LINGUIST List 13.2211

Tue Sep 3 2002

Review: Syntax/Discourse Analysis: Helasvuo (2001)

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  1. David Golumbia, Helasvuo (2001) Syntax in the Making

Message 1: Helasvuo (2001) Syntax in the Making

Date: 2 Sep 2002 21:23:12 -0000
From: David Golumbia <>
Subject: Helasvuo (2001) Syntax in the Making

Helasvuo, Marja-Liisa (2001)
Syntax in the Making: The Emergence of Syntactic Units in
Finnish Conversation. John Benjamins Publishing Company, xiv+175pp,
hardback ISBN 1 55619 394 7 (US), $73.00, 90 272 2619 9 (Eur),
Studies in Discourse and Grammar 9.
Book Announcement on Linguist:
David Golumbia, Long Beach, CA
In a series of carefully linked empirical demonstrations and
theoretical arguments, Helasvuo (H) develops a model for syntactic
structure that touches neatly on themes raised by Paul Hopper, Sandra
Thompson (especially Hopper 1987, 1988; Hopper and Thompson 1980,
1984), Barbara Fox (1987), M. A. K. Halliday, Talmy Giv´┐Żn, and other
leading functional theorists. Combining her own original research (on
Finnish conversational corpora) with thoughtful examinations of main
threads in recent theoretical literature, H develops a relatively
complete rethinking of the basis of grammatical phenomena that is
nevertheless solidly grounded in several significant research
1. Introduction (1-18). H states that she takes the clause as the
basic unit of study but not necessarily of syntax, following what
appears to her the emergence of regular structures in Finnish
discourse. In this she follows Hopper's (1987, 1988) well-known theory
of Emergent Grammar with its emphasis on "recurrent partials" (Hopper
1988, 118; H 1). Taking a broader view of Hopper's meaning than have
some other researchers, H declares her "aim is to study the
grammaticized 'recurrent partials' in their natural environments of
use" (1). In this view grammar is a "vaguely defined set" of
"grammaticized recurrent patterns of discourse" (2). H rightly notes
her innovative approach in being concerned not "with the history of
the grammaticized items or constructions, per se, but rather, attempts
to describe their grammar as it is being realized in present-day
Finnish discourse" (2).
Following Langacker (1987), H presents her conversational data in
terms of schemas, "constantly evolving set[s] of cognitive routines
that are shaped, maintained,, and modified by language use" (Langacker
1987, 57; H 4). H's data are fascinating and suggestive because they
include a great deal of overlapping interaction, fragments,
stop-starts, and so on: in other words, they seem very close to
everyday conversation.
2. The Dynamics of the Clause (19-84). H explains her focus on spoken
corpora, but she is careful to relate this focus to phenomena found in
written language as well: in both cases she is convinced that
traditional descriptions of grammatical rules do not fit the data
precisely enough. H searches for a principle we might call weakly
functionalist, in that she searches for certain kinds of semantic or
pragmatic conditioning to account for some broad grammatical
patterns. Focusing on the clause, and within it the role of word
order, she observes that the category of person is the most important
one in determining overall discourse structure and to a great extent
grammatical structure. She suggests that "in previous research, the
importance of personal pronouns has been largely underestimated" (82)
considering their prevalence in discourse; "personal pronouns should
be taken as a central force in the structuring of argument relations
in discourse."
In particular, 1st and 2nd person pronouns provide core cases for
clause structure, providing schemas that "do important discourse work
in the marking of Noun Phrases (NPs) that serve to track participants
in discourse" (83). Thus the interplay of 1st and 2nd person pronouns
create agreement patterns that influence 3rd persons and even oblique
cases. H is careful to point out that this conclusion applies to her
Finnish data in particular, and that "languages respond in different
ways to the various discourse needs that speakers are faced with,"
citing Mandarin and Nuu-chah-nulth as examples of languages in which
"the clause does not emerge so clearly as a level of syntactic
3. Grammaticization of the Subject Role (85-104). Following her
observations on the clause, H continues to explore the primacy of the
Subject role and Subject/Object relations, again emphasizing the use
of personal pronouns to provide what looks like grammatical
structure. First, she explores whether there is in fact a "unified
subject role" (85) in Finnish from a statistical perspective (in terms
of the occurrence of 1st and 2nd person pronouns, other pronouns, NPs,
and so on. She determines that "there is an overwhelming tendency in
spoken discourse for NPs in the transitive subject role" (87,
following terminology of Du Bois 1987 and elsewhere). Further analysis
of the data reveals that there is in fact a narrow definition of
syntactic Subject that seems unified with discourse Subject, which
"thus defined almost always takes a preverbal position" in addition to
being highly correlated with personal pronoun occurrence.
H's analysis extends from the core cases of simple transitive and
intransitive clauses to the complex oblique cases and ergative
agreement also found in Finnish (which is part of what makes Finnish
conversational data an especially interesting target for study). This
