AUTHOR: Næss, Åshild
TITLE: Prototypical Transitivity
SERIES: Typological Studies in Language 72
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Peter M. Arkadiev, Institute of Slavic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow
The book by Norwegian scholar Åshild Næss is a revised version of her doctoral
dissertation (Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 2003). The topic addressed by
Næss is the relation between semantic and morphosyntactic aspects of
transitivity as seen from the position of functional-typological linguistics;
more precisely, she argues for a particular interpretation of Hopper and
Thompson's (1980) conception of transitivity. Among the issues discussed are
those of considerable generality, e.g. the definitions of the semantic prototype
of transitivity and of the semantic roles Agent and Patient, the relation
between prototypicality and markedness, approaches to the functions of case
marking and ergativity, as well as more particular problems, such as the notions
of the 'Affected Agent' and the semantic properties of the so called 'ingestive'
predicates, indefinite object deletion, the functions of the Dative case etc.
The core idea of the book is that the semantic prototype of transitivity is
defined by the 'Maximal Semantic Distinctness' of Agent and Patient, and that
any kind of deviation from this prototype may result in a formally intransitive
structure in a given language. Various implications from this hypothesis are
discussed in different chapters of the book, based on rich cross-linguistic
The Introduction (p. 1-9) outlines the main goals and theoretical preliminaries
of the book. Næss states (p. 3) that ''a main goal of this book is to discuss how
principles of functional and cognitive linguistics can be brought to bear in an
attempt at understanding the phenomenon of transitivity from a cross-linguistic
perspective.'' In addition, Næss defines the notion of transitive clause (''a
construction with two syntactically privileged arguments'') as more narrow than
''two-participant clause''; the well-known labels A(gent) and O(bject) (cf. Dixon
1979), in her understanding, refer to the latter more broad notion, thus not
restricted to particular grammatical functions.
In Chapter 2 ''Why a transitive prototype'' (p. 11-26) Næss argues that a
definition of transitivity in terms of a semantic prototype is necessary.
Prototype models as introduced by Rosch (1978) are characterized by allowing
different members of a category to be similar to the prototype to different
degrees, and Næss gives examples from a variety of languages which show that a
simple dichotomy between one-argument and two-argument clauses is not sufficient
to adequately define transitivity. Næss discusses the influential proposal of
Hopper and Thompson (1980), who claim that transitivity is a gradable notion
defined by a range of semantic features, and argues that the question why this
prototype of transitivity exists at all and why it looks the way it does in a
variety of languages remain unanswered.
Another topic discussed in this chapter is the alternative conception of
transitivity proposed by Comrie (1981), who argues that the most ''natural'' and
''unmarked'' transitive construction is the one with an O low in individuation
(animacy and/or definiteness). This is at odds with Hopper and Thompson's
conception, which explicitly states that the more individuated is O, the higher
is the degree of transitivity of the construction. Næss attempts to resolve this
conflict by saying that the notions ''prototypical transitive clause'' and ''least
marked two-participant clause'' are not and must not be synonymous, and that
since the prototypical transitive construction involves two syntactically
prominent arguments it is by definition marked with respect to constructions
with only one such argument, e.g. syntactically intransitive two-participant
Chapter 3 ''Defining the transitive prototype: The Maximally Distinguished
Arguments Hypothesis'' (p. 27-49) is devoted to the main theoretical claim of the
book, viz. that the function of the prototypical transitive clause is to encode
situations with two maximally distinct participants. Næss adopts the notion of
distinguishability of participants as defined by Kemmer (1993), which includes
both physical (the participants must be clearly identifiable as different
entities) and conceptual (participants must play different roles in the event)
distinctness, and formulates the following hypothesis (p. 30):
The Maximally Distinct Arguments Hypothesis
A prototypical transitive clause is one where the two participants are maximally
semantically distinct in terms of their roles in the event described by the clause.
