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Review of  Syntactic Change

Reviewer: Brady Z Clark
Book Title: Syntactic Change
Book Author: Ian Gareth Roberts Anna Roussou
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 15.1232

Discuss this Review
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Date: Thu, 8 Apr 2004 20:59:24 -0700 (PDT)
From: Brady Zack Clark
Subject: Syntactic Change: A Minimalist Approach to Grammaticalization

Roberts, Ian and Anna Roussou (2003) Syntactic Change: A Minimalist
Approach to Grammaticalization, Cambridge University Press.

Brady Zack Clark, Department of Linguistics, Stanford University.


Roberts and Roussou seek to provide a general analysis of a robust
diachronic phenomenon, grammaticalization. Grammaticalization is
standardly defined (e.g., Lehmann 1985) as the creation of new
functional material through the reanalysis of lexical material or
existing functional material; e.g., the development of English
auxiliary verbs from lexical verbs. The central claim of the book is
that grammaticalization is a regular case of parameter change
(Lightfoot 1991, Lightfoot 1999), not a separate and unique type of
change. Consequently, grammaticalization is claimed to be
epiphenomenal. This claim dovetails with other recent work on
grammaticalization; see e.g. Newmeyer (1998) and Traugott (2003).

There has traditionally been a rift between historical syntacticians
working in the Principles and Parameters framework and the
grammaticalization community. The former tradition (see e.g. Lightfoot
1999) has viewed diachronic change as a random walk around the space
defined by a set of parameters, rejecting the idea that there are
tendencies or pathways in diachronic change, a common theme of
grammaticalization studies. Roberts and Roussou's book is an important
contribution to the historical syntax literature, particularly for its
attempt at reconciling these two approaches to change, as well as for
its rich set of case studies. As I discuss in the critical evaluation
below, some open questions remain, and more work needs to be done to
provide a fully specified account of grammaticalization. In the first
part of the review, I describe the content of the book. In the second
part, I look critically at some of Roberts and Roussou guiding


After a brief introduction, a chapter on the formal framework for
cross-linguistic variation and change sets the stage for the three
empirical chapters that follow.

Chapter 1 Parameters, functional heads and language change

The goal of Roberts and Roussou's book is twofold. First, to address
the question of syntactic change in the context of the Minimalist
Program in order to provide a general analysis of grammaticalization.
Second, to explain the existence of variation and change when language
is claimed to be (in some sense) a perfect system (the 'Strong
Minimalist Thesis'; Chomsky (1995,2000,2001), more on this below).
Along the way, they explore the nature of functional categories, using
grammaticalization as a probe. In the first chapter, they present their
model of parametric variation. Functional heads (e.g., T(ense),
D(eterminer), etc.) are present in all languages (following e.g. Cinque
1999), although they may not be realized morphophonologically. Each
functional head may be associated with a P(honetic)F(orm) realization.
This realization can be achieved by Merge (i.e., the lexicon provides a
morphophonological matrix for the functional head) or Move (i.e.,
material from elsewhere in the clause structure is moved to the
functional head). Given this background, language change consists of
change in the PF realization of functional heads. Change occurs when
the trigger experience for a parameter setting (e.g., whether a
functional head is realized by Merge or Move) is ambiguous or obscure.
The next few chapters explore Roberts and Roussou's model of parametric
variation and change, and the implications for approaches to

Chapter 2 T elements

Chapter 2, like the two empirical chapters that follow it, aims to
provide evidence for the idea that grammaticalization involves the
reanalysis of functional categories. For Roberts and Roussou, clause
structure roughly conforms to the hierarchy CP-TP-VP, where CP
dominates TP and VP, and TP dominates VP. The principal idea is that
reanalysis of functional heads always involves reanalysis of movement;
e.g., a functional head that was previously realized by movement is
realized by a morphophonological matrix provided by the lexicon. This
chapter deals with the grammaticalization of T(ense) elements. The case
studies investigated are familiar from previous work on
grammaticalization: the development of English modals, Romance futures,
and the future particle "tha" in Greek. For each of these, the account
is roughly similar. Grammaticalization is always upward reanalysis
(alternatively, syntactic scope expansion; Tabor and Traugott 1998)
along the clausal hierarchy CP-TP-VP: a small, unproductive, subclass
of a lexical category is reanalyzed as a subclass of a functional
category. To illustrate, for English modals, a subclass of lexical
verbs (Warner 1993: 147) which were once moved to T are directly merged
in T; i.e., reanalyzed as elements of T.