allows her to extend her analysis from the prevalent uses of
structuring parts of speech to more peripheral constructions, and
therefore to the kinds of animacy and person hierarchies that are
becoming familiar in a range of linguistic approaches, in general
directly emerging from or in response to Silverstein (1976). H notes
that "new referents are rarely introduced in the subject role" and
that "there is a difference between new mentions made in the core
roles and new mentions in the oblique role: those referents that are
introduced in the oblique role are hardly ever mentioned again in
subsequent discourse, whereas referents that are first mentioned in
the core roles are much more likely to be mentioned again , i.e. to be
tracked in the discourse" (93). Finnish includes an existential clause
schema (E-NP) and partitive "Subject" construction that "lack most of
the coding features that characterize subjects: they do not trigger
agreement, and E-NPs may appear in the partitive case as well as the
nominative. . The referents of NPs are usually human. Thus, their
respective discourse profiles are completely different, and so are the
coding features. We can conclude that they do not represent the same
syntactic function, i.e. the subject" (103).
4. Free NPs (105-132) Moving from instances that feature the most
prominent available grammar (transitive and intransitive NPs and
clauses), H now turns to what appear to be among the least structured
elements, namely Free NPs, again in the same corpora she has been
examining throughout. "In Finnish there is agreement not only between
the subject and the predicate, but also, within the noun phrase
between the head and its modifiers. This is what Lehmann (1988) calls
'internal agreement.' . This is one of the defining features of noun
phrase formation in Finnish" (105). H argues that free NPs serve a
limited set of discourse and syntactic functions in Finnish and help
us to gain a clearer picture of overall grammatical operations in the
language, since they occur frequently in the spoken corpora.
H uses a relatively strict method to determine what counts as a free
NP in her data (106-8). Addressing the issue in the functionalist
tradition directly, H argues that free NPs are "a type of syntactic
unit which is distinct from and not reducible to clauses" (113). The
elaborate case marking system of Finnish is applied selectively to
free NPs, and they serve a variety of discourse functions. Following
suggestions of Hopper and Thompson (1980, 1984), H suggests that
"referential free NPs can be used to help to highlight a referent or
to focus on a referent that is a member of a larger set of referents
already under discussion" (131). "Among the predicating free NPs,
identifying and classifying free NPs function either to characterize
referents or to disambiguate the intended referent(s). IN other words,
they serve mainly in negotiating reference, whereas constructions with
a theme and orientation make predications that may initiate something
new, rather than look back to check the understanding of prior talk."
Again, H's work demonstrates the power of something like participant
role to structure significant amounts of linguistic production.
5. Intonation and Syntactic Structuring (133-150). In this final
chapter H's work again takes an innovative turn; she has not
previously focused on phonetic or prosodic issues, despite the fact
that the data she has been offering (as is the case in many works)
seems to invite such analysis. H turns to this issue directly,
focusing on intonation and its interaction with the emerging
principles she has identified as syntactic structuring. Again
following provocative views of Langacker (1997), H looks for ways in
which intonation units and apparent syntactic constituents do and do
not overlap. This allows for a flexible, many-layered approach to the
idea of "constituent" itself that crosses phonological and
morphological levels: "NPs are rarely split across intonation
units. . Most of the time intonational phrasing is convergent with
syntactic phrase structure" (140).
Turning to VPs and oblique NPs, H finds the Finnish evidence more
ambiguous. "Oblique NPs show a certain vagueness in regard to their
syntactic integration. It is no wonder that they often form intonation
units of their own" (145). In the core cases, on the other hand,
strong correlations are the rule. "In terms of intonational groupings,
the bond between the subject and the verb seems to be even stronger
than that between the verb and the object, b4ecause objects are more
often in a different intonation unit from the verb than are subjects"
(148). H agrees that in Finnish, as in many other languages, the
category of VP "may be problematic." The tight reinforcement of
grammar and intonation in the core cases suggests that "syntactic
relations appear most clearly in the clause core" (149) which further
"shows the robustness of the category NP: as we saw in the analysis,
NPs that are clausal constituents are rarely split into two intonation
units. Free NPs form syntactic units of their own, and they are most
often also produced in intonation units of their own."
6. Conclusion (151-154). H reflects on her investigation by noting
again that "it is the clause core where grammatical relations appear
most clearly" (151). She notes that "case marking, agreement, and word
order . highlight the role of the clause core as the locus for the
