LINGUIST List 14.2272

Fri Aug 29 2003

Review: Historical Linguistics: Rosenbach (2002)

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  1. Cristiano Broccias, Genitive Variation in English

Message 1: Genitive Variation in English

Date: Thu, 28 Aug 2003 14:59:08 +0200
From: Cristiano Broccias <>
Subject: Genitive Variation in English

Rosenbach, Anette (2002) Genitive Variation in English: Conceptual
Factors in Synchronic and Diachronic Studies, Mouton de Gruyter,
Topics in English Linguistics 42.

Cristiano Broccias, Universit� di Genova and Universit� di Pavia

Since Chapter 1 offers a short description of the book's topic and
main points, I have not provided a general introduction but have
preferred to rely on a chapter-by-chapter summary. The review ends
with some general remarks.

Chapter 1 (Introduction)

The chapter introduces the topic of the book (i.e. the synchronic and
diachronic study of genitive variation in English) and points out its
main conclusions. Synchronically, Rosenbach studies those genitive
cases where, in principle, both the s-variant and the of-variant are
possible (e.g. "the girl's eyes"/"the eyes of the girl" vs. "a king of
honour"/*"an honour's king"). Crucially, she opts for an experimental
study, which allows her to keep apart the three conceptual factors
influencing the choice of either structure (i.e. animacy, topicality,
and possessive relation) as well as to evaluate their relative
importance. Her main conclusions are (1) that the s-genitive is
favoured in what she calls (user-)optimal cases, i.e. with an animate
and topical possessor, and in a prototypical possessive relation; (2)
the relative importance of the three factors is
animacy>topicality>possessive relation; (3) the s-genitive is on the
increase (and especially so in American English); (4) the extension of
the s-genitive to inanimate possessors is more productive than has
been assumed so far. Diachronically, Rosenbach analyses a corpus of
late Middle and Early Modern English (i.e. 1400-1630) and intends to
show that the s-genitive became more productive in such a
period. Crucially, she argues that the s-genitive extended along the
hierarchy mentioned above (i.e. animacy>topicality>possessive
relation). In other words, the synchronic functional analysis also
sheds light on language change. She stresses that the factor
triggering the rise of the s-genitive was the development of the
relational marker 's from inflection to clitic (although the change
may not be complete yet) and the s-genitive's acquiring determiner

Chapter 2 (The structure of the s-genitive and of the of-genitive:
some theoretical preliminaries)

Rosenbach uses the terms "s-genitive" and "of-genitive" to refer to
the whole constructions and calls the two noun phrases linked via the
relational markers (i.e. 's and of) possessor and possessum (e.g. in
"the girl's eyes", first noun phrase, "the girl", is called possessor
and the second, "the eyes", possessum; in "the eyes of the girls",
"the eyes" is the possessum and "the girl" is the possessor). Building
on previous research (e.g. Plank 1992), she argues that 's cannot be
regarded as either an inflection or a clitic. Rather, 's seems to have
developed from an inflection to a more clitic-like element in Modern
English. Still, for the sake of clarity, she adopts the term "clitic"
to refer to 's. Chapter 2 also introduces the distinction (after Biber
et al. 1999) between "specifying genitives" (i.e. genitives having a
[+referential] possessor) and "classifying genitives", i.e. the
modifier/compound type (where a [-referential] possessor occurs). "[A
beautiful king's] daughter" (where the possessor is the determiner)
and "the king of England" (where the possessor is the complement) are
examples of the former; "a beautiful [king's daughter]" and "a king of
honour" (where the possessor is in either case a modifier) illustrate
the latter (note that in "a king of honour", "honour" is called

Chapter 3 (Grammatical variation)