Næss then discusses the notion of semantic (thematic) relations, and argues for
such a definition of the problematic concepts of Agent and Patient which would
conform to the Maximally Distinct Arguments Hypothesis. The definitions are
provided in terms of three binary features: Volitionality (a volitional
participant exercises its capacity of participating in an event on its own will
in interacting with the particular event), Instigation (roughly similar to the
notion of causation), and Affectedness (change of state as a result of being
involved in the event). Agent is defined as [+VOL,+INST,-AFF], while Patient by
contrast is assigned [-VOL,-INST,+AFF] (cf. Testelets 1998).
Finally, Næss addresses the question of a possible functional explanation of the
transitive prototype defined above. A prototypical transitive construction, she
argues, is an iconic way to express events with two salient participants, and
this can also account for the relative markedness of fully transitive clauses
with respect to other ways of encoding two-participant situations. Næss states
that ''in terms of conceptual structure and demands of processing, it could be
argued that such a way of representing events is to a certain extent
uneconomical'' (p. 48) and may be avoided in actual discourse (cf. DuBois 1987).
Thus in languages with object incorporation or antipassivization the fully
transitive clauses will be used more rarely and only when it is necessary to pay
equal attention to both participants. This, in Næss's opinion, explains ''the
crosslinguistic tendency for prototypically transitive clauses to be marked
relative to other kinds of two-participant constructions'' (p. 49).
In the following chapters of the book different implications of the Maximally
Distinct Arguments Hypothesis are discussed; one of the main predictions of it
is that any kind of deviation from the maximal distinction of participants may
result in a formally intransitive construction.
In Chapter 4 ''The Affected Agent'' (p. 51-84) Næss provides a detailed discussion
of the notion of 'Affected Agent' defined by the properties [+VOL,+INST,+AFF].
This relatively understudied notion, introduced by Saksena (1980), turns out to
bear important impact on different grammatical processes. Affected Agents are by
definition those which are significantly affected by the event they volitionally
instigate; events involving an Affected Agent are 'eating', 'drinking' and other
situations described by so called 'ingestive' verbs, also including such
predicates as 'learn', 'see', 'put on', 'read' etc. These verbs are
characterized by emphasizing the effect of the event on the participant it is
instigated by; the Agent's goal in such situations is rather to achieve a
certain change of his or her own state, than bringing out a change in the Patient.
Næss provides evidence for a cross-linguistic tendency of ingestive predicates
to show intransitive behavior. Of particular interest is her discussion of the
intransitive 'eat' in English, which shows ''deviant'' aspectual properties, being
ambiguous between an activity (John ate for ten minutes) and an accomplishment
(John ate in ten minutes). Næss convincingly shows that the accomplishment
reading is due to the affectedness of the agentive subject of this verb which is
able to ''measure out'' the event in terms of Tenny (1994). Further evidence for
not fully transitive status of ingestive verbs comes from cross-referencing and
case-marking of arguments and causativization strategies. Finally, Næss provides
interesting data on verbs meaning 'eat' being grammaticalized as markers of
affectedness (e.g. in Korean, Turkish, Sinhala, Dulong). Næss claims that the
different aspects of the special behavior of ingestive predicates all follow
from the Maximally Distinguished Arguments Hypothesis, and provides evidence for
the relevance of the notion 'Affected Agent' from other lexical domains.
Chapter 5 ''Transitivity in verbs and clauses'' (p. 85-122) is devoted to various
factors relevant to the degree of semantic transitivity and able to affect the
morphosyntactic realization of the clause. First Næss discusses various possible
combinations of the features Volitionality, Instigation and Affectedness besides
those constituting the Agent and the Patient (and also the Affected Agent dealt
with in Chapter 4). Næss refines a feature-decompositional analysis of
Rozwadowska (1988) and proposes the following role specifications:
[+VOL,-INST,+AFF] 'Volitional Undergoer' (including both a special type of
patients which volitionally submit to being affected by the action, as well as
experiencers, beneficiaries and recipients); this type of participant is further
discussed in Chapter 8.
