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Review of  Construction Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective

Reviewer: Francesca Di Garbo
Book Title: Construction Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective
Book Author: Mirjam Fried Jan-Ola Östman
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): Czech
Issue Number: 20.1297

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EDITORS: Fried, Mirjam; Östman, Jan-Ola
TITLE: Construction Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective
SERIES: Constructional Approaches to Language
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2004

Francesca Di Garbo, Department of Linguistics, Univerisity of Palermo, Italy.

This book is a collection of five papers which aim at testing and demonstrating
''the cross-linguistic potential of constructional research in general and
Construction Grammar in particular'' (p. 1). One of the goals of the volume is
also that of clarifying what exactly is a grammatical construction inside the
Construction Grammar model in order to distinguish the specific value of this
concept from its generic use in any other framework dealing with constructional
analysis .

Chapter 1 (''Historical and intellectual background of Construction Grammar'' by
Östman & Fried) is a brief introduction about the history and the intellectual
backgrounds of Construction Grammar. They basically assume that Construction
Grammar evolved out Filmore's Case Grammar and in strong connection with the
so-called Gestalt Grammar approach, developed in the 70s within the tradition of
Generative Semantics. The paper ends up with a short comment about the necessity
to investigate Construction Grammar potential as a universal theory of language
and cross-linguistic variation.

Chapter 2 (''A thumbnail sketch of Construction Grammar'' by Östman & Fried) is an
overview of Construction Grammar as a usage-based model of linguistic inquiry
and speakers' grammatical knowledge. After giving a sketch about the general
properties of and the arguments for any constructional approach to language, the
authors define the concept of grammatical constructions which properly refer to
symbolic associations of meaning and form and represent ''the building blocks of
linguistic analysis'' (p.18). The definition of Construction Grammar is followed
by an exemplification of what working in Construction Grammar means. Östman &
Fried describe the notational and analytical conventions used to represent the
constituent structure of grammatical constructions, their features (regarding
syntactic, semantic, prosodic and pragmatic domains) and their specific layout.
They work on a short sample of constructional schemas (Affected Object linking
construction, Affected Dative linking construction, Dative-of-Interest linking
construction, Affected (external) Possessor construction, Group Identity Noun
Phrase construction) and English-specific constructions (English Determination
construction, Proper-to-Common Noun construction in English, English Subject
construction, English Transitive Object construction, English Passive linking
construction, English Verb-Phrase construction, English Subject-Predicate
construction, English Coinstantiation construction). The last section of the
paper aims at underlining two of the most remarkable assumptions about
Construction grammar as a unitary approach to language: 1) the idea that there
exists any a priori distinction between core and peripheral grammar, that is
between regular and predictable grammatical devices on the one hand and
irregular, unpredictable and idiosyncratic facts on the other hand; 2) the
statement that grammar and lexicon form a ''continuum of signs that only differ
in their degree of abstractedness or specificity, not in their intrinsic
character'' (p.76).

The main topic of Chapter 3: (''Predicate semantics and event construal in Czech
case marking'' by Fried) is case marking, defined by the author as a
manifestation of linking, that is ''the alignment between valence information
associated with a predicate and the formal expression of its arguments'' (p. 87).
The case study proposed regards experiential constructions in Czech. Two
constructional tokens seem to be possible: both lack a nominative NP while the
main verb is in 3rd pers. sg. neuter form; both have an obligatory experiencer
argument and an obligatory locus of sensation (a body part). Apparently they
seem to differ just in the encoding of experiencer: according to the most
productive pattern, the experiencer is encoded in dative: accusative is less
frequent and, even in its contexts of occurrence, it can alternate with dative.
In order to understand how and with respect to which parameters the accusative
pattern is distinct from and similar to the dative pattern, the author considers
the difference between what she calls lexical-level properties and clause-level
properties. The idea is that of offering, through the analysis of two
language-specific constructions, a deep insight into speakers' grammatical
knowledge, focusing on the meaning-form pairing as a property of a complex
construction rather than of isolated grammatical categories. Therefore, a great
part of the paper is devoted to the analysis of the occurrences of the two
patterns. Both of them serve to express spontaneous experiences: they have a
different internal structure (for example the dative pattern head predicate is
expected to be an atransitive or unaccusative verb; the accusative pattern head
predicate is rather expected to be a transitive verb with an animated patient
argument) but they both share consistent and regular pragmatic and semantic
properties. Due to the higher frequency of the dative pattern, it is easy to
understand why the accusative pattern is often replaced by it, which is more
regular and entrenched into the speaker's mind. Even considering all the
arguments in favour of the idiomatic nature of the accusative pattern, the
author's conclusion is that exceptional and less-frequent constructions are just
apparently idiosyncratic and have instead ''an entirely predictable internal
organization'' (p. 116). Construction Grammar provides a valid and suitable
framework to understand the multi-layered nature of linguistic structure and the
cognitive properties controlling the event construal.

