From: Brady Clark <bzc313babel.ling.northwestern.edu>
Subject: Diachronic Clues to Synchronic Grammar
EDITORS: Fuss, Eric and Trips, Carola
TITLE: Diachronic Clues to Synchronic Grammar
SERIES: Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 72
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-3040.html
Brady Clark, Department of Linguistics, Northwestern University.
There is a long tradition in linguistics of diachronic explanations for
synchronic phenomena (e.g. Paul 1880, Greenberg 1966 , Givon 1971,
1975, 1976, Bybee 1985, Garrett 1990, Aristar 1991, Alexiadou and Fanselow
2001, 2002, Keenan 2003, Kiparsky 2005). The papers in the collection
under review apply this particular mode of explanation to synchronic
morphosyntactic phenomena, utilizing the descriptive devices of formal
syntactic theory. A consistent theme throughout the collection is the use
of the notion of economy to explain particular cases of morphosyntactic
change. Economy has played a major role in recent generative work on
syntactic change, see Roberts and Roussou (2003) and van Gelderen (2004).
I briefly address this notion in the critical evaluation below. On the
whole, Fuss and Trips' collection makes novel empirical and theoretical
contributions to the literature, and will be of interest to historical
It is important to highlight the fact that this volume is focused solely
on historical morphosyntax, despite what its very general title suggests.
Readers interested in diachronic explanations for synchronic phonological,
semantic, or pragmatic phenomena should look elsewhere. Further, all of
the papers are embedded in the Principles and Parameters tradition
(Chomsky and Lasnik 1993). For recent historical morphosyntax work in the
Lexical-Functional Grammar tradition see the superb collection edited by
Butt and King (2001).
In what follows, I give a description of each of the papers in the volume.
Each description is immediately followed by a critical evaluation.
DESCRIPTIVE AND CRITICAL EVALUATION
Introduction (Eric Fuss and Carola Trips):
In their introduction, Fuss and Trips give an overview of the generative
approach to diachronic phenomena, focusing in particular on the work of
Lightfoot (1979), Kroch (1989), and Roberts (1993). In this work,
differences between historical stages of a single language are treated in
terms of parametric differences. Syntactic change is described in terms of
a change that affects that parameter values for a given language.
Following this overview, Fuss and Trips discuss the apparent conflict
between the gradualness of language change and the notion of parametric
change. They argue that this conflict is resolved if the linguistic
competence of speakers during periods of change involves command over more
than one internalized grammar (Santorini 1989, Pintzuk 1999, Kroch 2001).
Next, they survey work that argues that certain synchronic phenomena do
not reflect principles of universal grammar, but rather are the result of
either the way that syntactic change proceeds in general, or a specific
For readers unfamiliar with recent generative work on diachronic syntax,
Fuss and Trips' introduction is a good entry point to this literature and
serves as decent background for the rest of the collection. However, Fuss
and Trips obscure some important differences between the approaches they
discuss. For example, as noted below, Kroch and Lightfoot propose very
different models of syntactic change. Lightfoot (e.g. 1999) has argued
that syntactic change occurs when the frequency of use of a given sentence
type rises above some critical threshold, i.e. reanalysis is late. Kroch
has argued against this view (e.g. 2001), providing evidence that suggests
that reanalysis is early. Further, Fuss and Trips give rather short shrift
to diachronic explanations for synchronic phenomena outside of the
generative tradition. Their heavy focus on Principles and Parameters work
overshadows the important contribution of non-generative work. For
example, as Fuss and Trips note, there is a long tradition (e.g. Greenberg
1966 , Vennemann 1973, Givon (1971, 1975, 1976)) of diachronic
explanations for word order correlations. It would have been helpful to
discuss how recent diachronic explanations for syntactic change improve
upon earlier work by non-generativists.
On the development of possessive determiners: Consequences for DP
structure (Artemis Alexiadou):
Alexiadou argues that an examination of the diachronic development of
possessive elements in English, German, and French provides insights into
the structure of possessive DPs synchronically. Drawing upon Cardinaletti
and Starke's work (Cardinaletti and Starke 1999, Cardinaletti 1998) work
on possessive and personal pronouns, Alexiadou argues that weak adjectival
possessives were the source of English clitic possessive determiners (as
in "my book"). Further, Alexiadou claims that this shift is an example
of the grammaticalization pathway strong > weak > clitic.
