LINGUIST List 14.1483

Thu May 22 2003

Review: Cognitive Science/Syntax: Enfield (2002)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  1. Dennis Alexander, Ethnosyntax: Explanations in Grammar and Culture

Message 1: Ethnosyntax: Explanations in Grammar and Culture

Date: Thu, 22 May 2003 09:16:51 +0000
From: Dennis Alexander <>
Subject: Ethnosyntax: Explanations in Grammar and Culture

Enfield, N. J. ed. 2002, Ethnosyntax: explorations in Grammar and
Culture, Oxford university Press, Oxford.

Announced at

Dennis Alexander, School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics,
University of New England

This book is a collection of papers exploring the interaction of
culture and grammar. There is an intuitive and emergent logic to the
sequence going from Part I: Theory and Scope, though Part II: Culture,
Semantics and Grammar, to Part III: Culture, Pragmatics and
Grammaticalization. Reading the papers in the presented sequence, a
reader moves from theoretical and cautionary aspects, through specific
types of studies and finishes with a paper that describes and applies
a particular procedure for ethnosyntactic studies. The papers also
stand alone and can be read in any order.

Chapter 1, Introduction, N.J. Enfield

Enfield's introduction locates the discourse firmly within mainstream
linguistics and extends the reach of the topic to the interfaces of
linguistics with anthropology and psychology. By way of preparation
Enfield identifies some potential bumps between the theory and
practice of ethnosyntactic studies. In particular, some of the
problems besetting the culture concept are addressed briefly in the
introduction. There is also a discussion of the continuum from
'narrow' ethnosyntax - referring to the direct encoding of cultural
meaning in the semantics of morphosyntax - to 'broad' ethnosyntax -
encompassing a wider field of possible relations between grammar and
culture. Enfield highlights the joint importance of both care in
cultural description and care in linguistic description as necessary
foundations for studies in ethnosyntax. The concluding remarks of the
introduction highlight the value of exploratory studies. He situates
these explorations of the culture - language interface alongside
psycholinguistic investigations into the mind - language interface.

Chapter 2 Syntactic Enquiry as a Cultural Activity, Anthony
V. N. Diller and Wilaiwan Khanittanan.

Diller and Khanittanan start from the 'ethno-' of the linguists
studying a language, rather than from the 'ethno-' of the speakers of
a language being studied. One major message of this paper is that
grammaticality judgements are strongly influenced by the cultures of
both linguist and their informants. Diller and Khanittanan then
provide a case study of grammaticality and acceptability judgements
using coreference for zero anaphora pronouns, lightly in English and
in depth for Thai. Diller and Khanittanan make an important point
about the interaction between cultural attitudes to a language,
diachronic processes and about how non-linguist, naive native
speakers make grammaticality and/or acceptability judgements which
differ from those of linguists. There is also an interesting point
about the affect of training, imagination and context on
grammaticality judgements.

Chapter 3, Ethnosyntax, Ethnopragmatics, Sign Functions and Culture,
Cliff Goddard

Goddard's develops and elaborates the distinction between 'broad' and
'narrow' ethnosyntax. He then illustrates the 'narrow' sense of
ethnosyntax with an example from Russian. At the end of this example
he notes the commonality of semantic content that goes with the set of
constructions described. Goddard uses this to go on to identify some
connections between ethnosyntax in the broad sense and
ethnopragmatics. The adaptation of Givon's aphorism to be ''Today's
ethnosyntax is yesterday's ethnopragmatics.'' is echoed later by
Burridge. Goddard goes on to approach the study of culture- language
interactions through the application of Peircean sign functions to
distinguish semantic from iconic and indexical meanings. In this way
a semantic meaning can be distinguished by being expressible as a
paraphrase in universal semantic primes.

Chapter 4, Culture, Cognition, and the Grammar of 'Give' Clauses, John

This is a cross linguistic study of a particular domain of syntax.
Newman identifies two levels of linguistic interaction as 'language -
cognition' and 'language - culture'. He notes that in Cognitive
Linguistics, language and culture are viewed as aspects of cognition.
Newman analyses three specific languages in some depth in relation to
aspects of give clauses: Japanese give forms and societal hierarchy
(acknowledging that this cultural analysis is, to an extent,
controversial). Chipewyan and encoding of the culturally significant
''in control'' versus ''out of control'' contrast. Nuahtl encodes
different aspects of human interaction through morphosyntax. Newman
also includes discussion of what might be cultural and what might be
if not universal, then cross- linguistically very general, and what
might be language specific but not culturally motivated.

