I have been trying to understand the division of "properties of items within a grammar or language" as wikipedia calls it into the following sets (among a few others):

My question is about the last word: "category". I want to understand what the generally accepted definition of "category" in linguistics is, in the way it's applied in the above list. The best definition I have found is about "categorizing" and not the "categories" in themselves:

The term refers the process of organization of human experience into general concepts associated to linguistic designations. In the field of grammar, categorization means the establishment of a set of units of classification or properties used in describing languages.

  • CRYSTAL (1980) / LYONS (1968)

Is there be a proper noun that describe the categories as a whole (instead of just the process of categorizing)?

  • 3
    "Linguistic categories" seems like a good name for the superset. Linguistic categories are just one tiny subset of all human categories. Who needs a proper noun for one needle in a pincushion full?
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 17:30
  • @jlawler because this specific division (the categories) forms a set of supersets that are related to one another by complementary difference. From what I understand, the categories had a long historical evolution in the literature and the divisions were proposed and refined by different authors. Besides they are ubiquitous, today, in publications, so I wanted to know if there's an accepted way of referring to them as a whole. The problem with "linguistic categories" is that I don't know if that term encompasses anything radically outside the above list, thus perhaps being a misnomer...
    – bad_coder
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 17:35
  • 1
    50 years ago, that was pretty much true. But there has been growth in a number of linguistic subfields, like pragmatics, text analysis, phonetics, sociolinguistics, computational linguistics, and historical linguistics, to name a few. And terminology has been a growth industry, especially when it comes to categories. Indeed, some linguistic categories have been upended. In speech recognition, for instance, "phoneme" means pretty much what "allophone" does in phonology; the more phonemes a speech recog system recognizes, the more accurate it is.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 17:42

1 Answer 1


"Linguistic categories" are categories (a general term) found in language. There is no definitive list of such categories. You appear to want to exclude phonetic and phonological categories, but including or excluding P-categories does not change the meaning of "category", it just narrows the set of posited categories.

"Categories" are conventional names that correspond to posited "thing" concepts, for example "noun" refers to very many specific words in many languages, analyzed from a certain perspective; "verb" is a concept that subsumes a different set of words. There are many categories of categories, and also theories of what the actual categories are. "Noun" might be a syntactic category, or it might be a morphological category – it depends in part on what your theory of grammar is (there are theories that don't have a thing "morphology": there are also theories that don't have "phonetics" as a thing).

In Aspects-model transformational grammar, "movement" was not a "thing" in the theory, it was epiphenomenal – rules written in a certain way can be said to be "movements". That theory had entities like "N", "NP" (actually, features), and other things that were about how rules are written (for example "variable"). The theory also had things termed "rules". At certain stages, movement became a "thing", and rules per se became epiphenomenal. Every theory has some number of "things" that it says exist in language, and when two or more things are said to be "similar" and distinct from some third thing, you have a category. Then you can ask, what are the categories, and how are they defined? Furthermore, I'm presenting you with a conventional generative-grammar ontology which has (at least ideally) pretty crisp categorization, but there are theories of language that don't divide things sharply into well-defined categories.

The Wiki page on "grammatical category" is far from complete. In addition, it only addresses a narrow sense of "grammar" that focuses on syntax and morphology but not phonetics, phonology and semantics.

  • Thank you for answering. I was just reading a reference textbook (trying to find an answer) and I'll try to extract their perspective, which is complementary to yours. Please allow me a couple of days, I will accept your answer after I had some time to post.
    – bad_coder
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 18:37

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