LINGUIST List 12.2296

Tue Sep 18 2001

Review: Haspelmath, Indefinite Pronouns

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  1. Robert McColl Millar, Review of Haspelmath, Indefinite Pronouns

Message 1: Review of Haspelmath, Indefinite Pronouns

Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2001 09:08:08 +0100
From: Robert McColl Millar <>
Subject: Review of Haspelmath, Indefinite Pronouns

Haspelmath, Martin (2001) Indefinite Pronouns, 1st paperback ed., Oxford
University Press, paperback ISBN: 0-19-829963-X, xvi+364pp, $29.95, Oxford
Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory.

This most interesting and informative book asks itself two inter-related
questions: what is the geographical; what the semantic distribution of the
indefinite pronouns? Can an explanation be given for the origin of these
forms? Using a database which attempts to cover as wide an area as
possible, Martin Haspelmath has generally answered these questions both
convincingly and with considerable style.
 The book is divided into nine basic sections. Following a brief
overview of the work, which introduces the reader to the semantic schema by
which Haspelmath distinguishes the types of indefinite pronouns, Chapter 2
gives these pronouns a typological perspective. Beginning with as wide a
field for discussion as possible what is actually meant by the word
'typology', Haspelmath quickly focuses on a range of topics with which his
book will be concerned: what does 'indefinite' mean; what are the various
categories of pronoun in various language both in semantic and formal
terms? Discussion and constructive criticism of earlier work on the topic
follows: Haspelmath demonstrates that while many previous studies appear to
have understood many of the basic distinctions necessary for the analysis
of these forms, none have been able to give a complete picture. The two
language samples employed in the book are established: a forty language,
and a hundred language sample. The former is, he admits 'biased
genetically' (p.17) towards the Indo-European languages, with the great
majority of languages in the sample also being European in (original)
distribution. The second, larger, sample attempts to correct this problem
by employing as wide a distribution (areally and genetically) of languages
as possible. As he claims (and is borne out by the book), indefinite
pronouns tend to be 'a diachronically unstable phenomenon', so that this
bias in the former sample is not of any great moment. Indeed, even closely
related languages such as German and English do not have anything
approaching a similar indefinite pronoun pattern, either formally or
 Chapter 3 discusses the formal and functional types of indefinite
pronoun. Whilst, as has already been mentioned, indefinite pronouns may
well vary significantly over a relatively small area, both historically and
geographically, a strong case is made and is extended in the subsequent
chapters for there being a relatively limited number of origins for the
pronouns (in general, they appear to be derivative of other forms):
interrogative-based indefinites, generic-noun-based indefinites and 'one'
based indefinites. The main functional types are also presented: negation,
negative polarity (or scale reversal), specificity and non-specificity,
knowledge of the speaker and free-choice indefinites. The chapter concludes
with a discussion of alternatives to indefinite pronouns: generic nouns,
existential sentences, non-specific free relative clauses, and universal
quantifiers. One minor criticism which might be made of this section is the
assumption that these are replacements of (or substitutes for) indefinite
pronouns: it might be argued that, in particular with the use of generic
nouns, the usage might be a fossilised survival from an earlier stage in a
given language's history. This does not in any way invalidate the central
point Haspelmath is making, however.
 Chapter 4 introduces one of the central points of the book: that
it is possible to construct an implicational map for the functions
associated with the indefinite articles. Haspelmath makes a sound argument
for the preference of the term MULTIFUCTIONALITY over polysemy for these
patterns, since 'these [distinctions] often seem to be just different
CONTEXTS rather than different MEANINGS' (p.59). Introducing the various
mechanisms by which an implicational map can be constructed, such a map is
introduced for the indefinite pronouns and tested by use of the forty
language sample. It is fascinating both to see the extent to which
similarities in terms of meaning distribution can be plotted
cross-linguistically, and the way in which closely-related languages do not
necessarily have similar patterns.
 Chapter 5 contains a detailed discussion of various previously
attempted theoretical approaches to the problem of distribution of meaning
cross-linguistically for indefinite pronouns. Haspelmath discusses
approaches based on structuralist semantics, logical semantics, various
syntactic approaches, mental spaces theory and pragmatic scales and scale
reversal. Whilst finding much of merit in all of these, Haspelmath does not
find any of them entirely satisfactory. Instead, he interweaves the best of
each into the reasons behind the structure of his implicational map. The
chapter concludes with a discussion of focusing and sentence accent. The
argument throughout is certainly highly convincing, although it is a moot
point whether the aims of the book would not have been better served by the
chapter being placed before the preceding one.
 Chapters 6 and 7 are of a piece, discussing and explaining the
origin of a range of non-negative indefinite pronouns. Chapter 6 focuses on
grammaticalization processes. It presents a typology for a number of source