The bulk of generative work on properties of pronoun systems has relied
upon synchronic evidence. In contrast, Alexiadou utilizes diachronic data
from English, German, and French to support Cardinaletti and Starke's
inventory of pronoun types. For this reason, Alexiadou's paper should be
read by both historical syntacticians and analysts interested in pronoun
systems. The perspective of this paper is slightly different from the rest
of the volume. Alexiadou's main aim is to support Cardinaletti and
Starke's tripartite formal distinction between possessive pronouns (strong
vs. weak vs. clitic) by using evidence from diachrony. This distinction is
not taken to be a consequence of converging specific language changes
(compare Givon's work on word order correlations cited above), nor is
Alexiadou arguing that diachronic evidence should be used to alter formal
analyses of possessive pronouns "that resist analysis in purely
synchronic terms" (pg. 19). In contrast, most of the other papers in the
volume attempt to explain particular synchronic phenomena in terms of
specific cases of language change.
Diachronic clues to pro-drop and complementizer agreement in Bavarian
The primary goal of Fuss's paper is to provide a diachronic explanation
for the puzzling fact that pro-drop and complementizer agreement are
limited to second person (and, for some varieties, first singular)
contexts in Bavarian. Fuss argues that both syntactic and morphological
factors enabled the reanalysis of certain subject clitics as verbal
agreement. Inversion contexts with V-to-C movement facilitated the
reanalysis of subject enclitics as agreement morphemes. This reanalysis is
schematized in (1) (pg. 79): a clitic in the head of DP ("Dclit") is
reanalyzed as an agreement morpheme ("AGR").
[CP Topic [C' C+Vfin [TP [DP_i Dclit.] [T' t_i]]]] >
[CP Topic [C' [C [C+Vfin] [AGR]] [TP pro_i [T' t_i]]]]
However, syntax alone cannot explain why pro-drop and complementizer
agreement are limited to second person (and first singular, in some
varieties). Fuss provides evidence that suggests that this restriction was
a consequence of blocking effects that prefer new verbal agreement
morphology to be more specific than existing morphology.
Fuss marshals a range of different types of diachronic evidence to explain
a surprising synchronic constraint on Bavarian. Further, his mode of
explanation is a neat display of how Distributed Morphology (Halle and
Marantz 1993) might be utilized in diachronic explanations for synchronic
There are two aspects of Fuss' analysis that need further development.
First, Fuss suggests that economy principles might explain the reanalysis
in (1), as well as the restriction of pro-drop and complementizer
agreement to second person and first singular (77-78, 85). For the
reanalysis in (1), Fuss suggests that a preference for simpler structures
may be at play (Clark and Roberts 1993). For the person/number
restrictions, Fuss argues that language learners prefer more specific,
more marked lexical entries over less marked ones, guaranteeing an
optimal, non-redundant lexicon. Fuss ties these hypotheses to recent work
in the generative tradition (e.g. Roberts and Roussou 2003) that assumes
that these preferences should be explained in terms of domain-specific
innate biases on language learners. Fuss does not explore alternative
explanations for apparent economy effects that do not ascribe domain-
specific innate biases to the learner. For example, the apparent
preference for simpler structures could be a consequence of processing
biases (see e.g. Hawkins (1994, 2004), Kirby 1999, Wasow 2002).
Second, Fuss invokes several constraints on reanalysis. For example,
consider the constraint in (2) (pg. 78):
(2) Preservation of argument structure: The reanalysis of a pronoun as an
agreement marker must preserve the predicate's argument structure.
What is the status of this constraint? Is it a constraint on the language
learner, i.e. an innate bias of the sort discussed above? If so, it is
unclear where or how it applies. If the language learner has not yet
learned a predicate's argument structure, how could the learner preserve
it? If (2) is not a constraint on the language learner, what is it a
constraint on? As such, constraints like (2) are descriptive observations
about reanalysis that are in need of deeper explanation.
Syntactic effects of inflectional morphology (Eric Haeberli):
It has long been observed that there is a relationship between
inflectional morphology and syntactic variation. For example, many
researchers have attributed cross-linguistic positional variation in the
finite verb to variation in the domain of agreement morphology (Roberts
1985, Pollock 1989, Rohrbacher 1994, among others). Haeberli focuses on
two phenomena that have been claimed to be constrained by a relationship
between morphology and syntax: the distribution of subjects and adjuncts
in subject-verb inversion and the order of arguments. For the order of
arguments, rich case marking on nominal constituents tends to go along
with free word order. This correlation can be observed diachronically.