[-VOL,+INST,-AFF] 'Force', an inanimate object ''which employs its own energy in
carrying out an action ..., but deviates from our definition of Agent in that it
is not volitionally involved in this action'' (p. 93).
[-VOL,+INST,+AFF] 'Instrument', i.e. the object which mediates between the Agent
and the Patient in the causal structure of the event.
[+VOL,-INST,-AFF] 'Frustrative', i.e. ''participants which are volitionally
involved in that they want or attempt to instigate an act, but are unable to or
prevented from carrying out the act, so that no actual instigation takes place''
(p. 99); this kind of participant is present in negative sentences as well as in
constructions denoting ability.
[-VOL,-INST,-AFF] 'Neutral': an argument that is related to the event in ways
other than controlling it or being affected by it, e.g. the 'stimulus' of
emotional predicates, but also the so-called 'effected' objects which come into
existence as a result of the event.
Næss shows that all these feature combinations are relevant to grammatical
processes cross-linguistically, though the concrete range of semantic functions
treated as 'Neutral', 'Volitional Undergoer' etc. may vary between particular
languages. Further she discusses how verbal lexemes may specify particular
features and combinations thereof in their lexical entries, and argues that such
specification may better account for selectional restrictions of verbs than the
traditional notion of semantic roles.
Further, Næss shows how semantic transitivity may be affected by the degree of
individuation of the arguments, and by such clause-level properties as negation
(which, as she claims, may change the positive values of the features
'Volitionality', 'Instigation' and 'Affectedness' into negative), mood, and
aspect (which may imply affectedness or lack thereof). Finally, she discusses
data from Finnish and Russian and claims that the Partitive case in the former
and the Imperfective aspect in the latter serve to express the [-AFF] feature of
the O argument.
Chapter 6 ''Ambitransitivity and indefinite object deletion'' (p. 123-151) is
devoted to the phenomenon of the so-called 'lability' or 'ambitransitivity',
i.e. situations when a verb may figure in both transitive and intransitive
syntactic frames without any kind of derivational marking signaling change of
valency. She argues against lumping together two principal kinds of lability
(S/A ambitransitivity = indefinite object deletion, and S/O ambitransitivity =
causative/inchoative alternations), specifically against the general conception
proposed by Drossard (1998). The major part of the chapter deals with S/A
ambitransitivity. Næss discusses the kinds of verbs which exhibit indefinite
object deletion crosslinguistically, and shows that these are usually the verbs
with affected agents and the verbs with effected objects. Such clause-level
features as iterativity and genericity are also taken into account, and Næss
concludes that indefinite object deletion is a kind of transitivity reducing
mechanism applied in those cases when the degree of semantic distinguishability
of participants is not high enough for the canonical transitive construction to
be used. What Næss considers to be an important characteristic of indefinite
object deletion is its syntactic nature, sensitive to different semantic and
pragmatic features. Of particular interest is the subsection where the case of
semantic specialization of objectless uses of ingestive predicates is discussed.
By contrast, the S/O ambitransitivity is claimed to be a genuinely lexical
phenomenon mainly conditioned by the semantics of verbs.
Chapter 7 ''Maximal semantic distinction in core case-marking'' (p. 153-184)
addresses the long-debated issue of the functions of core case-marking and of
motivations behind different alternations thereof. Næss argues that the two
general theoretical approaches to core case-marking (the 'discriminatory'
approach, which assumes that the basic function of core case-marking is to
overtly distinguish between the arguments of a transitive clause; and the
'indexing' approach, which, on the other hand, claims that case-marking is
semantically-driven) are insufficient when taken in isolation. Instead, she
proposes a mixed conception of case-marking, which assumes that the basic
function of core case-marking is ''to discriminate, not between subject and
object, but between the participants of a fully transitive situation'' (p. 166).
