LINGUIST List 12.988

Mon Apr 9 2001

Review: Fischer et al., Syntax of Early English

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  1. Robert McColl Millar, Review of Fischer et al., The Syntax of Early English

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

Date: Mon, 9 Apr 2001 10:56:40 +0100 (BST)
From: Robert McColl Millar <>
Subject: Review of Fischer et al., The Syntax of Early English

Fischer, Olga, Ans van Kemenade, Willem Koopman and
Wim van der Wurff (2000) The Syntax of Early English,
Cambridge University Press, hardback, xviii, 341 pp.

This intriguing book appears at a significant time in
the development of the means by which the earlier history
of English may be analysed. Although transformational/
generative linguistics has been employed since the 1960s
as a means to illuminate linguistic change in English, it
would be true to say that most of the summative work on the
development of English syntax has been carried out by scholars
whose work is embedded in more traditional models: most notably
Mustanoja (1960), Visser (1963-73) and Mitchell (1985). The
title of this book would suggest that this book is an attempt
to redress this lack. If it does not achieve that, it provides
(at the very least) fresh insights in the analysis of long-discussed

The book consists of nine sections. The first three act as a factual
and theoretical introduction to what are six ostensibly separate but
actually inter-related studies of specific aspects of early English

The first chapter introduces the reader to the theoretical basis of
the book: the principles and parameters model, providing an engaging
introduction to the language acquisition and Universal Grammar
theories which underpin it. It also presents information on the
central points which the book will discuss and on how the texts which
they have analysed have been used.

Chapters 2 and 3 are parallel to each other, dealing with Old English
and Middle English syntax respectively. Chapter 2 discusses
morphology and case assignment; word order; some (main) clause types;
subordinate clauses and preposition stranding. Chapter 3 follows a
similar pattern, concerning itself with morphology and case
assignment; word order; clause types and subordinate clauses. In
comparison with the other chapters, these sections are not theory

Chapter 5, dealing with the Verb-Second Constraint and its loss, and
Chapter 6, dealing with Verb-particles in Old and Middle English, are
essentially two parts of the same argument. Chapter 5 introduces the
topic, discussing the various patterns to be found in the language
diachronically, and comparing the evidence with that to be found in
other Germanic languages, thereby posing the question of whether Old
English was a Verb-Second language, or not, and whether there are
different types of Verb-Second order possible. The conclusion is
reached that topicalization in Verb-Second is asymmetric. A subject
with which van Kemenade is particularly associated (as shown in van
Kemenade 1987 and elsewhere), the role of personal pronouns in
element order and their possible clitic status is then discussed.
Proper space is given to Susan Pintzuk's views (as found in Pintzuk
1991 and elsewhere), based on ideas of phrase structure variation. It
is the conclusion of the book, however, that her views demand there
to be too substantial an indeterminacy for her arguments to work, and
that they are based on only a partial understanding of the corpus.
Nevertheless, her insights over the role of negation in the process
of change are taken on board. Developments after the Old English
period are then discussed. Particular attention is given to the fact
that the Verb-Second constraint appears to fall away in the written
evidence during the fourteenth century, only to stage something of a
revival - possibly for stylistic reasons - during the course of the
Renaissance. The tentative explanation for this change of singular
importance is that the 'relevant specifications for agreement
inflection on the finite verb were lost' (pp.135-6).

Chapter 5 essentially continues the argument, deepening it and
bringing it forward chronologically. It deals with the problem of the
loss of object-verb word order in considerable depth because the fact
that OV order and VO sometimes appear almost side-by-side in texts
from the period might bring in to question the authors' views on the
essentially synchronic nature of 'grammar' change. Whilst again
demonstrating some of the apparent advantages (and flaws) of the work
of scholars such Pintzuk, the chapter argues fairly convincingly that
whilst OV order may well be the dominant surface order apparent in
Old English, evidence from the positioning of pronouns in relation to
particles demonstrates the underlying VO order expected from a
minimalist framework-based analysis.