Chapter 4 (''Lexically (un)filled constructional schemes and construction types.
The case of Japanese modal conditional constructions'' by Fujii) is about
conditional-linking constructions and deontic modal constructions in Japanese,
among which there seems to exist a strong semantic and formal relationship. The
main purpose of the author is trying to explain both regular and idiosyncratic
phenomena according to a constructional approach to language which argues that
''conventionality does not entail noncompositionality'' (p. 123) and also refuses
the traditional split between core and peripheral grammar. All the argumentation
is also based on the distinction between Construction Types (in this case, the
concrete constructional realization of conditional utterances) and Construction
Schemes (''a template which cuts across the general construction types ... and
which at the same time is associated with a particular pragmatic modal function''
p.128). In this way, he tries to explain the elaboration-compression continuum
from the bi-clausal conditional construction to the reduced-form conditional
construction, which also conveys deontic meanings. The case study is based on a
collection of recorded and transcribed conversations between native young adults
speakers of the same sex and similar age, in dyadic and casual interaction. What
data show is that, by virtue of the existence of a Constructional Scheme for
obligation, speakers are able to create a network of various construction types
which share the same pragmatic meaning. As strictly regards the shift from the
bi-clausal to the reduced construction and the mapping from the conditional to
the deontic interpretation of them, there seems to be a progressive
conventionalization of the implicit conversational implicature of obligation
from the bi-clausal to the reduced construction. Once the conversational
implicature has been conventionalized by means of the overarching constructional
scheme for obligation, it becomes the essential meaning of the reduced
conditional construction. While the initial sections of the paper regard
examples of conditional and deontic modality involving the 'to'-linker (one of
the most frequent Japanese conditional linkers used to express even the
obligation domain), in the final section, the author extends the framework even
to other conditional linkers. The fact that other conditional linking entities
(even if not all of them) are able to support the constructional scheme for
obligation is a further evidence ''that there exists a lexically unfilled
constructional scheme for expressing the 'obligation' modality in Japanese'' p. 146.

Chapter 5 (''On the interaction of information structure and formal structure in
constructions. The case of French right-detached comme-N'' by Lambrecht) is a
case study on a kind of French Right-Detached construction in which the detached
element is part of the predicate of the sentence instead of the argument.

Baby sitter: Je vais vous raconter une belle histoire, marrante
I'm going to tell you a beautiful story, a funny one

Child: C'est pas marrant, comme histoire
That's not a funny story.

This construction, used in spoken language, seems to separate ''the content of a
standard predicate NP (e.g. 'une histoire marrante'...)'' (p. 158) in such a way
that the nominal modifier ('marrante') occurs in syntactic isolation from the
modified noun ('histoire'). Based on these facts, the main purposes of the
author are: 1) showing that the function of the comme-N phrase is
construction-specific, that is strictly related with its syntactic domain and 2)
demonstrating that this construction-specific form-meaning pair is also
conditioned by the discourse domain in which it occurs. The case study is also
supported by two fundamental theoretical assumptions: 1) the existence of a
strong relationship between the structure of a sentence and the communicative
situation it describes in the speech act; 2) the existence of a set of
principles controlling this relationship and belonging to a distinct component
of grammar, the so-called information structure. According to this perspective,
form (formal structure), meaning (conceptual structure) and use (information
structure) are three interrelated dimensions of the 'Right-detached comme-N
construction' –typical of spoken French- as much as of any other grammatical
construction attested across human languages. After a brief description of the
so-called Preferred-Clause construction in French, Section 2 of the paper
regards a general overview about left-topical and right-topical constructions
while Section 3 is a specific reflection on the Right-detached comme-N
construction which Lambrecht defines as a variety of the right-topical
constructions. It essentially differs from them for the following aspects: a)
syntactic specificity of the comme-N; b) non co-indicization of the comme-N
phrase with a 'pro' element inside the clause; c) obligatory copula verb or
copula-likely predicator. The comme-N phrase denotatum functions as a predicate
rather than as an argument, and this is what determines its
non-discourse-referential nature. As regards the function of 'comme' it serves
as a linker between the subject and the primary or secondary predicate of the
sentence. With respect to the information structure, Lambrecht also gives a list
of some pragmatic conditions which have to be satisfied in order to perform a
discourse appropriate right detached comme-N construction: 1) the entity denoted
by the subject pronoun 'c'' must be active in the communicative situation; 2)
the entity must be a topic of discussion and the proposition expressed must
convey new pieces of information about it; 3) to come back to the initial
example, the reference of the entity (in this case a story) must be assumed as
already known by the addressee. After reporting a short summary of the main
topics discussed throughout the paper, the author concludes his analysis with a
brief reflection on the utility of adopting a unitary perspective on grammatical
constructions, which should consider either formal, semantic and pragmatic
features in understanding regularities and idiosyncrasies across human languages.

As recognized by the two editors in the introductory chapter of the volume,
Construction Grammar was blamed - for a long time - of having been elaborated
and performed just for English grammar analysis. For this reason, I think that
most of the utility (and interest) of this book is the attempt to test, through
a collection of different case studies related to different languages, the
application of the constructional approach outside the model of English. Rather
than a heterogeneous overview of data related to different grammatical domains,
the papers are almost exclusively an investigation of highly idiosyncratic and
idiomatic constructional types and tokens and their main purpose is that of
demonstrating the unitary character of grammar and speaker's grammatical
knowledge despite of the traditional distinction between core and peripheral
levels of grammar. I appreciated the persistence of this leit-motiv across the
different chapters of the volume, and even if I was not expecting it, I think
that this largely contributes to the cohesion of the volume.

Although the evaluation I give to the book is absolutely positive, I would like
to observe that, at least in my opinion, there seems to be a little bit of
ambiguity in the choice of an expression like 'cross-language perspective' for
the title of the book. I think that this kind of expression evokes, quite
immediately, certain theoretical and methodological backgrounds of contemporary
linguistics, essentially related to cross-linguistic comparison in a typological
perspective. It seems to me that this kind of approach to linguistic analysis is
completely absent from the global scope of the book that rather aims at being a
collection of deep insights into the specific facet of human languages.

Francesca Di Garbo is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Palermo,
Italy. She is currently working on the typology of nominal classification and,
in particular on gender systems, their world-wide distribution, their stability
in terms of areal and genealogical continuity and their function in the
verbalization and grammaticalization of experience.