Rosenbach's empirical study is based on the distinction between
categorical and choice contexts. Her analysis deals with only those
cases where, in principle, both the s-genitive and the of-genitive are
possible (i.e. choice contexts), thus ignoring those instances where
the language user has only one option (i.e. categorical contexts) -
although she duly remarks on the possibly fuzzy nature of the boundary
between the two sets (see p.28). Her choice contexts are restricted to
possessive cases (see Table 10 on p.29 for some examples illustrating
this notion) where the possessor is a full lexical NP, the whole
genitive NP is [+definite] and no reference tracking devices for the
whole NP are used (i.e. demonstratives as in "this head of the king",
possessive pronouns as in "my picture of John", the definite article
as in "the head of the king" are excluded). Rosenbach also briefly
discusses some (phonological, morphological, syntactic, pragmatic and
socio-stylistic) factors which are known to influence the use of
either structure (in choice contexts) and which she intends to
disregard in her study. This allows her to further delimit her choice
contexts. In more detail, she only includes (1) possessors not ending
in /s/, /z/, or the voiceless dental fricative, (2) singular possessor
nouns, (3) non-complex, non-branching possessors and possessums, (4)
non-consecutive genitive constructions, and (5) data which are either
balanced or controlled for style.

Chapter 4 (Factors: Animacy, topicality, and possessive relation)

This chapter reviews how animacy, topicality and the notion of
possession - the three factors Rosenbach investigates in her study -
have been dealt with in the literature. It is pointed out that such
three factors are often difficult to define (e.g. what counts as an
animate entity can be a matter of conceptualisation, see
p.49). Further, a series of empirical problems are observed in
connection with previous empirical analyses (see the useful summary on
pp.71-72); among them, alongside the definitional issue mentioned
above, is the fact that many studies have been concerned with absolute
rather than relative frequencies for the s-genitive in choice
contexts. Also, since the three factors interact with each other, they
should not be studied independently. Towards the end of the chapter,
Rosenbach acknowledges the importance of Langacker's (1995) and
Taylor's (1996) reference-point analysis of the s-genitive (i.e. the
idea that the possessor functions as an anchor or reference point for
the identification of the possessum). Still, she observes that such an
account does not discuss of-genitives and is essentially theoretical
(i.e. not empirical) and synchronic in nature. Hence, the need to
bridge the gap between empirical studies and theoretical, cognitive

Chapter 5 ("Variation" versus "choice")

This chapter draws an important distinction between variation and
choice. Variation can be understood, on the level of the language
system, as the availability of variants and, on the usage-level, as
having to do with how such variants are distributed (e.g. with
reference to social groups). Choice involves the usage-level and
manifests itself as preferences within an individual
speaker. Rosenbach goes on to detail how variation and choice are (or
could be) dealt with in formal and cognitive-functional approaches. In
particular, only the latter are regarded to be choice-based (i.e. as
dealing with performance). The chapter concludes with a brief preview
of the following material in the light of the discussion offered in
the present chapter. In more detail, the author makes it clear that
her investigation is choice-based (and hence functionally oriented),
that her "speaker perspective [...] is [...] not sociolinguistic but
psycholinguistic/cognitive in nature" (p.107) and, finally, that the
cognitive-psychological factors to be investigated (i.e. animacy,
topicality, and possessive relation) are regarded as operating largely
unconsciously. Further, she intends to make use of iconicity and
naturalness theories by regarding what is more natural (as well as
what is iconic) as what is easier to process (i.e. more economical)
and hence more likely to occur.

Chapter 6 (Modern English data: experimental study)

This chapter describes the experimental study carried out by the
author in order to assess animacy, topicality, and possessive relation
as factors influencing the speaker's choice of the s-genitive vs. the
of-genitive. Rosenbach first of all offers operational definitions of
the three factors under scrutiny. Animacy is taken as referring to the
animacy status of the possessor only. As examples of [+animate]
possessors, she limits her data to [+human], [-animal], [-collective]
personal nouns (e.g. "girl", "mother", "boy", "man"); as [-animate]
possessors, she opts for [-human], [-collective] concrete nouns only
(e.g. "chair", "bed", "door", "table"; note that temporal and
geographical nouns are excluded). Moving on to topicality, she points
out that the topicality of the possessum is always kept new in her
study. As for the topicality of the possessor, she distinguishes
between a [+topical] possessor, which is [+referential], implies
second mention and is definite (e.g. "the girl"), on the one hand, and
a [-topical] possessor, which is [+referential], implies first mention
and is indefinite (e.g. "a girl"), on the other. Since animate and
topical elements usually (at least in English) occur first in linear
order (i.e. the serialization or linear sequencing principle, which
is iconic in nature, in that the linear order reflects the order of
conceptualisation), the s-genitive is predicted to be preferred with
[+animate] and/or [+topical] elements. Finally, possessive relations
are divided into [+prototypical] and [-prototypical]. With [+animate]
and [+human] possessors, [+prototypical] possession includes body
parts, kin terms and permanent/legal ownership, whereas
[-prototypical] possession includes states and abstract
possession. With [-animate] possessors, [+prototypical] possession
includes part/whole relations, whereas [-prototypical] possession
includes non-part/whole relations. Rosenbach argues that the iconic
principle of conceptual distance (i.e. formal distance between X and Y
reflects conceptual distance between the two) allows her to predict
that [+prototypical] possession should favour the s-genitive and
[-prototypical] possession the of-genitive. This is so because
"[+prototypical] possession relations are close relations between
possessor and possessum" (p.124) and, structurally, the s-genitive
employs a marker ('s) which, for example, is "more bonded with the
possessor that the preposition of" (p.124).

