LINGUIST List 14.2749

Sat Oct 11 2003

Review: Ling Theory/Syntax: Baker (2003)

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  1. Bert Remijsen, Lexical Categories: Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives

Message 1: Lexical Categories: Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives

Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2003 17:35:17 +0000
From: Bert Remijsen <>
Subject: Lexical Categories: Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives

Baker, Mark C. (2003) Lexical Categories: Verbs, Nouns, and
Adjectives, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in
Linguistics 102.

Announced at

Bert Remijsen, Leiden University


This book presents a hypothesis on the nature of the lexical
categories within the Generative Grammar research program (Principles
and Parameters framework). This is a topic on which Generative Grammar
has had little to say so far. The lexical categories are either
assumed or ill defined in terms of the vague features [N] and [V]. The
three core chapters of Baker's book present and discuss definitions of
verbs, nouns and adjectives, respectively. These categories are
defined in syntactic terms, and Baker hypothesizes that they are
present universally. Verbs are defined as lexical categories that take
a specifier, and nouns as bearers of a referential index. The third
lexical category, adjectives, is distinguished negatively, having
neither of these characteristics. These hypotheses are evaluated on
the basis of a wide range of languages and syntactic
processes. Problematic cases, such as languages in which nominal and
adjectival predicates are indistinguishable from verbs, are accounted
for in terms of (null) functional heads. These can change the valence
of one lexical category in terms of the above-mentioned definitions to
that of another. But even for languages where some of the categories
have been claimed to be collapsed together, Baker maintains that there
is evidence for the same three-way contrast. His heuristic is to look
for category-critical behavior in contexts where the interference of
obscuring functional heads is minimal.


This is a book that brings generative and functional / descriptive
linguistics closer together. As Dixon (1997:132) writes, adequate
language description requires that ''each analytic decision has to be
approached as an open question''. One of the most basic decisions is
undoubtedly that of the lexical categories: which categories can
justifiably be distinguished in this language? An answer to this
question is likely to figure at the beginning of any morphosyntactic
description (Payne 1997). As Baker recognizes, this issue has received
little attention in generative theory. Nouns, verbs and adjectives
were distinguished in Chomsky (1970) in terms of the binary features
[N] and [V], which were not fleshed out theoretically. The lack of
coverage of this topic in generative grammar limits the relevance of
this and comparable frameworks for the descriptive linguist. This is
the gap Baker intends to fill with this large-scale study of the
lexical categories in the generative framework, as it aims ''[to
redeem] the long-standing promissory note known as + / - N and + / -
V. Such a theory should provide a unified account of the range of
grammatical environments in which one lexical category can be used but
not another, and of differences in the internal structure of words and
phrases headed by the various lexical categories.'' (p.17) Baker is
not satisfied with vague semantic characterizations of the lexical
categories, such as that nouns prototypically refer to things, verbs
to events and adjectives to properties. Such an account is
unsatisfactory because of the great number of apparent contradictions.
Baker uses the English minimal-set example of 'hunger' (noun) vs. 'to
hunger' (verb) vs. 'hungry' (adjective), where each form evidently
refers to the same event, irrespective the difference in lexical
category. Baker's alternative is to define the lexical categories in
terms of their syntactic behaviour: - A verb is a lexical category
that takes a specifier - A noun is a lexical category that bears a
referential index - An adjective has neither That is, the
theoretically empty binary features [V] and [N] are replaced by
privative syntactic features. And while these definitions bear obvious
relations to the above- mentioned functional characterizations in
terms of prototypes, they afford a clean cut between the categories.
In general, there are three possible strategies to distinguish the
lexical categories: semantically, morphologically, and
syntactically. The semantic approach is that of the semantic
prototypes and fuzzy boundaries between them, which has obvious
drawbacks. The approach via morphology, well known from the
grammarians of Latin and Greek, is useless for languages of the
isolating type. Baker has explored in detail the potential of the
third possibility. His syntactic definitions are harder to check than
the alternative semantic and morphological ones. That is, one can
establish at a glance whether a Latin noun takes inflection
characteristic of nouns, but it takes a little more work to look for
evidence of a referential index. Still, if this can give us clear-cut
distinctions between the lexical categories, the exercise is well
worth the effort. It is also worth noting that Baker's approach
crucially depends on the assumption of Principles & Parameters
principles such as the ones mentioned below. As a consequence, this
syntactic strategy for distinguishing the lexical categories is
relatively theory-dependent. But I would be inclined to turn this the
way around, and say that this important work makes the generative
framework more attractive. The reader will decide.

Baker brings his definitions of the categories to bear on a wide
variety of languages, with special attention for languages that have
been claimed not to have the category under consideration, and for
languages claimed to have more than these three categories. Data from
Mohawk, Edo and Chichewa, partly collected by the author himself,
constitute the backbone of the cross-linguistic underpinning of the
hypotheses. Many other languages have been taken into account on the
basis of primary descriptions and secondary analyses. It is clear that
the author has taken seriously the challenge to support his hypotheses
with cross-linguistic evidence.