Chapter 5, Masculine and Feminine in the Northern Iroquoian Languages,
Wallace Chafe.

Northern Iroquoian languages express gender in pronominal prefixes
whereas Southern Iroquoian languages (Cherokee) don't. The Northern
languages have an elaborate system for marking third person for
masculine, feminine and neuter. The masculine and feminine forms are
treated conspicuously differently within the language, with masculine
being required and feminine being conflated in many situations with
neuter or non- specific forms. Chafe offers a plausible hypothesis
linking the morphology and the aspects of Northern Iroquoian culture
that depict males as conspicuous, flamboyant and independent and
feamles as stable, undifferentiated and in the background. Chafe
notes that the pattern is now a relic but is still used - and
influences some of the current of native speakers of Northern
Iroquoian. Chafe also notes that just because this pattern is visible
and plausibly causal for Northern Iroquoian does not mean it will
explain other similar instances of similar patterns

Chapter 6, Using HE and SHE for Inanimate Referents in English:
Questions of Grammar and World View, Andrew Pawley.

Pawley is looking at a basilectal vernacular variety of English known
as Tasmanian Vernacular English (TVE). Pawley identifies some rules
for animation and gender assignment. Once animation is chosen, some
objects have fixed gender while others have variable gender. Pawley
considers the motivation for choices where variable assignment is
possible and adduces both his own hypothesis and Wierzbicka's.
Finding that more corpus data would be needed to falsify either,
Pawley proceeds to describe and analyse gender assignment in TVE. He
then compares this with work by Mathiot in two regions of the USA.
Pawley reanalyses Mathiot's data and finds that it accords well with
the rules developed for gender assignment in TVE. His final
commentary is on the possibility of a blind spot in linguists'
awareness of what is happening all around them. As a native speaker
of this particular variety, I can certainly attest to such lack of
awareness until I read Pawley. I also find much to consider in his

Chapter 7, A study in Unified Diversity: English and Mixtec Locatives,
Ronald Langacker.

Langacker identifies spatial paths and locations as relatively
uncontroversial candidates for domains to be found in all languages.
He also reasonably uncontroversially asserts that each language will
have a rich inventory of conventional symbolic resources for
expressing spatial relations. These represent the two poles of
universalism and diversity around the axis of which his description
and analyses revolve. Langacker also persuasively cautions against
the assumption that surface differences between languages represent
deeper divides. Langacker gives a substantial exposition of the use
of bodypart compound locatives in Mixtec. He also uses an exposition
of English locatives to explain relevant aspects of the theorey of
Cognitive Grammar. These are then applied to the Mixtec constructions
as analytical tools. There is, perhaps, a question as to whether the
analysis of associated regions and bodypart constructions in Mixtec is
one of metonymy or of synecdoche. Langacker then goes on to consider
the possible grammaticization of the Mixtec bodypart components of the
compounds in relation to the theory of Cognitive Grammar. He does not
claim that the Mixtec locative nouns are adpositions but that they
will become adpositions. However, his demonstration that this was
what occurred in English, which appears to be the basis for his
prediction, is not fully convincing.

Chapter 8, English Causative Constructions in an Ethnosyntactic
Perspective: Focusing on LET, Anna Wierzbicka.

In this paper Wierzbicka does two important things. First she shows
how the English LET causative is semantically different from the
German LASSEN causative and that this difference encodes a cultural
difference. She then goes on to show how particular syntactic
environments can affect the meaning of LET - what is preserved and
what is altered and how the range of constructions for English LET
differs from the range of constructions for German LASSEN and for
Russian DAT'. Wierzbicka also shows how this range of constructions
and their meanings is related to the cultural motivation of the
constructions. In her conclusion Wierzbicka makes some trademark
points about the importance of semantic analysis of the cultural
dimensions of grammar and about the need for a consistent semantic
metalanguage for cross-cultural comparison of meanings whether encoded
in the lexicon, grammar, or pragmatics.

Chapter 9, changes within Pennsylvania German Grammar as Enactments of
Anabaptist World View, Kate Burridge.