Sapir (1921: 168) refers to "the drift toward abolition of most case
distinctions and the correlative drift toward position as an all-important
grammatical method." However, variable word order has been shown to occur
independently of rich case morphology, e.g. in the history of English
(Koopman 1994, Allen 1995). Haeberli proposes that correlations between
syntactic variation and variation in inflectional morphology that appear
problematic from a purely synchronic point of view can be explained if
diachrony is taken into account. His proposal has two components. First,
the relationship between morphology and syntactic phenomena is mediated by
syntactic features. Second, apparent mismatches between morphology and
syntactic phenomena are indicative of a transitional stage of the language
in which morphology has been lost but syntactic features remain. Over
time, the more "economical" grammar in which the syntactic feature is not
maintained drives out the less "economical" grammar in which the
syntactic feature is.
Haeberli's paper is an interesting attempt to salvage the idea that there
are systematic explanations for syntactic variation in terms of
inflectional morphology, despite synchronic counterexamples. Like Kiparsky
(1997), Haeberli suggests that mismatches between morphology and syntax
can be explained by the mediation of another linguistic level. For
Haeberli, this level involves syntactic features and the syntactic
structures those features project. In order to explain the gradual loss of
grammars that involve a mismatch between syntax and morphology, Haeberli,
like Fuss, invokes the notion of economy: Children disprefer grammars for
which syntactic structures contain elements that are not required by the
Without this bias, Haeberli cannot explain why syntactic change usually
follows the loss of morphology. As with Fuss' paper, Haeberli's
(tentative) invocation of economy is a missed opportunity to explore
explanations that do not invoke domain-specific innate biases. Instead,
Haeberli simply stipulates a preference for simpler grammars in the
language acquisition device.
Language change versus grammar change: What diachronic data reveal about
the distinction between core grammar and periphery (Roland Hinterholzl):
Syntactic change proceeds in a gradual fashion. For example, the shift
from OV to VO in early English involved intratextual and intertextual
variability between these two orders at all stages of the change (Pintzuk
1999). Hinterholzl employs the distinction between core and periphery to
explain gradual syntactic change. Specifically, Hinterholzl claims that
base word order and unmarked word order must be distinguished. He argues
that language change is caused by the rise of certain peripheral
(stylistic) rules that are exploited by speakers for communicative
purposes. Peripheral rules lead to a marked prosodic output, which, when
crossing a certain frequency threshold in their use, are reinterpreted as
rules of core grammar.
There are a several problems with Hinterholzl's approach. Hinterholzl,
like Lightfoot (1991, 1999), assumes that parametric change results when
the frequency with which a certain sentence type is used rises above some
critical threshold. As Kroch (2001: 702) points out in his review of
Lightfoot's frequentistic approach, this type of account "depends on a
fragile assumption; namely, on the existence of directionally consistent
drifts in usage over long periods of time that are unconnected to grammar
change." There is little evidence for such drifts. Further, marginal
options can be passed on from generation to generation (Santorini 1989:
134). Hinterholzl fails to address either of these concerns in any detail.
The bulk of Hinterholzl's paper is a critique of the competing grammars
account, in which word order variation follows from the coexistence of
competing grammars. According to Hinterholzl, the main problem with
competing grammars accounts is that they cannot explain how language
internal factors such as information structure requirements are integrated
into the model. However, this is no more than an argument from ignorance
given that Hinterholzl does not attempt to extend the competing grammars
model. An interesting research project would be to extend the competing
grammars model that Yang (2002) presents to account for the interactions
Lastly, Hinterholzl completely mischaracterizes earlier accounts (e.g.
Pintzuk 1999) of the OV to VO shift in early English when he writes (pg.
139) that it is a central assumption of these approaches that "VO orders
are an [Early Middle English] innovation that was brought about by
language contact between Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavian settlers in the
10th century". This is a misreading of the literature. First, Pintzuk
(1999) (among others) discusses evidence that strongly suggests that VO
orders were already present in Old English. Second, nobody takes it as
uncontroversial that the OV to VO shift in early English was a consequence
of language contact with Scandinavian.
