can be used to compare languages. The older practice of describing all languages with the categories of European languages has been discredited since the early 20th century: We know that languages have very different categories, and Boas (1911) urged linguists to describe each language in its own terms, i.e. with its own categories. This view was widespread in the structuralist period around the middle of the 20th century (e.g. Glinz 1952), but it also meant that is was no longer clear how to compare languages if each has different categories.
With the advent of generative grammar, the prevailing view since the 1960s came to be that the categories of different languages are after all much more similar than claimed by the structuralists, and it was often assumed without discussion that categories like verb, noun, determiner, complementizer, 3rd person, plural, subject, specifier, wh-element, anaphor (or the features that constitute these categories) are universal or universally available. At the same time, successes in empirical world-wide comparison such as Greenberg (1963), Keenan & Comrie (1977) and Dahl (1985) seemed to confirm that languages again and again show the same categories.
But the last years have seen a resurgence of the controversy: While Newmeyer (2007) defends the standard view of generative grammar, others such as Dryer (1997), Croft (2001) and Haspelmath (2007, 2010) returned to the Boasian view that each language has its own categories, so that language comparison must make use of a special set of comparative concepts. These can be typological grammatical concepts (such as S, A, P for the ergative-accusative distinction), or nonverbal stimuli like pictures and videos which are often used in lexical typology.
We welcome both presentations that argue in favour of the universalist position and presentations favouring a distinction between language-specific categories and comparative concepts. Furthermore, we invite presentations that discuss the implications of this debate on other linguistic subfields, such as sociolinguistics (the comparison of 'similar' variation phenomena in different languages), language contact, dialectology/microtypology, bilingual language acquisition, or language teaching.



Boas, Franz. 1911. Introduction. In Franz Boas (ed.), Handbook of American Indian Languages, 1–83. Washington, DC: Bureau of American Ethnology.

Croft, William. 2001. Radical construction grammar: syntactic theory in typological perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and aspect systems. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dryer, Matthew S. 1997. Are grammatical relations universal? In Joan L. Bybee, John Haiman & Sandra A. Thompson (eds.), Essays on Language Function and Language Type: Dedicated to T. Givón, 115–143. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Glinz, Hans. 1952. Die innere Form des Deutschen: eine neue deutsche Grammatik. Bern: Francke.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Joseph H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of language, 73–113. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2007. Pre-established categories don’t exist: consequences for language description and typology. Linguistic Typology 11. 119 – 132.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663–687.

Keenan, Edward Louis & Bernard Comrie. 1977. Noun phrase accessibility and universal grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 8. 63–99.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2007. Linguistic typology requires crosslinguistic formal categories. Linguistic Typology 11. 133–157.


Call for abstracts

Please send an anonymous one-page abstract for a 30-minute presentation to (as a PDF attachment).

Important Dates

Deadline for submission: August 31, 2013
Notification of acceptance: September 15, 2013
Workshop: March 5-7, 2014