LINGUIST List 12.1878

Mon Jul 23 2001

Review: Fischer et al., Syntax of Early English

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <>

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  1. Matthew Walenski, review of Fischer et al., The Syntax of Early English

Message 1: review of Fischer et al., The Syntax of Early English

Date: Mon, 23 Jul 2001 12:23:15 -0400
From: Matthew Walenski <>
Subject: review of Fischer et al., The Syntax of Early English

Review of Fischer, Olga, Ans van Kemanade, Willem Koopman, and Wim van
der Wurff (2000) The Syntax of Early English. Cambridge University
Press, hardback ISBN: 0-521-55410-1, xviii+341pp, $69.95 (Cambridge
Syntax Guides) (also published in paperback ISBN: 0-521-55626-0)

Matthew Walenski, Department of Neuroscience and Linguistics,
Georgetown University.

[A previous review of this book is posted at --Eds.]

This book is intended as a textbook for advanced undergraduate or
graduate students of syntax, and represents an outgrowth of Lightfoot's
work on language change in generative grammar (e.g., Lightfoot, 1979).

The authors demonstrate the utility of using diachronic (historical)
language data to constrain synchronic (at a single time stage)
grammatical analysis. Their particular approach refers to the
plausibility of a given change in a language's grammar. Thus given
Grammar A of a language at time X, and Grammar B at time Y, could
Grammar A have reasonably changed to Grammar B? If not, or in
particular if the changes necessary are not supported by historical
record, then perhaps Grammar A, Grammar B, or both has missed some
element essential to the grammatical analysis. In essence, their
proposal suggests that Grammar A must account for the data at time X,
and have the potential to change to Grammar B by time Y; conversely,
Grammar B must account for the data at time Y, and have the potential
to represent a changed form of Grammar A. By the end of the book, the
authors assert that there are in fact no diachronic processes in
language, only successive stages of synchronic grammars. How they reach
that conclusion makes for very interesting reading.

However, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the
proposal that language change is a process in which "gradual
development is punctuated by small structural shifts" (p. 318). Such a
model brings to the front of linguistic evolution the same debate that
is current in biological models of evolution (Prothero, 1992), and
applies to theories of evolutionary change in general. The contrast is
biology is between models of punctuated equilibrium (Eldredge and
Gould, 1972; Gould and Eldredge, 1993), in which the evolution of
species takes place in sudden, short bursts, and more traditional
models of evolutionary gradualism, in which new species gradually
develop from older species. (see also Dixon (1997) for a punctuated
equilibrium model of language change).

The remainder of the book uses case studies to illustrate these ideas.

Chapter 1 outlines the goals of the book and the particular research
methodology to be employed. It is not an easy task to compare grammars
at different stages of a language, particularly when the available
material varies considerable across periods. Does a finding at one
stage of a language represent a change in the grammar, or an accidental
gap in the source material? These are difficult issues that the authors
explicate extremely well.

Chapters 2 and 3 provide outlines of Old and Middle English syntax,
paying particular attention to the constructions that will be examined
in the case studies which follow. These constructions include verbal
and nominal inflections, impersonal verbs, word order in noun phrases,
main clauses, as well as issues relevant to question formation,
negation, relative clauses, complement clauses, and adverbial clauses.
Chapter 2 also treats word order in coordinate clauses and preposition
stranding in Old English, and Chapter 3 additionally treats the passive
in Middle English, but not coordinate clauses or preposition stranding.

The details of the particular analyses they advocate in the case
studies in Chapters 4-8 will only be given brief mention. Chapter 4
discusses the loss of the verb second constraint (that is still found
in modern German) in English, and Chapter 5 treats the loss of object-
verb word order. Chapter 6 looks at verb-particle constructions in Old
and Middle English. Chapter 7 examines changes in infinitival
constructions, and finally Chapter 8 presents the history of the easy-
to-please construction.

This is a tremendously clear, explicit, well-written book. As a
textbook, its main strength lies in the presentation of the details.
There is abundant discussion of the reasons for choosing one analysis
over other possible analyses, and very helpful discussion concerning
how to deal with evidence and the frequent lack of clear evidence. As a
textbook however, it is perhaps better suited to graduate students than
even to advanced undergraduates, as it does assume quite a bit of
syntactic theory, specifically the Principles and Parameters framework
(Chomsky, 1981, 1986). Not so advanced students or students familiar
with a different grammatical framework may have trouble in this
respect. The book also occasionally makes comparisons with other
Germanic languages, modern and historical, and so prior familiarity at
least some Germanic languages would help the student, as would some
prior familiarity with Old and Middle English, but this is perhaps not
as necessary as some theoretical background. In sum, this is an
excellent book, and well worth reading, whether your interests are in
syntax, early English, or theories of evolution, or change of complex
systems in general.

Chomsky, N. (1981) Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht:

Chomsky, N. (1986) Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use.
Praeger. London.

Dixon, R.M.W. (1997) The rise and fall of languages. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge.

Eldredge, N. and Gould, S.J. 1972. Punctuated equilibria: An altenative
to phyletic gradualism. In Models in Paleobiology, T.J.M. Schopf, ed.
San Francisco: Cooper & Co. Pp. 82-115.

Gould, S. J. and Eldredge, N. 1993 Punctuated equilibrium comes of age.
Nature 366, 223.

Lightfoot, D. (1979) Principles of Diachronic Syntax. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Prothero, D.R. (1992) Punctuated equilibrium at twenty: A
Paleontological Perspective. Skeptic vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 38-47.

My research interests include sentence processing (psycho- and neuro-
linguistics), syntax, phonetics, historical linguistics, and writing
systems. I am currently a post-doctoral fellow at Georgetown.
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