Burridge examines two recent developments in Pennsylvania German
grammar that ''...go against usual pathways of grammatical change and
appear to be driven by the cultural and religious preoccupations of
the speakers.'' The changes are the evolution of a lexical word WOTTE
[to wish] out of a grammaticalized modal verb and the development of a
lexical verb ZEHLE [to count] into a marker of future. Burridge opens
with a substantial description of the cultural context of the
Mennonites, the speakers of Pennsylvania German, and their religious
and linguistic heritage. Following this groundwork, Burridge
identifies the linguistic background to grammaticalization and
Pennsylvania German modal verbs. She then describes the evolution of
WOTTE against the usual paths and against the patterns of other
Pennsylvania German modal verbs followed by an analysis of the
cultural forces shaping this occurrence. A broadly similar approach
is worked through for ZEHLE. Burridge's title for the conclusion,
with footnoted credit for the form to Givon, is salient: ''Today's
Pragmatics is Tomorrows Semantics.'' (Cf Goddard above.)

Chapter 10, Cultural logic and Syntactic Productivity: Associated
Posture Constructions in Lao, N.J. Enfield

Enfield opens by highlighting the importance of conventions which act
as premisses in cultural logic for interpreting utterances. This is
done in relation to serial verb constructions and the notion of
'ready- recognizability of event' as a precondition for use of these
constructions. Enfield then outlines process whereby cultural logic
gets encoded into ideas of 'grammaticality'. Next Enfield moves into
serialization and associated posture constructions in Lao. Two
approaches to investigation are used: requests for grammaticality
judgements; and elicitation events using pictures of actions performed
in various postures. Enfield's findings and conclusions describe five
general observations on how interaction between culture and grammar
can be realized: - the dependence on cultural logic requires personal
searches for salient cultural representations, - the notion of
grammaticality makes constant and direct reference to the heuristics
of cultural typifications, - the extent to which complex expressions
encode sub- components as culturally normal events affects the
accessibility of those sub-components to certain productive
morphosyntactic processes, - construal of the semantics of verb
serialization is contingent upon cultural typifications, and - the
choice as to whether to employ a certain syntactic form at all is
contingent upon cultural typifications. He does not claim these as
exhaustive but sees his results as a motivation for further joint
investigation of the interface between culture and grammar.

Chapter 11, Aspects of Ku Waru Ethnosyntax and Social Life, Alan

Rumsey begins with a ''potted ethnography'' of the Ku Waru. he
highlights the importance of 'pairing' across a number of domains and
social dimensions to the Ku Waru in particular, and across the Western
Highlands of Papua New Guinea in general. Rumsey's discussion
includes existential clauses, person and number categories, the use of
parallelism and the form and meaning of some pairing compounds. Of
these, Rumsey regards the existential clause constructions as the
strongest candidates for being examples of ethnosyntax in the narrow
sense. His description and discussion of parallelism with reference
to Ku Waru to oratory and poetic skill. His discussion of paring
compounds as a category formation device is also very interesting.

Chapter 12, From Common Ground to Syntactic Construction: Associated
Path in Warlpiri, Jane Simpson.

In opening her paper, Simpson makes several important points about the
claims of ethnosyntax that the meanings of some syntactic
constructions involve underlying cultural concerns and that these
cultural concerns can be identified. Simpson also narrows the arena
of investigation from a kind of culture at large to a narrower concept
of 'common ground' which is identifiable from common topics of
conversation, shared expectations and assumptions, and, shared
assumptions about how to build conversations. Simpson then develops a
procedure for carrying out ethnosyntax. Simpson then follows her
procedure in analysing associated path constructions in Warlpiri, an
Australian language. The example is particularly useful because
Simpson has chosen a construction which she judges to be a candidate
for grammaticalization in the relatively near future. The analysis is
succinct and, within the bounds of the paper, a thorough demonstration
of the procedure in action.

Overall, this is a collection of very readable and very interesting
papers. Enfield's selection, introduction and arrangement emphasises
the exploratory nature of the papers and sets the investigatory tone
of the collection.

It is the two-way nature of the interaction between culture and
grammar that emerges from reading this collection. The balance
between simplicity and complexity is maintained across the papers and
both informs and invites dialogue with and between the authors.

There is some significant tension between the views of the authors and
this is productive. For example, Goddard adduces Geertz and Shore in
his discussion to show that there is significant cognitive development
occurring under the influence of culture and language. This contrasts
with the view of Cognitive Grammar that culture and language are
aspects of an independent cognitive faculty. Also, whereas Simpson
includes a cross-linguistic checking component in her procedure, Chafe
appears to suggest that similarity of culture is not necessarily going
to have similar effect on different languages.

In summary, this volume is a significant and important contribution to
the exploration of ethnosyntax.


Dennis Alexander is a mature age PhD student at the University of New
England. His current research is in the relationship between the
semantics of abstract expressions and figurative language. More
generally his interests include semantics, figurative language,
sociolinguistics, cognitive linguistics and the philosophy of
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue