Currently one of the most controversial topics in linguistic typology and grammatical theory concerns the existence of FLEXIBLE LANGUAGES, i.e. languages with a word class whose members cover functions that are typically associated with two or more of the traditional word classes (verb, noun, and adjective).1,2 This anthology aims to broaden the empirical and theoretical horizon of the discussion surrounding such flexible languages and to make a significant contribution to our understanding of lexical flexibility in human language. The present volume presents an up-to-date reflection of approximately two decades of cross-linguistic and theoretical research on flexible parts of speech. It contains substantially elaborated versions of some of the papers presented at the international workshop on flexible languages, held at the University of Amsterdam in 2007. This concerns the papers by Jan Don and Eva van Lier, David Gil, Kees Hengeveld, Sebastian Nordhoff, and John Peterson. In addition, the present volume contains invited contributions on flexibility in part of speech systems by David Beck, Walter Bisang, William McGregor, and Felix Rau. We should make explicit that this volume does not aim to integrate the individual chapters under a single theoretical approach. It rather presents a wide range of novel descriptive facts and shows how some grammatical theories could accommodate these facts.3 Some of the chapters are primarily theoretically and typologically oriented, taking into account several languages (see esp. the contribution by Hengeveld; also those by Don and van Lier; Bisang). Other chapters combine a theoretical analysis with the description of flexibility in a single language (chapters by Gil, Peterson, and McGregor). Finally, a number of case studies of individual languages illustrate variation in the realm of lexical flexibility and discuss the questions this raises for the typology and diachrony of lexical flexibility (chapters by Rau, Beck, Nordhoff, and Bisang). This introductory chapter is organised as follows. In Section 2 we set the scene with a discussion of some general problems of categorization, in particular (i) cases where one entity seems to belong to two or more categories and (ii) cases where entities appear to be category neutral or underspecified. It will be shown that the solutions for these categorisation problems that have been proposed in the area of linguistics are basically identical to the kind of solutions that have been proposed in other sciences like biology or astronomy. Section 3 provides an overview of functional-typological research on flexibility in part of speech systems. The section begins with a general introduction to the main developments in this area, followed by a discussion of the set of criteria to establish lexical flexibility as proposed by Evans and Osada (2005). In Section 4, we consider flexibility from a wider perspective, going beyond the domain of lexical categorisation. Several recent studies (including some contained in the present volume) suggest that (a certain degree of) flexibility in the part of speech system of a language can be related to (different degrees of) flexibility – or rather the lack of it – at other levels of the grammar of that language. Subsequently we sketch a proposal for a new, four-way typology of flexibility, covering both lexical and grammatical linguistic categories. Section 5, finally, provides an overview of the contents of this book.
Flexible Word Classes: Typological Studies of Underspecified Parts of Speech, 2013, p. 1-30