Chapters 7 and 8, dealing with changes in infinitival constructions
and the history of the 'easy to please' construction respectively,
also form something of a unit, although on this occasion it is the
first, rather then the second, chapter which deals with the broader
topic. Whilst dealing with a range of infinitival constructions and
their relationship both to clause structure and the meaning of the
verb, Chapter 7 discusses the Accusative and Infinitive construction
in English, demonstrating that although Latin influence is entirely
possible, cognate evidence of a similar Dutch construction's loss
demonstrates that there must also have been language (or 'grammar')
internal factors present in English capable of encouraging its
adoption and spread. It concludes that these grammar-internal factors
might include the presence of object-control verbs in, and of passive
infinitives as a major spur for the spread of, constructions of this
type in English, but not Dutch. Chapter 8 follows on from these
arguments, demonstrating that the spread of the 'easy to please'
construction during the Middle English period appears to be the
result of a combination of the development of the possibility of
preposition stranding - made possible, in part, by some of the
processes discussed in relation to element order change - and the
development of a passive infinitive. One of the points which makes
this chapter particularly satisfying is its willingness to come to
terms with the nature of linguistic diffusion during the Middle
English period.

Chapter 9 discusses a particularly thorny problem: is there any
possibility of a rapprochement of ideas between those who believe in
the gradualist model of linguistic change put forward by proponents
of grammaticalization, and those, including the authors of this book,
who believe that each individual is responsible for grammar-change
during her own learning process, and therefore not part of a greater
cline? The chapter deals with two case studies of supposedly
archetypal examples of grammaticalization in English: the development
of near-modal meaning for have to, and Jespersen's cycle of negation,
as originally discussed in Jespersen 1917. Rather than being an
example of semantic bleaching alone, the book argues that the
development is intrinsically connected to the change towards surface
VO order, and that both semantic and syntactic factors were brought
to bear in its development. In the discussion of the cycle of
negation, the general conclusion appears to be that whilst semantic
bleaching must have been a factor in the pattern of change found for
negation in English, the course of the development 'is narrowly
restricted at each stage' (p. 318). The chapter concludes by making
the claim that semantic bleaching should be divorced from the
grammaticalization process, instead relating the process to
'adjacency to and cliticization to the finite verb' (p. 319). What is
often considered to be part of the grammaticalization process is, in
their view, 'the stuff of synchronic grammars as acquired by the
learner' (p. 319). The book is concluded with an excellent
bibliography and index.

This book is amongst the most coherent discussions of central
'problems' in the processes of change in the syntax of English yet
published. Whilst some readers may have a few qualms about their
assumption that all 'grammar change' is based upon purely synchronic
language learning processes, and the book's downplaying (although,
happily, not avoidance) of issues such as language and dialect
contact as factors in linguistic change of any sort, it is extremely
difficult to question the overall arguments made. A few concerns -
more philological than linguistic - might be raised, however. It
would have been pleasing if the book had paid more attention to the
nature of the texts being analysed and their provenance (although on
occasion the fact of Northern 'radicalism' in these matters is
touched upon). A minor criticism might be that it is not entirely
plain for whom the book is being written. In their preface the
authors suggest that the book 'is suitable as a textbook for a
specialized undergraduate course' (p.viii). I am not certain if it
could be used in that way in most University systems, although it
certainly would be useful as foregrounded secondary reading for
students with a considerable background in synchronic syntactic

I mentioned at the beginning of the review that there was a need
for a work which married the philological expertise of a scholar such
as Bruce Mitchell with post-Chomskian linguistics to produce a
summative historical syntax of the English language. This book is not
such a work; it does go a long way towards its eventual production,

Works cited

Jespersen, Otto (1917) Negation in English and other Languages,
Det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes Selskab

Kemenade, Ans van (1987) Syntactic Case and Morphological Case
in the History of English, Foris

Mitchell, Bruce (1985) Old English Syntax, Clarendon

Mustanoja, Tauno (1960) A Middle English Syntax, part 1:
Parts of Speech, Societe Neophilologique

Pintzuk, Susan (1991) Phrase Structures in Competition: Variation and
Change in Old English Word Order, Dissertation, University of

Visser, F.Th. (1963-73) An Historical Syntax of the English
Language, Brill

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

Dr Robert McColl Millar
University of Aberdeen
Department of English
King's College
AB24 2XB

Tel: +44 (0)1224 273909
Fax: +44 (0)1224 272624
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