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LINGUIST List 24.833

Fri Feb 15 2013

Review: Semantics; Syntax; Typology: Suihkonen et al. (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 13-Jan-2013
From: Roxana Popescu <rpopescu06yahoo.com>
Subject: Argument Structure and Grammatical Relations
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-3434.html

EDITOR: Pirkko Suihkonen
EDITOR: Bernard Comrie
EDITOR: Valery Solovyev
TITLE: Argument Structure and Grammatical Relations
SUBTITLE: A crosslinguistic typology
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 126
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Roxana Luliana Popescu, University of Bacău


“Argument Structure and Grammatical Relations: A cross linguistic typology” is
a volume of papers from a symposium on this topic. It comprises 14 articles,
discussing different aspects of argument structure and grammatical relations
applied to languages from all over the world (Europe, North and Central Asia,
and western North America). After a concise introduction by one of the
volume’s editors, Bernard Comrie, there is a series of papers on the notion of
alignment typology, case marking (nominative-accusative), ergative verbs,
agent-patient noun phrase arguments, typology of grammatical relations and
many other notions directly or indirectly related to the topic of the volume.

In his paper “A deceptive case of split-intransitivity in Basque”, Asier
Alcázar focuses on the asymmetry of Basque unergatives and transitives based
on the absolute construction and reduced relative clauses, questioning the
universality of unergatives as syntactically intransitive. Generally,
unergative verbs are considered intransitive in Basque and they are either
verbs (objectless) or light verbs (their object is separable from ‘egin’
‘do’). However, due to the fact that Basque uses a range of morphemes for
case marking, person indication and number agreement with some intransitives
(although generally associated with transitivity), the author demonstrates
that split-intransitives tend to become ergative.

Bernard Comrie brings into discussion “Some argument structure properties of
the verb ‘to give’ in the languages of Europe and Northern and Central Asia”.
Case marking and other morphosyntactic properties are analyzed in
monotransitive and ditransitive constructions, focusing on the non-Agent
arguments, such as Recipient, Theme, and Patient. Presenting examples from
more than 33 different languages, the author concludes that the indirect
object (the Recipient) is more frequent in ditransitive constructions with the
verb ‘give’. He brings as an argument the ‘syntactic primacy’ in a
ditransitive construction of non-Agent arguments, considering that it may
sometimes match case marking alignment. However, the author demonstrates that
the Recipient is mostly preferred over the Theme, on the one hand, due to the
proximity to the verb, on the other hand semantically. The author shows that
the translation of the word ‘to give’ can be influenced by the features of the
relation of the Recipient argument with the speaker in terms of person/number
and power/solidarity. Therefore, syntactic primacy is also given a semantic
choice, the studied languages offering plenty of examples to show the
popularity of the Recipients over the other objects.

Greville G. Corbett, in “Grammatical relations in a typology of agreement
systems”, argues that grammatical relations are not sufficient to determine a
typology of agreement relations. Thematic roles and verbal semantics,
communicative functions and surface case also help identify the type of
agreement. After presenting a theoretical framework on grammatical relations
based on the Relational Hierarchy (Johnson 1977) and the Accessibility
Hierarchy (Keenan & Comrie 1977), the author mentions some problems with
grammatical relations which restrict agreement, such as dummy subjects
(English ‘there’), backward agreement/attraction (copula and the noun phrase
in the predicate), and possessive constructions. The paper proceeds by
discussing to what extent all the other features combined (thematic roles,
communicative functions and case) help in establishing agreement. Comrie’s
(1975) and Robblee’s (1993) Predicate Hierarchies are further applied to some
Russian prose works to analyze agreement according to thematic roles which
influence it. In addition, the author suggests that languages have
communicative functions that influence agreement and that the subject does not
necessarily control agreement, especially when the subject is focused and not
the topic. There can also be object agreement, when the topic is emphasized.
Further, the author brings into discussion cases, such as nominative, genitive
and accusative that influence number and gender agreement by giving the
results of a study on 415 examples from literary Russian texts. To sum up, the
paper concludes that grammatical relations do not account for agreement
entirely, but they also depend on the meaning of the clause and their
communicative functions.