constructions for indefiniteness markers, which Haspelmath defines as: the
'dunno' type, the 'want/pleases' type, the 'it may be' type, and the 'no
matter' type. It is informative to see how these basic types are
distributed both cross-linguistically and language internally. These
systems are then related to grammaticalization theory: both that dealing
with concepts of integrity and scope, and from the point of view of
desemanticization. This demonstrates both the manner in which, for example,
the 'dunno' type can be extended semantically from the 'specific unknown'
category as far as use in a number of languages in question/conditional
contexts, and, concentrating on High German jede-, but commenting upon
other languages, the way in which a free-choice indefinite can become a
universal quantifier.
 Chapter 7 deals with those sources for indefinite pronouns for
which grammaticalization theory is not a useful explanation. These include
pronouns based upon scalar focus particles like 'even' or 'at least', the
use of bare interrogatives as pronouns, and the use of reduplicated
indefinite pronouns. Whilst no full explanation of these cross-linguistic
phenomena appears possible, there is evidence that universal semantic
features may be inherent, even with closely related languages, since spread
and retention is unlikely with a set of pronouns given to rapid change in
use and association. The chapter is concluded by a discussion of further
diachronic issues: generic nouns turned pronouns, indefinite pronouns from
'one', the borrowing of indefiniteness markers (which includes some most
interesting examples of calque borrowing from the Slavonic languages into
Yiddish), and semantic enrichment by implicature, with both appreciative
and depreciative meanings.
 Chapter 8 deals with negative indefinite pronouns. Haspelmath
presents a discussion of the 'received taxonomy' associated with Dahl
(1979) and Bernini and Ramat (1996) dealing with this semantic set. Whilst
this taxonomy is useful at a surface level, Haspelmath believes it to be
problematical. He then proceeds to examine a number of contexts designed to
test these views and develop new ones. These include negative indefinites
and elliptical contexts (most closely associated in many western minds with
French, but actually rather widespread), and 'special indefinites', which
appear capable of use both in positive and negative contexts. There then
follows a discussion of the connection between negative indefinites and
verbal negation, which presents a novel discussion of Jespersen's cycle
(Jespersen 1917). Whilst the discussion of whether the presence of a verbal
negator at the beginning of a clause (as with the Romance languages) is of
great interest and value, Haspelmath's association of the development of
'heavy' negation in a language such as English with relatively recent
developments is fraught with problems; not least its presence in
considerable strength in Old English. Nevertheless, the point made about
its functional spread in dialectal forms of English not least those which
appear to be part of a post-creole continuum is well made and well taken.
Diachronic sources of negative indefinites are then provided: non-negative
scalar focus particles; negative scalar focus particles; diachronic
negative absorption; minimal-unit expressions and maximal-unit
expressions. A discussion of possible movement from negative to
non-negative indefinite meaning then follows, discussing examples such as
Old Irish nech 'somebody'. Haspelmath questions whether many (or any) of
these examples are actually in origin negatives, providing counter-examples
from the Romance languages which occasionally use ostensibly negative
indefinites in non-negative contexts.
 Chapter 9 provides a re-statement of a wide range of the themes
given in the book, providing diachronic generalizations for the
developmental pattern established by the implicational map. It is concluded
with a fascinating although inevitably open-ended discussion of areal
connections in the use of the various formal types. There are two
appendices. In Appendix A, in-depth data are given for the forty language
sample; in Appendix B similar material is given in rather less depth for
the hundred language sample. The book is concluded with an excellent and
exhaustive bibliography.

With a book as wide-ranging and definitive as this, it is difficult to find
fault, beyond the rather minor points raised in the above. Perhaps
Haspelmath should have discussed the development of indefinite articles in
more depth, but this might have skewed the discussion unnecessarily. The
argument of the work is not easy to assimilate in a brief period. But this
is a product of the material, not of its treatment. It is certainly
ground-breaking, and looks set to be both the central reference work on the
topic and the source for future work on this and related fields.

Bernini, Giuliano and Paolo Ramat (1996) Negative sentences in the
languages of Europe: a typological approach, Mouton de Gruyter.

Dahl, Osten (1979) 'Typology of sentence negation', Linguistics 17: 79-106.

Jespersen, Otto (1917) Negation in English and Other Languages, A.F. Host.

Robert McColl Millar has research interests in the nature of linguistic
change in the 'transition period' between Old and Middle English, and in
the recent history of Scots. The author of System Collapse, System Rebirth:
The Demonstrative Systems of English 900-1350 and the Birth of the Definite
Article (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2000), he is presently researching
material for a book on language use and language attitudes in the
Statistical Accounts of Scotland.
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