Let us now consider Baker's definitions of verbs and nouns, which
distinguish the three lexical categories. Verbs are defined as lexical
categories that have a specifier. As Baker writes, ''[t]he most
challenging aspect of defending [this definition] is not to show that
all verbs have specifiers but that the other lexical categories cannot
have them.'' He deals with nominal and adjectival predicates by
postulating a functional head (Pred) above the noun / adjective
predicate, so that the specifer can be related to this functional head
rather than to the lexical category below it. Baker attributes
problematic cases of languages in which nominal and adjectival
predicates are indistinguishable from verbs to a null Pred, which at
face value suggests that nouns and adjectives themselves can take
specifiers. Baker provides compelling evidence for the reality of such
a potentially null functional category, among others from causative
verb formation. In many languages, genuine verbs can be raised into a
dominating verb head to form a causative verb, whereas nouns and
adjectives cannot, even if they are indistinguishable from verbs in
simple predicates. The ungrammaticality of causatives that involve the
raising of a noun or an adjective can be accounted for in terms of the
'Proper Head Movement Generalization' axiom, which vetoes movement of
a lexical head to a lexical head movement via a functional head. This
supports the hypothesis of a null Pred blocking the movement of
predicate nouns and adjectives. Baker duly reports that in one case,
the Imbabura dialect of Quechua, causatives can be formed by means of
the same morphological derivation from either verbs, nouns or
adjectives, in violation of the prediction that Pred would bar
causative formation for nouns and adjectives via the same mechanism as
for verbs. This appears to be the only phenomenon that is difficult to
reconcile with Baker's hypotheses. Pred is also evident from
unaccusativity diagnostics. The subject of a nominal or an adjectival
predicate behaves like the subject of transitive verbs but unlike the
subject of an unaccusative verb or the object of a transitive verb,
with respect to a number of syntactic processes that involve
movement. These regularities are to be expected if the former are
directly dominated by a functional head, rather than by a lexical
one. The independently-motivated 'Empty Category Principle' (ECP)
states that is more difficult to extract from a functional phrase
(i.e., Pred) than from a lexical one (V). These examples illustrate
how Baker's account of the distinction between the lexical categories
uses principles that were already available in the generative

Whereas the feature that distinguishes verbs is purely syntactic, the
defining characteristic of nouns has more of a semantic basis. Nouns
are defined as lexical heads that have a referential index, or in
semantic terms, a criterion of identity - i.e., a noun can be
evaluated with respect to sameness in relation to another noun. Baker
makes this feature syntactically relevant by postulating that the
referential index has to be licensed by matching with a structurally
adjacent index, such as a theta role of a sister node. Just as in the
case of the definition of verbs, this definition of what a noun is
ties in with syntactic behavior that is typical of this category.
Examples include the ungrammaticality of nouns on their own, their
ability to bind pronominal elements, and their suitability to fulfill
theta roles. The association between nouns and both quantifiers and
determiners can also be analyzed in a more explanatory adequate way on
the basis of the above-mentioned definition of what a noun is. In this
context and elsewhere in the book, Baker relates the syntactic
regularities expressed by generative principles to the nature of the
lexical categories. This provides a stronger, more explanatory
motivation of why those principles should be the way they are. This is
an important quality of the book.

As he does in relation to the other categories, Baker discusses in
considerable detail languages that have been claimed not have
nouns. He uses examples from, among others, Nahuatl to show that in
some languages adjectives can take on nominal inflection to appear in
the same position as the contentious nouns. As with other problematic
cases, Baker contends that the noun category is there in Nahuatl, but
that the distinction with adjectives is obscured by functional heads
that lend adjective projections a referential index. ''The critical
task, then, is to find ways of isolating the lexical heads from their
functional support systems'' (p. 177). He goes on to demonstrate that
in Nahuatl and other languages like it, noun incorporation offers a
heuristic to distinguish nouns from non-nouns. In an appendix, Baker
argues that adpositions constitute a functional rather than a lexical
category, on a par with the Pred in that they can alter the valence of
a noun - the adposition can bind the referential index, so that the
resulting phrase is relative free in its syntactic distribution.

I would conclude that the author fulfills the ambition to present a
unified account of the lexical categories without fuzzy boundaries
between them. As such this book has a lot to offer to students of
language, whatever their theoretical perspective. Within the
generative tradition, the author widens the scope to include an
essential but hitherto neglected topic. For those outside the
generative tradition, the book offers an overview of syntactic
heuristics critical to the distinction between the lexical
categories. As such the book may be a valuable source for descriptive
linguists confronted with an unclear lexical category
distinction. There certainly is a threshold to overcome for the reader
who is not familiar with the generative framework, although the author
has made an effort to briefly introduce relevant principles before
using them. Still, I expect that many may feel it is worth the effort,
because this work is directly relevant to linguistic description and
comparison. The book is both scholarly and written with enthusiasm.


Chomsky, N. (1970) Remarks on nominalization. In Jacobs, R. &
Rosenbaum, P. (eds.) Readings in English transformational
grammar. Waltham (Mass.): Ginn, pp. 184-221.

Dixon, R. M. W. (1997). The rise and fall of languages. Cambridge
University Press.

Payne, T. E. (1997) Describing morphosyntax. Cambridge University


Bert Remijsen's main research interest is prosodic typology. Fieldwork
research on this topic in the Raja Ampat archipelago (west of New
Guinea) inspired him to start working on a language description of
Matbat, an undocumented Austronesian language of the island Misool.
The most vexing problem so far in this project is the distinction
between the grammatical categories.
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