Michael A. Daniel, Timur A. Maisak and Solmaz R. Merdanova discuss the issue
of “Causatives in Agul”. After introducing Agul with its sociolinguistic
situation, its genetic affiliation and its grammar, the authors divide their
paper into 3 sections: section 2 describes formal properties of causative
verbs and productive constructions (e.g. infinitives with the verb ‘aq’as’
‘do’ and periphrastic ‘do’ causatives), and non-productive constructions (e.g.
‘do’ causatives, labile verbs and lexical causatives); section 3 describes
semantic features of Agul causatives and contrasts between the attested
patterns; and section 4 comprises some typological background and highlights
the common and uncommon features of Agul causatives. The authors give a
typology of the dichotomy between the non-productive and periphrastic
causatives. The discrimination of semantic roles of the Causer and the Causee
are debated as part of the causative constructions (direct or indirect) and
case markers. Finally, there is an overview and an East Caucasian perspective,
periphrastic causatives being considered intermediate between bi- and
monoclausal constructions.

Andrei Filchenko, in “Continuity of information structuring strategies in
Eastern Khanty: Definiteness/topicality”, discusses how discourse is rendered
cohesive based on grammatical relations. He analyzes information structuring
both pragmatically and semantically by means of elision, word order,
agreement, case, voice and possessive markers, applying all these to corpus
data from Khanty, a Finno-Ugric language. His paper shows that there is a
strong correlation between reduced morphological complexity and discourse
referents, which are pragmatically dominant and focuses on the possessive
markers, as pragmatic markers of the referents. The author notes the frequency
of objective/definite vs. subjective/indefinite conjugations in Khanty,
understood as involving the formal properties of the Object (O) Argument, such
as: possessive constructions, pronouns, demonstratives, embedded clauses,
elided/zero objects. The position of the argument in O (transitive
non-Subject) may vary, due to its pragmatic properties: a fixed SOV position
for an unidentifiable Object referent or variations (either OSV or SVO) for an
identifiable and pragmatically active Object referent. Embedded non-finite
clauses are also identified in Khanty as subject-controlled, but this is not
mandatory (for example some adverbial, complement or relative clauses do not
have a coreferential S of the non-finite clause with the S of the matrix
clause). This choice depends on the pragmatic properties of the referent
(identifiability and activation). Thus, the author demonstrates that the main
strategies for information structuring in Eastern Khanty are based on
pragmatic features: identifiability, activation, definiteness and topicality.

John A. Hawkins, in “Patterns of asymmetry in argument structure across
languages: Some principles and puzzles”, discusses the co-occurrence of rule
applicability asymmetries, formal marking asymmetries and linear ordering
asymmetries, described in terms of hierarchies which can be explained on the
one hand according to processing and performance, and on the other hand by
declining levels of frequency and accessibility. The author discusses the
questions raised by hierarchies and their correlating properties: favoring
syntactic and morphologic rules for higher positions (e.g. verb agreement with
Nominative before Accusative); zero marking preferred for higher positions;
linear ordering related to hierarchy positions or case hierarchy. The author
shows that the hierarchies among the arguments of a predicate depend on the
principles of complexity, citing different views on this topic in the
literature, such as Hawkins (2004), Blake (1990), Primus (1993, 1995, 1999).

Taeho Jang and Thomas E. Payne, in “Topic marking and the construction of
narrative in Xibe”, present a corpus-based study on the functions of the topic
marker ‘da’ in spoken Xibe (a language spoken in Northwestern China),
identifying the instances where it occurs syntactically as ‘candidate
positions’. They illustrate these syntactic environments, such as: following a
clause-initial Noun Phrase; following a clause-initial adverb; following the
sentence-initial conjunctives (‘tumake’ ‘and then’ and ‘dam’ ‘however’); and
between clauses, following one of three converb endings or a perfective aspect
ending. Structurally, these are the contexts in which ‘da’ may occur, but it
is never obligatory. Discourse factors are also discussed in terms of the
choice of the topic marker ‘da’: expressing temporal sequence or addition. The
authors argue for the importance of this marker in building narrative
discourse or characterizing a specific genre, register and style. They argue
that the notion of limitation connects all its usages and identify the
tendency among proficient speakers to use it in order to link clauses in
temporal sequence forming ‘clause chains’.