The EPP, fossilized movement and reanalysis (Andrew Simpson):
Simpson discusses postverbal modal constructions in Thai, Taiwanese, and
Cantonese. In these languages a single modal meaning 'to be able' appears
in post-verbal position. This is unexpected since modal verbs otherwise
occur in preverbal position in these languages. Simpson provides evidence
that suggests that in Thai this construction is constrained by focus
interpretation. In contrast, postverbal modal constructions in Taiwanese
and Cantonese do not have a clear semantic or pragmatic motivation
synchronically. Simpson argues that a purely formal syntactic mechanism,
EPP features, licenses the postverbal modal construction in these
languages after the semantic, pragmatic, and/or morphological trigger was
Simpson's paper is an important contribution to the historical
morphosyntax literature on southeast Asian languages, and will be of
interest to historical linguists working on those languages. Simpson
succeeds nicely in drawing important consequences for syntactic theory,
namely the idea that there are purely formal syntactic EPP features that
drive movement. Unfortunately, Simpson does not address some of the recent
work that has argued that there are no uninterpretable functional
categories or features (Roberts and Roussou 1999, Roberts and Roussou
2003). Further, Simpson seems to assume that focus interacts directly with
word order. This assumption is not uncontroversial. For example, Buring
(2001) argues that focus interacts with prosodic phrasing, which in turn
interacts with word order. Lastly, Simpson's analysis depends greatly on
how focus is characterized. Unfortunately, Simpson does not engage the
focus or information structure literature at all, apart from Zubizaretta
Restructuring and the development of functional categories (Zoe Wu):
Synchronically, the resultative verb construction in Chinese involves
secondary verbal elements that signal the result or termination of the
action denoted by the primary verbal element. This construction has the
form schematized in (1) (pg. 192):
(3) Subject V1 V2 (Object)
Wu proposes that the historical development of this construction helps
explain the morphosyntactic structure and interpretation of these verbal
clusters synchronically. First, the source of the secondary verbal element
in the resultative construction (V2 in (3)) was lexical elements that were
reanalyzed as functional heads. Wu argues that the semantic interpretation
of the resultative verb constructions highlights the telic property of V2
in (3). As a consequence, this property of V2 gained greater importance
than V2's lexical content. Second, the resultative construction underwent
a word order change: V1 NPobject V2 > V1 V2 NPobject. Wu argues that this
word order change was a consequence of the interaction between a learning
preference for uniform headedness and the frequent occurrence of the V1-V2
Wu's article will be of interest to both historical syntacticians and
linguists interested in resultatives cross-linguistically. As with some of
the other papers in the volume, economy is invoked as an explanation for
word order change, but, unlike other papers in the volume, Wu proposes
that the word order change described above is a consequence of the
INTERACTION between a bias for uniform headedness and changes in the
learning data. Kiparsky (1996) provides evidence that suggests that a
similar type of interaction explains the shift from OV to VO in English.
It would be particularly interesting to see if this word order change can
be explained in terms of work (Hawkins (1994, 2004),
Kirby 1999) that attempts to explain the preference for uniform
directionality of heads in terms of parsing complexity, rather than a
domain-specific innate bias.
As noted above, a primary focus of Wu's article is the aspectual
properties of the secondary verb in the Chinese resultative verb
construction. Recent work on the resultative construction (in English and
other languages) has also explored the semantics and pragmatics of this
construction, including its aspectual properties (e.g. Levin and Rappaport
Hovav 2004). Wu does not discuss this work, or much of the broader
resultatives literature at all (e.g. Goldberg 1995, Jackendoff 1990).
As noted in the introduction, this is a fine collection. Historical
morphosyntacticians will find much of interest in the volume, both in
terms of novel empirical contributions and theoretical innovations. The
collection would have been much stronger if the authors had attempted to
show in detail why utilizing current formal descriptive tools takes us
further than earlier accounts (e.g. Givon 1971, 1975, 1976) in explaining
synchrony via diachrony.
One theme runs through the book. Several of the papers (Fuss, Haeberli,
Wu), invoke the notion of economy to explain change. A shared assumption
in the collection seems to be that economy preferences are domain-specific
innate biases on language learners (see also van Gelderen 2004). A crucial
next step would be to address the growing literature that suggests that
universal properties of language can be explained in terms of parsing
biases (Hawkins (1994, 2004), Kirby 1999) or even general non-linguistic
biases (Christiansen and Kirby 2003: 278-282).
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Brady Clark is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in linguistics at Northwestern
University, where he is involved in several research projects in
historical linguistics, semantics, and pragmatics. He received his BA in
linguistics from the University of Washington in 1997 and his PhD in
linguistics from Stanford University in 2004.
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