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Review of  Lexical Categories

Reviewer: Bert Remijsen
Book Title: Lexical Categories
Book Author: Mark C. Baker
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 14.2749

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Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2003 11:01:37 +0200
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.

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 tradition.

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 Press.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 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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