Juha A. Janhunen, in “On the hierarchy of structural convergence in the Amdo
Sprachbund”, offers a diachronic perspective on alignment systems. The author
presents arguments in terms of the structural features of the languages of the
Amdo Sprachbund belonging to four linguistic stocks: Turkic, Mongolic, Sinitic
and Bodic, all being influenced by interactive adaptations and sharing many
properties at all levels (phonological, morphological, syntactic and
pragmatic). However, there is a distribution of these features according to
some typological spheres, such as: the Altaic (Turko-Mongolic), the Sinitic
(Chinese) and the Bodic (Tibetan). The author contrasts them to find out which
makes up the general substratum and which is more restrictive in use, trying
to establish the language boundaries. The paper also deals with a basic
distinction that “has not crossed the language boundaries in Amdo Sprachbund”
(p. 184), namely the difference between the accusative and ergative strategies
of argument structure. The author notices that the structural markers in these
languages have the tendency to be identical with the genitive markers in other
languages. This genitive-ergative feature of Amdo Tibetan is also considered a
‘connective’ occurring both adnominally and adverbially. The author concludes
that there are structural features which are more easily borrowed or lost, and
other structures remaining as such (ergativity and nominal phrase word order).

Lars Johanson, in “Pyramids of spatial relators in Northeastern Turkic and its
neighbors”, deals with basic topological relations at different stages
(older/recent) of the languages spoken in Siberia and Mongolia. The author
presents an overview of the classes which combine with the nominals and are
added to predicates as spatial markers. He distinguishes between non-dynamic
and dynamic situations for spatial relators expressing on the one hand,
location (referring to a place: ‘in’, ‘at’, ‘on’) and translocation (‘along’,
‘through’ a situation), and on the other hand, adlocation (‘motion towards’)
and ‘delocation’ (‘motion away from’). The stages of historical developments
of these basic spatial relators are further presented as a pyramid-like
figure, each changing or altering the preceding stage, with a slope from the
general to the particular. At each level he includes the following items with
exemplifications from the studied languages: (A) markerless constructions
(nominals with intransitive verbs); (B) simple case suffixes (simple local
case markers added as suffixes to nominals); (C) composite case suffixes; (D)
simple postpositions (mostly converb forms added); (E) complex postpositions
(nominal phrases with spatial meaning: ‘interior’, ‘back’, ‘side’, ‘bottom’,
etc.). However, the author demonstrates that the diachronic relations between
the levels do not offer a chronological development: items at a lower level
may be older than others. The paper concludes that the older markers developed
into more refined markers in terms of semantic content, spatial relators
acquiring dynamic and non-dynamic interpretations according to the movement
character of the predicate verb which can be inherited by a language.

Andrej A. Kibrik, in “What’s in the head of head-marking languages?”, focuses
on phenomena that identify the semantic roles in a clause, claiming that the
head-marking technique is functionally equivalent to nominal cases rather than
to grammatical relations (subject, direct object, etc.). The author argues
that head-marking languages combine the typology of locus of marking and the
typology of argument type that considers personal affixes on the verb as
possible pronominal arguments. He also identifies the semantic roles in the
languages studied as marked by linear positions in the morphological structure
of the verb in which pronominal elements are inserted. These positions
represent functional correspondents of case affixes in dependent-marking
languages, known and labeled as cases. He concludes that in head-marking
languages grammatical relations and role marking tend to overlap due to the
relative linear order of morphemes.