The second part of chapter 6 details how the experiment was carried
out and its results. 56 native speakers of British English and 48
native speakers of American English, aged between 18 and 81 (most of
them having a university education), had to choose between an
of-genitive and an s-genitive (both possible in theory) in 93 short
extracts from contemporary novels. The prediction that the s-genitive
should occur more often with a [+animate] possessor, a [+topical]
possessor, and a [+prototypical] possessive relation (see above) is
further specified into two predictions. Prediction I requires that the
s-genitive is more frequent that the of-genitive in each of the three
cases. Prediction II requires that s-genitives for positive values of
each of the three factors are more frequent than s-genitives for
negative values (i.e. we are dealing with the relative distribution of
the s-genitive). Both predictions are confirmed (in both varieties)
although the difference between s-genitives and of-genitives in
[+prototypical] possessive relations turns out to be not statistically

Rosenbach then analyses how the three factors interact with each
other, that is she studies how s-genitives and of-genitives are
distributed according to the eight conditions [+/-animate],
[+/-topical], [+/- prototypical] (abbreviated as [[+/-a], [[+/-t],
[[+/-p]). Her data indicate that (in both varieties) animacy is more
important than topicality, which in turn is more important than
possessive relation (i.e. animacy > topicality > possessive
relation). Her findings are summed up in a preference hierarchy (see
Figure 17 on p.153) where the eight possible conditions (starting with
those where the s-genitive is more frequent) are arranged as follows:
[+a, +t, +p] > [+a, +t, -p] > [+a, -t, +p] > [+a, -t, -p] > [-a, +t,
+p] > [-a, +t, -p], [-a, -t, +p], [-a, -t, -p]. Importantly, Rosenbach
found that of-genitives become more frequent starting with [+a, -t,
-p] and that the relative frequency of the s-genitive is not
significantly different in the last two cases in either
variety. However, American English data, unlike British English data,
indicate that the difference in frequency of s-genitives between the
"worst" animate condition (i.e. [+a, -t, -p]) and the "best" inanimate
condition (i.e. [-a, +t, +p]) is not significant either.

Rosenbach also divides the British and American subjects into two age
groups and observes a higher frequency of s-genitives in the younger
groups, particularly in the British English one - although, as far as
British English is concerned, the [+animate] environment does not show
a significant difference and, in American English, only the [-animate]
and [+prototypical] conditions are significant. Moving on to the
interaction of the three factors, the author concludes that the
behaviour of the two age groups in both varieties conforms to the
preference hierarchy above. As for British English, she observes that
the increasing use of the s-genitive has mainly to do with [-animate]
conditions (and that the effect of topicality and possessive relations
is secondary). As for American English, a similar picture emerges
although only in the [-a, +t, +p] condition is the difference between
the two age groups significant (and note that the increasing frequency
for [+prototypical] conditions mentioned above is largely restricted
to [-animate] cases). In other words, the increase in s-genitives (in
[-animate] conditions) is particularly strong in British English.

The last part of the experimental study is devoted to a comparison
between British and American English. By looking at the single
factors, Rosenbach concludes that, in general, s-genitives are more
frequent in American English in all conditions (except for the
[+animate] one) but only in the [-animate] context is the difference
significant. The analysis of the interaction of the three factors
shows that the s-genitive is more frequent (but not significantly so)
in British English in the first three [+animate] conditions in the
preference hierarchy given above. On the other hand, s-genitives are
more frequent in American English in all [-animate] conditions
although only in the [-a, -t, +p] condition is the difference between
the two varieties significant. Finally, Rosenbach studies how the two
varieties interact with the two age groups in the use of the
s-genitive in [-animate] cases. She concludes that, although American
English still uses more s-genitives in [-animate] cases, the
difference between the two varieties is fading, which might indicate
an influence of American English over British English.

A problem in her analysis, as she herself points out, is however that
in the [-a, -t, +p] condition the two varieties differ (significantly)
in the present usage but not in the past (whereas the opposite might
be expected). She points out that this might be a recent American
English innovation which has not spread into British English yet (see
p.167 but also note 124 where Rosenbach argues that this line of
explanation may not be correct). In the last part of the chapter
(where she draws the conclusions), Rosenbach also stresses the fact
that the somewhat problematic distribution of s-genitives in the two
"worst" cases (i.e. the [-a, -t] conditions) might be due, among other
things, to the occurrence of more "car" items in the [-a, -t, -p]
condition than in the [-a, -t, +p] case and to the shortness of such a
word. The latter observation leads her to a short discussion of the
role played in general by word length in her study (i.e. the
s-genitive should be more frequent in the "short>long" condition and
the of-genitive in the opposite condition). She concludes that word
length may have biased her results but only a little. Still, she
admits that further research into this factor is needed.

Chapter 7 (Historical development of the genitive variation)

Drawing on Rosenbach and Vezzosi (2000) and Rosenbach, Stein, and
Vezzosi (2000), the author shows that, contrary to what is usually
accepted, the s-genitive, after having been on the decrease in early
Middle English, started to increase from around 1400. Further, from
the middle of the 16th century s-genitives are more frequent than
of-genitives in [+animate] contexts (see below). She argues that this
trend does not necessarily run counter to general laws of language
change because it may be linked to the structural change of 's from an
inflection to a more clitic-like determiner (i.e. we are not dealing
with the same type of s-genitive over the span of time under

In her historical analysis, Rosenbach only considers [+animate]
contexts, [-animate] environments being the almost exclusive province
of of-genitives. She then analyses how topicality and possessive
relations interact in such [+animate] cases. As for topicality, it is
also worth pointing out that she includes [++topical] cases (e.g. the
possessor is a proper name, as in "John's book"). Her results for the
1400-1630 period are summed up in the preference structure [+a, ++t,
+p] > [+a, ++t, -p] > [+a, +t, +p] > [+a, +t, -p] > [+a, -t, +p] >
[+a, -t, -p], i.e. s-genitive contexts extend from the left to the
right and the relative frequency of the s-genitive increases in each
context. Crucially, such a hierarchy resembles the one proposed for
the synchronic analysis in the previous chapter.

The second part of the chapter attempts to offer an explanation of why
the s-genitive became productive again in the 16th century. Rosenbach
makes two important points: (1) the precondition for the s-genitive to
become productive again is the change of 's from inflection to clitic
and (2) the increase in the relative frequency of the s-genitive along
the preference structure mentioned above is to be related to the
function of the clitic s-genitive as a determiner. She also explores
what caused the change in (1) and suggests that a variety of factors
might have contributed to it, although she admits that this question
remains unsettled (see for example page 231). First of all, the
inflectional s-genitive was not replaced by the s-less genitive (which
is still attested in northern British English dialects nowadays)
possibly because of elliptic genitives (e.g. "at Mary's"), which
strongly favoured the s-genitive. Alongside existing accounts for the
change in (1), namely the collapse of the genitive paradigm, deflexion
and the influence of the his-genitive (i.e. "John his book" for
"John's book"), Rosenbach mentions systemic influences such as the
shift towards phrasal compounding (cf. Modern English phrases like
"an off-the-rack dress") and "the close interconnections between
specifying genitives on the one hand and classifying
genitives/compounds and nominal premodification on the other" (p.230).

As for the determiner function of the s-genitive, this may be related
to the evolution of the definite article in the late Middle/early
Modern English period, in that the s-genitive came to occupy the new
structural determiner position available in English. Since a definite
determiner functions as a referential anchor, we expect the s-genitive
to be preferentially used with animate and topical possessors in
prototypical possessive relations and not to be used in those contexts
incompatible with the referential function, i.e. descriptive and
partitive genitives.

