Linguistics Word Classes
Nikolaus Himmelmann
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0159


Word classes are among the very few grammatical concepts that have continuously played a central role in grammatical theory and grammar writing throughout the two and a half millenia of documented linguistic enquiry in the Western world. Their critical position is due to the fact that they provide central building blocks for the architecture of grammars and of lexical entries in dictionaries. Grammatical rules are stated in terms of word classes and there is a mutual dependency between the grammatical rule system and the word class system. Word classes are thus a typical interface phenomenon and their pivotal role is reflected in the fact that there are a number of different terms used to refer to them. These include, in particular, syntactic or grammatical categories, lexical categories, and the traditional term parts of speech. These terms highlight different aspects of grammatical word classification (morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics/discourse). Some authors hold that they refer to substantially different classifications, while others consider them largely synonymous. It is common to distinguish between major word classes (comprising nouns, verbs, adjectives, and sometimes also adverbs and adpositions) and minor word classes. The latter include, on the one hand, some smallish, closed word classes which are internally tightly structured such as pronouns, demonstratives and articles, and conjunctions. (See the Oxford Bibliographies articles Pronouns, Determiners), Adpositions, Numerals, Auxiliaries, and Copula.) On the other hand, they include Interjections and Ideophones, which are often seen to be at the boundaries of the language system. Items that do not fit any of the other categories are often lumped together under the term particles. Other large-scale classifications are open versus closed classes and content versus function words (lexical versus functional categories in some contemporary frameworks). These roughly match the major/minor divide, but they draw the boundary somewhat differently. Major controversies pertain to the ways word classes can and should be identified and to their Universality and Variability. Classifications can be based on syntactic (distributional), morphological, semantic, or pragmatic criteria. The resulting classifications often fail to correlate, with authors being divided as to how to deal with the incongruities. Some opt for a single (type of) criterion, others make use of a combination of criteria, and a third group argues that classifications on each level (or at least the morphological and syntactic levels) have to be considered separately and that the question of how the classifications fit across levels is subject to cross-linguistic variation. A further issue pertains to the further subclassification of major word classes, an issue not covered in this entry, as there is practically no literature that discusses it specifically from the point of view of word classification. Nouns, for example, may belong to different declension classes, may obey different number-marking regularities in accordance with their semantics (mass, count, collections, etc.), and so on. The relatively extensive literature on verb subclassification is covered in the Oxford Bibliographies article Argument Structure.

General Overviews

There are no reference works, textbooks, or the like specifically devoted to word classes. But there is, of course, hardly a single textbook on general linguistics or syntax that does not discuss word classes. The book that comes closest to something like a textbook is Rauh 2010, which provides a detailed survey of how word classes are dealt with in contemporary grammatical theories, with brief introductory chapters on the Greek-Roman grammatical tradition and pre-Chomskyan American structuralism. The volume Vogel and Comrie 2000 contains in Part I a number of general studies on word classes, illustrating approaches covered either inadequately or not at all in Rauh 2010. This includes in particular the approaches by Anward, Bhat, Croft, Gil, Rijkhoff, and Wierzbicka. The special issue of the journal Studies in Language (Ansaldo, et al. 2008) complements this volume with a number of further studies in a broad range of approaches. There are also many handbooks and encyclopedias that contain articles on word classes. The handbook chapters Evans 2000 and Sasse 2015 stand out for their clear exposition of the fundamental issues and pitfalls in word class identification, and for of their decidedly cross-linguistic perspective.

  • Ansaldo, Umberto, Jan Don, and Roland Pfau, eds. 2008. Special issue: Parts of speech: Descriptive tools, theoretical constructs. Studies in Language 32.3.

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    Collection of articles dealing with word class identification in sign languages, Archaic Chinese, and Zuni, among others. Also contains two articles on the Acquisition of word classes and an article by C. Lehmann on the issue of classifying roots and stems (as opposed to word forms).

  • Evans, Nicholas. 2000. Word classes in the world’s languages. In Morphologie/morphology: An international handbook on inflection and word-formation. Edited by Geert Booij, Christian Lehmann, and Joachim Mugdan, 708–732. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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    Provides a good introduction to, and survey of, the field and includes many observations from lesser-known languages.

  • Rauh, Gisa. 2010. Syntactic categories: Their identification and description in linguistic theories. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A comprehensive survey of word class analyses in a broad variety of contemporary grammatical frameworks, including Generative Grammar in a number of its phases, LFG, HPSG, Cognitive Grammar, Localist Case Grammar, Dik’s Functional Grammar, and Role and Reference Grammar. A lot of space is given to discussing general issues regarding the architecture and philosophy of the frameworks reviewed. May be used in an advanced syntax class.

  • Sasse, Hans-Jürgen. 2015. Syntactic categories and subcategories. In Syntax-theory and analysis: An international handbook. Vol. 1. Edited by Tibor Kiss and Artemis Alexiadou, 158–217. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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    A very readable introduction to the topic, arguing for a multilevel approach to word classes. This is a thoroughly revised and updated version of a chapter with the same title that appeared in an earlier version of the Syntax handbook in the same series in 1993 (edited by Jacobs, von Stechow, Sternefeld, and Vennemann).

  • Vogel, Petra M., and Bernard Comrie, eds. 2000. Approaches to the typology of word classes. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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    Collection of papers outlining either a general approach to word classes or dealing with a specific problem in word classification in a particular language (e.g., kinship verbs in northern Australia, Mandarin numeratives, Tongan preverbials, German modal particles, multifunctionality in Polynesian languages [see also Austronesian]).

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