Næss brings forward the data from diverse languages, where the case-marking of
Agent is sensitive to such properties of the O participant as individuation and
degree of affectedness, or, on the other hand, the case-marking of Patient
depends on the volitionality of the Agent.
In order to account for the cross-linguistic variation in core case-marking,
Næss proposes to treat semantic and discriminatory functions as competing
motivations which may be differently ranked in different languages. In some
languages, the tendency for case marking to be semantically motivated is so
strong that differentiation between Agents and Patients is extended to
one-participant clauses and results in a 'split-S' system. Næss hypothesizes
that case-marking of Agents/Patients is especially prone to generalize to
participants which share positive values of the defining semantic features with
the prototypical A or O. Thus, ergative case may be extended to forces
[-VOL,+INST,-AFF] more readily than to instruments [-VOL,+INST,+AFF]. Næss
states that the frequent extensions of core case-marking from the canonical
transitive participants to semantically similar functions do not obviate the
basic semantic motivation of case marking.
In other languages, on the contrary, the discriminatory function wins, which may
lead to cross-linguistically not very common situations when the core-case
marking appears only when there is need to differentiate between arguments.
Næss also discusses different types of so called 'split ergativity', and argues
that the tense/aspect split, when ergative marking appears only in past or
perfective clauses, is straightforwardly motivated by the semantic prototype of
transitivity. By contrast, the well-known NP-splits based on the Nominal
Hierarchy (1st person > 2nd person > 3rd person > proper nouns > human > animate
> inanimate, cf. Silverstein 1976, Dixon 1979) are considered by Næss to be
motivated by very different factors, since in such systems it is not the
canonical A and O that are marked, but rather those participants which are
presented as A or O but do not have inherent properties of typical A or O. Næss
even considers a possibility of not using the terms 'Ergative' and 'Accusative'
for core cases of NP-split systems.
In Chapter 8 ''Experiencers and the dative'' (p. 185-208) Næss focuses on the
participants with feature specification [+VOL,-INST,+AFF], which she calls
Volitional Undergoers. Næss shows that this kind of participant, whose main
characteristic is that they ''undergo a mental, emotional or sensory experience
of some kind'' (p. 185), exhibit quite an impressive diversity of semantic
subtypes, among which it is possible to distinguish experiencers of perceptional
or emotive predicates, recipients, possessors and animate causees, which in some
languages show similar formal marking. Næss provides counterexamples to claims
by Croft (1993) that only mental state verbs should allow typological variation
in assigning grammatical functions to participants, showing that most variation
is in fact found with the inchoative mental verbs. Næss argues that the semantic
specification of experiencers, where agentive (volition) and patientive
(affectedness) properties are combined, motivates the crosslinguistic tendency
to intransitive encoding of perception and emotion predicates.
Further, Næss discusses the various functions the Dative case has
cross-linguistically and claims it to be the dedicated marker of Volitional
Undergoers, which she calls the ''third salient way in which specifically human
participants may be involved in an event, namely through being the target of
some effect which crucially presupposes sentience'' (p. 198). Næss focuses on the
extensions of the Dative marking to semantic functions related to the Volitional
Undergoer, viz. Possessor, Causee, animate/human Undergoer, less affected
objects of such verbs as 'hit' as opposed to 'kill', and finally Dative marking
of sentient intransitive Subjects, and shows that all of them are semantically
related to the prototype.
In the concluding Chapter 9 ''Beyond prototypical transitivity'' (p. 209-218) Næss
briefly addresses some issues that are related to the core problems of the book
but are not discussed in detail. These are the notions of Subject and Object as
opposed to semantic roles Agent and Patient, the distinction between
'structural' and 'semantic' case, and the problem of other prototypical
categories in the domain of core clause structure. As to the latter question,
Næss argues that in contrast to the semantic prototype of transitivity based on
the maximal distinctness of participants, ''the notion of an intransitive
prototype may not actually have much semantic content beyond the simple
specification of a single participant'': (p. 214), and that prototypical
ditransitive constructions may be actually very marked and cross-linguistically
rare since they would imply not two but three highly salient participants.