Hee-Soo Kim, in “Transitives, causatives and passives in Korean and Japanese”,
analyzes the structures enumerated in the title in terms of ‘event control’
(EC) and ‘root event’ (RE), as well as the status of noun phrases in root
events. After mentioning the interest in the similarities and dissimilarities
between these concepts by different linguists (Dowty 1979, Jackendoff 1972,
Grimshaw 1990, etc.), the author draws attention to the parallelism between
transitive, causative and passive structures, based on Korean and Japanese.
The author deals with semantic roles in terms of event/root control which come
either from the subject, from both the subject and object/non-subject or just
from the object/non-subject. Different types of causatives and the
similarities or differences between causative and transitive/passive are
provided, however noting some ambiguity for Korean and Japanese. Furthermore,
the semantic roles of the noun phrases involved in a sentence are identified
as agent/patient (in transitive structures), causer/causee (in causative
structures) and patient/non-argument and agent (in passive structures) and
compared with some English structures. The author demonstrates that all
semantic roles depend more on event control than on root control.

Marianne Mithun, in “Core argument patterns and deep genetic relations:
Hierarchical systems in Northern California”, argues that core argument
marking is directly connected to deep genetic relationships and strongly
resistant to areal influence. The author offers a comparison of the
hierarchical systems in four California languages as evidence for borrowing.
However, the author suggests that these languages differ in the strategies
used to avoid low ranking arguments and lower potential ambiguity. The author
identifies differences in the bases of the systems (agent/patient versus
subject/object), in the manners for maintaining them (passivization, omission
of arguments, alternative pronominal shapes) and in their degree of
penetration into grammars. Thus, she suggests the structural features of these
languages are not descendants of a fully formed hierarchy system, but they
have been stimulated by language contact.

Anna Siewierska and Dik Bakker, in “Three takes on grammatical relations: A
view from the languages of Europe and North and Central Asia”, discuss
different approaches to grammatical relations (GRs), found in Functional
Grammar, Relational Typology and Role and Reference Grammar, all being labeled
as functional-typological. The authors suggest that GRs are not universal,
based on the common considerations of these approaches. The paper also
presents different typologies within these approaches: directly related to GRs
and related to various languages in terms of the presence, nature and strength
of GRs. All these typologies are applied to languages in Europe, Northern and
Central Asia. However, all of the languages considered (in Europe and Northern
and Central Asia) share nominative/accusative subjects, in spite of the fact
that subjects are variable (in Europe) or not (in Northern and Central Asia).
The result is that these typologies distinguish languages in Europe from
Northern and Central Asia, and the presence of these GRs is considered a norm
in Europe but an exception in North and Central Asia.

Pirkko Suihkonen, in “On aspect, aspectual domain and quantification in
Finnish and Udmurt”, offers a case study on quantification and aspectual
domain. Providing examples from Finnish and Udmurt, the author claims that the
choice of aspect depends on argument structure, which is, in its turn, related
to event structures. On the one hand, argument structure adds information to
the structure-building elements; on the other hand, event structure involves
structure-building operations such as passivization or nominalization.
According to the author, lexical predicates, different derivational suffixes
and quantifying adverbs are mutually influential in terms of the aspectual
domain of sentences, the derivation of verbs being used to bind a sentence in
a context. The verbal semantic changes influence quantification and aspect.
The author also embraces Dowty’s approach (1979, 1989) to semantic structures
of predicates and sentence types, which suggests a method of formalizing the
semantics based on Montague Grammar. Finally, the author concludes that there
are no clear boundaries between lexical and grammatical means used to mark
aspect and quantification.


The papers in this volume interrelate in terms of scientific content on the
topic of argument structure and grammatical relations. All the papers are
consistent in volume and supported by a wide range of bibliographical
references, using genuine exemplifications for the theoretical issues
discussed. The theoretical framework of each composition offers clear
explanations for understanding their applied studies on language.

This book addresses linguists with experience in the areas of argument
structure and grammatical relations, and introduces details on languages more
or less familiar to its readers. The research on argument structure
complements that on grammatical relations. This volume is to be appreciated
for providing application of the main theoretical issues, presented throughout
the entire volume, which makes its chapters cohere. This shows that it is
possible to have a common theoretical pattern for argument structure applied
to all languages, but still with some geographically-related linguistic

The thematic hierarchy is also addressed because it allows for reference to
arguments in terms of their relative ranking, e.g., the argument bearing the
‘highest’, ‘second highest’, or ‘lowest’ ranked semantic role, obviating the
need to refer directly to arguments by semantic role.