most explicit coding." Summarizing the work of the latter chapters in
particular, she writes that "if an argument was produced in a
different intonation unit from the predicate, it was more likely to be
the object than the subject. This patterning suggests a subject-verb
grouping on a par with the traditional verb-object grouping. Thus,
there is evidence in the data for a more flexible analysis of
grammatical constituency than has traditionally been assumed, allowing
for different kinds of groupings among the elements"
(153). Furthermore, though "there is strong evidence for the clause as
an emergent grammatical unit in Finnish," H would "by no means like to
suggest that this would be true of languages in general. In fact, we
have discourse studies from other languages that point to the fact
that this is not the case."
This is an extremely strong, carefully thought-out, insightful and
reflective book. It clearly reflects many years of thought, condensed
into an easy-to-follow but dense text. It contains much to interest
linguists of whatever stripe, especially those with interests in the
foundations of syntactic theory, cross-linguistic variation in basic
structuring patterns, patterns of transitivity and ergativity,
functional theories, discourse theories, corpus linguistics - in
short, many subjects for a book that appears relatively modest at
first glance.
Nevertheless, the topics feel neither glossed over nor ornamental;
their relation to H's core argument is clear both from her text and,
on reflection, in the literature and the data themselves. In other
words the phenomena she is describing, and the arguments she teases
out of the theoretical literature, seem to emerge organically, and one
often finds her addressing just the issues that need to be touched on.
This makes her approach both synthetic and analytic, and it helps that
her focus is on a small body of corpora from a single language that
she clearly knows well, so that she can pay special attention to the
apparently para-linguistic phenomena (stop-starts, breaks, turns,
repairs, and so on) that do seem critical to any linguistic function
and are too often under-analyzed. That she is able to read through
such data to a coherent and meaningful thesis is achievement enough,
but that it reflects so suggestively on so many strands of other
recent work makes this an especially valuable book.
The book displays a mastery of the functional literature in
particular, and is among the best existing studies of a single set of
language phenomena from what H rightly calls an emergent perspective
(in the narrow sense of Hopper 1987, 1988): allowing the data
themselves to speak clearly enough to shape formal and theoretical
observations. Her focus on the "core cases" in her discourse samples
feels right: what is it that people have routinized, do automatically,
or rely on heavily and/or paradigmatically when they speak?
Because of this, the depth of her functional analysis do not really
bar her analysis from relevance to other theoretical
approaches. Indeed, much of her concentration on the core cases seems
in line with generative grammar, since something like these cases seem
homologous to the kinds of functional projections and core operations
posited in recent generative work. If there is one shortcoming in the
book, then, it would be the volume's brevity: despite her proper focus
on the core cases, one suspects H has a lot to say about the
peripheral, "broken" and marginal parts of language production and
their relation to grammar, and it is provocative to imagine her
analysis extended to these areas.
Du Bois, J. (1987). The Discourse Basis of Ergativity. Language 63,
Fox, B. (1987). Discourse Structure and Anaphora: Written and
Conversational English. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hopper, P. (1987). Emergent Grammar. In Berkeley Linguistics
Society. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Meeting. Berkeley, CA:
Berkeley Linguistics Society, 139-157.
Hopper, P. (1988). Emergent Grammar and the A Priori Grammar
Postulate. In Tannen, D. (ed.) Linguistics in Context: Connecting
Observation and Understanding. Advances in Discourse Processes, Volume
29. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 117-134.
Hopper, P. and Thompson, S. (1980). Transitivity in Grammar and in
Discourse. Language 56, 251-299.
Hopper, P. and Thompson, S. (1984). The Discourse Basis for Lexical
Categories in Universal Grammar. Language 60, 703-752.
Langacker, R. (1987). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar,
Vol. I. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Langacker, R. (1997). Constituency, Dependency, and Conceptual
Grouping. Cognitive Linguistics 8, 1-32.
Lehmann, C. (1988). On the Function of Agreement. In Barlow, M. and
Ferguson, C. A. (eds.) Agreement in Natural Language: Approaches,
Theories, Descriptions. Stanford: CSLI. 55-65.
Schegloff, E. (1991). Conversation Analysis and Socially Shared
Cognition. In L. Resnick, L., Levine, J., and Teasley, S. (eds.)
Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. Washington, DC: American
Psychological Association. 150-171.
Silverstein, M. (1976). Hierarchy of Features and Ergativity. In
Dixon, R. M. W. (ed.) Grammatical Categories in Australian
Languages. Canberra: Humanities Press. 112-171.
David Golumbia is an independent scholar who works on cultural studies
of linguistics, philosophy and computation.
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