The book ''Prototypical Transitivity'' is well written and should be praised for
discussing a wide range of important problems in a condensed manner; it could be
twice thicker than it is, but no one could guarantee that in this case it would
have been a much better book. Næss makes clear theoretical and analytical claims
and convincingly defends her point, providing critical discussions of earlier
proposals. Besides having formulated a sound general approach to transitivity,
Næss provides illuminating discussions of issues which are of theoretical
interest on their own (e.g. the Affected Agent constructions and ingestive
predicates in Chapter 4 and elsewhere, and of case-marking and split ergativity
in Chapter 7). The discussion of the relation between prototypicality and
markedness in Chapters 2, 3, and 7 is of particular theoretical importance,
since it is a successful attempt to resolve a long controversy concerning the
functional load of transitive morphosyntactic structures. However, I would like
to highlight several points which make one think that this book could be better
than it is.
When writing on the topic of such generality as transitivity, a topic by no
means underrepresented in linguistic theorizing, one should be very careful not
to mix up two quite different 'modes of discourse': making original and novel
theoretical claims which cause one to look at the phenomenon from a
substantially different point of view, and providing empirical support for
already existing conceptions, or reformulating them in a more explicit and
general fashion. Honestly speaking, the book by Næss contains quite a lot of the
latter, and not as much of the former as perhaps the author herself believes.
The main theoretical claim of the book, that prototypical transitivity is based
on the notion of maximal semantic distinction of participants, is in itself not
really novel. Næss acknowledges (p. 45) that ''the polar distribution of control
and affectedness over the participants of a clause is recognized as an essential
criterion of transitivity'' by Testelets (1998) and a number of other scholars,
including one she seems to completely ignore, Primus (1999), who makes
essentially similar claims: ''a maximally transitive sentence can be defined as a
sentence containing at least two participants so that each participant
accumulates the maximal number of basic semantic relations defining a
Proto-Role'' (Primus 1999: 59), where Proto-Roles are understood in the sense of
Dowty (1991). The particular details of the approaches by Primus and by Næss are
different, as well as the material they discuss, but I believe that it is an
important flaw that Næss has not paid attention to a substantial contribution to
the very core of the field she is working on. More or less the same can be said
about another important book, Ackermann and Moore (2001), where Næss could have
found an illuminating discussion of the relation of affectedness to partitive
case and of case-marking variations of arguments of causative constructions.
Perhaps if Næss has taken into account this book, she would have taken more
seriously the notion of ''incremental theme'' and its role in determining
argumenthood and argument encoding, especially with ''effected objects'' (see below).
In her criticism of the problematic notions of thematic roles, Næss, I believe,
overestimates the degree to which the linguistic community considers them useful
analytic tools. Indeed, I would conjecture that current theories of argument
linking and the syntax-semantics interface have for the most part abandoned
elementary thematic roles and operate with much more intricate notions such as
feature decompositions similar to that used by Næss, or event structure
representations. Again, if Næss had considered a recent valuable survey of the
field by Levin and Rappaport Hovav (2005), her claims would have had a more
solid basis. Næss cannot be accused of paying no attention to work of ''formal''
linguists, which unfortunately is not uncommon among ''functional'' typologists,
but a deeper knowledge of the results achieved in the field of her interest
might be useful.
Similarly, arguing that the two types of ambitransitivity - indefinite object
deletion and causative/inchoative formation - are essentially different
phenomena, Næss, figuratively speaking, forces an open door: as far as I may
judge, this is the commonly accepted position among linguists of both ''formal''
and ''functional'' stance, and there is hardly any need to explicitly state, let
alone defend it. This does not mean that the discussion on pp. 145-150, where
Næss refutes rather abstract and empirically not well-founded claims by Drossard
(1998), is completely useless, but it is not correct, in my opinion, to treat a
particular paper as representative of a mythical commonly shared assumption.