In linguistic theory, thematic roles have traditionally been regarded as
determinant in expressing generalizations about the syntactic realization of a
predicate’s arguments. Most characterizations of thematic roles have been
carried out in terms of primitive semantic properties of predicates. For
example, Grimshaw (1990: 2-6) argues for “a theory where it is not the roles
themselves that are important, but their place in a thematic hierarchy. A
lexical entry consists of a list of arguments, with no thematic information;
the thematic roles can be deduced from the lexical meaning of the head (via
its lexical semantic structure). The labelling of roles does not, in fact,
play a role at any stage; rather it is their place in the thematic role
hierarchy which is important.” The hierarchical ordering of thematic roles is
one part of what she calls argument structure, the other part being the
aspectual structure which divides an event into parts, therefore showing a
close connection between argument structure and grammatical relations.

The perspective this volume’s topic opens is towards a logical interpretation
of argument structures and grammatical relations (see Ioan 1995, Montague’s
collected papers in Thomason 1974). Case grammar and actantial grammar take
logic closer to the structure and functionality of natural language. The
formal analyses of the predicational and relational logic have their semantic
and pragmatic origin in the distinctions of grammar that place syntax higher
than morphology and guide interest in deep structures.


Blake, B.J. 1990. Relational Grammar [Croom Helm Linguistic Theory Guides].
London: Croom Helm.

Comrie, B. 1975. Polite plurals and predicate agreement. Language 51: 406-418.

Dowty, D. 1979. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar. The Semantics of Verbs and
Times in Generative Semantics and in Montague’s PTQ [Synthese Language Library
7]. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Dowty, D. 1989. On the semantic content of the notion of ‘Thematic role’. In
Properties, Types and Meaning II, Semantic Issues [Studies in Linguistics and
Philosophy 39], G. Chierchia, B.H. Partee & R. Turner (eds.), 69-129.
Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Grimshaw, Jane. 1990. Argument Structure. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Hawkins, J.A. 2004. Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars. Oxford: OUP.

Ioan, Petru. 1995. Logical Horizons. Perspectives and meaning readjustments in
the present universe of formalisms. (Romanian version). Bucharest: Didactic
and Pedagogic Publishing House.

Jackendoff, Ray S. 1972. Semantic Interpretation in Generative Grammar.
Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Johnson, D.E. 1977. On relational constraints on grammars. In Syntax and
Semantics 8: Grammatical relations, P. Cole & J.M. Sadock (eds.), 157-178. New
York: Academic Press.

Keenan, E.L. & Comrie, B. 1977. Noun phrase accessibility and universal
grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 8: 63-99.

Primus, B. 1993. Syntactic relations. In Syntax, Vol.1. J. Jacobs, A. von
Stechow, W. Sternefeld & T. Vennemann (eds.), 686-705. Berlin: Walter de

Primus B. 1995. Relational Typology. In Syntax, 2, J. Jacobs, A. von Stechow,
W. Sternefeld & T. Vennemann (eds.), 1076-1109. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Primus B. 1999. Cases and Thematic Roles: Ergative, accusative and active.
Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Robblee, K.E. 1993. Individuation and Russian agreement. Slavic and East
European Journal 37: 423-441.

Thomason, Richmond E. (ed.). 1974. Formal Philosophy. Selected Papers of
Richard Montague. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Roxana-Iuliana Popescu works as an Assistant Lecturer for the Department of
Foreign Languages and Literatures, at “Vasile Alecsandri” University of Bacău,
Romania. She is also a Ph.D. Student in Logic at “Al. I. Cuza” University of
Iasi, Romania. Her main research interests include Linguistics, Logic and
English for Specific Purposes. She teaches practical courses in English
(translations, grammar exercises, academic writing and communication
activities), seminars in Contemporary English language and English for
Specific Purposes (engineering, mathematics, medicine, biology, occupational
therapy, kinesiotherapy, physical education and sport).
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