Chapter 8 (A diachronic scenario: the extension of the s-genitive from
Middle to Modern English - economically-driven language change?)

Rosenbach assumes that principles of (cognitive) economy play a role
in language processing and uses the term economy to refer to "any
states and/or processes which are (i) easier to conceptualise or
process for the human mind (=synchronically user-optimal
construction) and/or (ii) run in the automatic processing mode"
(p.237), the latter mode being akin to Cognitive Grammar's notion of
entrenchment. She also distinguishes between speaker and hearer
economy in that the speaker wants to use short utterances whereas the
hearer wants them to be as explicit as possible. She stresses that
her study focuses on speaker optimality (see for example p.242);
still, the choice of the s-genitive vs. the of-genitive may also
satisfy the economic needs of the hearer (p.242). In order to account
for the spread of the s-genitive, the author makes use of three
economical principles. (1) Synchronic user-optimality: the s-genitive
in [+animate], [+topical] and [+prototypical] contexts is
synchronically the more economical option since it satisfies the
iconic/natural principles of serialisation and conceptual distance
(introduced in chapter 6). (2) Automatization: since the s-genitive in
[+animate], [+topical] and [+prototypical] contexts is synchronically
user-optimal, it is unsurprising that it becomes more frequent (given
the structural precondition mentioned in the previous chapter) and,
hence, entrenched in this context. In this way, a diachronic change
comes about since entrenchment is another type of user-optimality. (3)

Analogical/metaphorical extension: analogy and metaphor motivates why
the s-genitive extends along the preference hierarchy and, in
particular, becomes more and more frequent in [-animate]
contexts. Rosenbach also deals with the question of whether
grammaticalisation is involved in the spread of the s-genitive. If we
understand grammaticalisation in a broad sense as a process by which a
construction becomes more and more fixed, then this is indeed is the
case. If we interpret grammaticalisation in the strict sense (i.e. a
lexical, less bound element progressively develops into a grammatical,
more bound element), then it may be useful to distinguish between two
processes: (1) the development of 's from inflection to clitic, which
may be a case of degrammaticalisation, and (2) the spread of the
(clitic) s-genitive, which may be analysed as a case of
grammaticalisation (although evidence is at present not conclusive in
either process).

The final part of the chapter examines other factors which may have
influenced the extension of the s-genitive, in particular stylistic
and structural factors. Since the s-genitive is more frequent in
informal texts, its rise may be linked to a trend towards more
informality. Further, the increasing use of nominal premodification
(vs. postmodification) also ties in with the rise of the s-genitive.

Chapter 9 (Summary and conclusion)

In the final chapter Rosenbach summarises her main conclusions and
stresses some theoretically important points, such as the notion that
an economically-driven language change approach does not necessarily
result in a more optimal system (this may be due to
analogical/metaphorical extensions as well as competing needs on the
part of the speaker vs. the hearer).


Rosenbach's book is stimulating and fascinating for a variety of
reasons. First, her investigation is highly commendable because she
deals with genitive variation both synchronically and diachronically
(and in the latter case both within a limited time span, i.e. within
different age groups, and over the course of the history of the
English language from the 15th to the early 17th century). Second,
when examining contemporary variation she pays attention to different
varieties (i.e. American and British English). This, I think, should
pave the way to analyses of more varieties, which might prove useful
in order to seek confirmation of Rosenbach's findings. Third, she
devises a very interesting experimental method for the study of
genitive variation, which had never been attempted before. Fourth, she
is always aware of the possible problems and drawbacks in her
methodology, analyses and conclusions, thus offering us a very
balanced account and evaluation of her findings. Fifth, she
demonstrates a very good knowledge of general linguistics and is
capable of tying in her very specific study with such more general
work on the nature of language. Sixth, she stresses the importance of
a systemic approach to language change in that a variety of factors
are dully recognised as conspiring to the rise of a certain pattern;
in other words, it is acknowledged that any phenomenon must be
evaluated within the language system as a whole.