Turning to more specific points, it is not always obvious that the claims Næss
makes will lead to meaningful predictions if taken to their logical end. For
instance, she argues that under negation semantic features constituting
different semantic roles change values to the negative eventually turning into
other semantic roles. Thus, for example, ''an Instrument subject -
[-VOL,+INST,+AFF] - would under negation be characterized as a Patient -
[-VOL,-INST,+AFF]'' (p.116). However, it is not evident how to answer a question
I consider legitimate here: Why doesn't this type of subject ever get encoded as
a typical direct object under negation?
Sometimes it seems that Næss understands the notions she employs in a rather
imprecise manner. For instance, if we agree to understand ''agent affectedness''
as covering such cases as ''John murdered for the money'' (p. 136), it is really
not obvious which kinds of clauses involving an Agent would not allow for an
''Affected Agent'' interpretation: indeed, one might claim that when one
volitionally instigates some action one is primarily interested not in changing
the Patient's state for its own sake, but in achieving a desirable effect for
oneself. The notion of agent affectedness is useful, but in order to have
theoretical and cross-linguistic validity it has to be employed in a constrained
fashion, without being applied to broadly.
I think that the overall discussion of the distinction between affected and
effected objects in Chapter 5 is not convincing enough and should be refined in
further work. For instance, claiming that the Finnish Partitive case is used to
encode the [-AFF] Objects, Næss, as it seems, predicts that effected objects of
verbs of creation should be consistently marked with the Partitive, which is not
the case in perfective clauses. It is not correct to call effected objects
''non-referential'' without any qualifications; strictly speaking,
''referentiality'' is not about existing in the real world, but rather about being
identifiable as a discourse participant (cf. Lambrecht 1994, another important
book which Næss does not quote). Further, it seems that different subclasses of
effected object verbs should be distinguished, e.g. verbs of creation such as
''build'', verbs of performance such as ''recite a poem'' or ''conduct a symphony'',
and verbs of 'copying' such as ''paint (a portrait of) John''. In relation to
this, the unitary notion of ''affectedness'' perhaps should be decomposed into
several different notions, such as change of state and gradual change
(''incremental themehood''). Næss sometimes does justice to the latter notion,
with references to Tenny (1994), but I believe that it should be taken more
seriously and not equated with ''change of state as a result of a successful action''.
To sum up, Næss should have paid more attention to some specific implications of
her analysis and should have formulated them more accurately, and, again, should
have done more justice to the existing literature on these topics.
To conclude, the overall impression upon reading this book is two-fold: on the
one hand, one has no choice but consider it a very valuable contribution to the
study of transitivity, argument structure, and case-marking from both a
theoretical and a cross-linguistic perspective; on the other hand, a reader
familiar with much of the current research in this field and not limiting
oneself to a particular approach or framework feels that this book has told him
or her less than he or she had expected. Probably, the main achievement of Næss
is not to have proposed an entirely novel and break-through theory of
transitivity, but to have formulated the ideas which have been stirring the
minds of the linguistic community for the last three decades in such a way that
a more coherent view of the field becomes possible, and, most importantly, some
non-trivial implications of these ideas could be drawn. It is these particular
implications and applications of the semantic prototype of transitivity which I
consider to constitute the core of the contribution of this book to linguistic
theory and typology.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Peter M. Arkadiev, PhD in linguistics (2006), is a research fellow at the
Department of typology and comparative linguistics of the Institute of Slavic
studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. His main interests are
linguistic typology with focus on event and argument structure and its formal
realization, and theoretical approaches to morphology. He works mainly on
Lithuanian, Adyghe and Japanese.