The very few observations I have mainly have to do with some decisions
which might reflect editorial choices. I would have liked to see the
questionnaire used by Rosenbach in her experimental study included in
the book. This would allow the reader to have a better understanding
of the author's treatment of the data, see also below, as well as
render her experiment easily replicable. Unfortunately, her appendix
only includes the genitive phrases in isolation (and also note that
the frequencies breakdowns do not offer percentages for each of the
examples employed). Similarly, the historical data taken into
consideration should also have been listed (even if this might have
resulted in many more pages). Going back to the synchronic data (as
they are presented in the appendix in 10.1, pp.278-281), I must say
that I find some of the examples problematic. For instance, Rosenbach
repeatedly stresses (see note 41 for example) that she has not
included subjective and objective genitives in her questionnaire
(since subjective genitives, for example, tend to occur in the
s-variant). Still, examples like "a door's shoosh", "a body's soft
thud", "a car's fumes", "a motorbike's sound", "the driver of a car",
"the renovation of a flat" and "the transport of the body" seem to me
good candidates as subjective and objective genitives (i.e. the first
four examples could be analysed as subjective genitives in that the
"possessor" "emitted" a sound or some other substance, whereas the
remaining examples, especially the last two, could easily be regarded
as objective genitives). Note also that some of the examples are so
similar to one another that analogy effects cannot be excluded.

Further, since Rosenbach acknowledges the problematic categorisation
of "car" as an inanimate noun (see pp.172-173), one may wonder why she
has decided to include it (and why she has done so in more than one
instance). Similarly, the noun "tree" (cf. "a tree's shadow")
designates an entity which is intuitively much more animate than a
room; some readers may therefore object to its categorisation as
[-animate] (although, admittedly, Rosenbach explicitly states that by
[+animate] she means [+human]). It is also not clear to me why "a
motorbike's sound" is included twice, both in the [+animate] set and
in the [-animate] set. Finally, another problematic example may be "a
cart's creaking wheels" (assuming that this is the correct ordering of
th� elements vs. "the wheels of a creaking cart", which is given as
the of-genitive variant). Apart from word-length considerations, one
may observe that, conceptually, the example in question implies two
"components": one pertaining to a part-whole relation between
"possessor" and "possessed" (which justifies the [+prototypical]
possession classification) and the other involving the emission of a
sound. The latter may influence (strengthen?) the choice of the
s-genitive in analogy with what is the case with subjective genitives,
as was pointed out above. Surely, the inclusion of the questionnaire
might have dispelled some of these doubts. One final observation
concerns the notion of "choice contexts". Rosenbach does not consider
prepositional variants other than the of-genitive (for the very
obvious reason that they would not count as genitives). Still, in some
cases (not necessarily those included in her questionnaire), the
availability of other prepositional variants could also bear on the
use of the s-genitive. A case in point is Rosenbach's example "her
notebook's pages". Why should we exclude a structure like "the pages
IN her notebook" and only consider "the pages OF her notebook"? It
remains to be seen whether such alternatives also influence genitive

With the proviso concerning the questionnaire in mind, I think
Rosenbach's book is an invaluable contribution to the study of
genitive variation in English and opens up interesting avenues to
further research. (e.g. What was the role played by animacy,
topicality, and possessive relations in the rise of the of-genitive in
the period between late Old English and early Middle English? Or, to
give one more example, the idea that s-genitives are more bonded than
of-genitives should perhaps be investigated further).


Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad, and
Edward Finegan. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written
English. London: Longman.

Langacker, Ronald. 1995. Possession and possessive constructions. In:
John Taylor and Robert MacLaury (eds.). Language and the Cognitive
Construal of the World, 51-79. Berlin: Mouton de Guyter.

Plank, Frans. 1992. From cases to adpositions. In: Nicola Pantaleo
/ed.). Aspects of English Diachronic Linguistics: Papers read at the
Second National Conference of History of English, Naples, 28-29 April
1989, 19-61. Fasano: Schena.

Taylor, John. 1996. Possessives in English. Oxford: Clarendon.


Cristiano Broccias teaches at the Universities of Genoa and Pavia
(Italy). His research interests include English grammar and cognitive
linguistics. He has recently published a book on English change
constructions (Broccias, C. 2003. The English Change Network. Berlin:
Mouton de Gruyter).
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