Chapter 3 C elements

The next set of case studies focus on the grammaticalization of
C(omplementizer) elements like English "that". As with the
grammaticalization of T elements, the reanalysis of C elements is
upwards. The first three case studies focus on the development of the
Greek subjunctive particle "na", the Southern Italian particle "mu",
and the English infinitival marker "to". These case studies, in
contrast to those in Chapter 2, are not associated with loss of
movement steps. Rather, the selectional properties of certain lexical
or functional heads change such that certain features associated with a
lower head become associated with a higher head. The grammaticalization
of "na" and "mu" both involve the transfer of Mood features from T to
M(odal) (where M is in the C domain), as a consequence of the loss of
inflection (i.e., subjunctive morphology). The final two case studies
both involve loss of movement steps: the development of Germanic
complementizers and the development of complementizers from serial

Chapter 4 D elements

The final empirical chapter concentrates on a third functional
category: the grammaticalization of D(eterminer) elements. As with the
grammaticalization of C and T elements, grammaticalization in the D
domain is argued to involve upward reanalysis; e.g., the loss of
movement steps or the transfer of features associated with DPs to
functional heads in the clausal domain. The case studies include the
development of Romance definite determiners out of demonstratives
(e.g., the Romance article out of the Latin demonstrative "ille"),
French n-words (e.g., "rien"), Greek wh-words (e.g., "dhen") from
indefinites, and universal quantifiers. The development of Romance
definite determiners is claimed to involve the loss of movement within
the DP, triggered by the loss of morphological case. The final two case
studies focus on the development of clitic systems in Northern Italian
dialects and the development of Welsh agreement affixes. The latter
development provides an example where a lexical item associated with DP
becomes the realization of a functional head in the clausal domain.

Chapter 5 Theoretical consequences

The final, theoretical chapter returns to the issues raised at the
beginning of the book, in light of the case studies discussed in
Chapters 2-4. In the first part of the chapter, Roberts and Roussou aim
to give a general characterization of grammaticalization. They argue
that each of the case studies discussed in previous chapters reduces to
a single pattern: upward reanalysis giving rise to a new exponent for a
higher functional head (pg. 200). In the second part, they address the
tension between the observation that there are pathways of language
change and the Principles and Parameters (random walk) approach to
syntactic change. Their solution is to define the markedness of
parameter values in terms of a simplicity metric, where, for example,
Merge is less marked than Move. In the absence of cues (e.g.,
inflectional morphology) for marked parameter values, the less marked
option is taken in acquisition. In the final part of the chapter,
Roberts and Roussou address the nature of functional categories. Their
central claim is that functional categories are "defective" at the
interfaces (Phonetic Form and Logical Form; Chomsky 1995 et seq), in
the sense that they lack non-logical content (e.g., argument structure)
and are prosodically subminimal. For example, for Roberts and Roussou,
the reduced auxiliary "'ll" (as in "Kim'll go to the party") has no
argument structure and no prosodic structure.


As discussed in the introduction, Roberts and Roussou's book is
exceptional in that it attempts to give a fully general, formal account
of grammaticalization, thus bridging the divide between formal and
functional accounts of this phenomenon; see van Kemenade (2000) and von
Fintel (1995) for similar earlier attempts. The empirical net of the
book is cast wide: eighteen case studies from a variety of languages,
each with a synchronic description, as well as a formal account of the
development. The account for each of these case studies is similar:
upward reanalysis alongside semantic and phonological change. The book
lays the foundation for future research on other grammaticalization
phenomenon along the same lines, as well as work developing the formal
framework and the theory of acquisition. Some potential problems and
open questions remain, though. I address these in the remainder of the

A. The WYSIWIG approach to functional categories

Roberts and Roussou adopt (pg. 28-29) an approach to clause structure
in which there is no parametric variation in the set of functional
heads (Q, WH, Neg, T, D, etc.) that appear in clause structure.
Languages differ only in whether or not these heads are given a PF-
realization. I call this approach the universal architecture account of
clause structure.

Roberts and Roussou consider an alternative to the universal
architecture account: (what they call) the `What you see is what you
get' (WYSIWYG) analysis (pg. 24-25). In the WYSIWYG analysis, the only
functional categories postulated as present in a given language, or
even a given sentence, are the ones for which we see some kind of
realization. The only instance they give of this approach is Grimshaw
(1997), which argues that there is no fixed structure for clauses. They
argue against the WYSIWYG account on conceptual and empirical grounds.
Conceptually, the WYSIWYG account has no advantage over the universal
architecture account because the distinction between syntax and
phonology leads us to expect that certain elements will be realized at
one level and absent at another. Empirically, they point out a flaw in
Grimshaw's account of embedded clauses in sentences like "I think it
rained" and state that it is hard to account for grammaticalization if
change and variation involves structural change rather than simple
category change - an argument from ignorance.

Roberts and Roussou's curt dismissal of the WYSIWYG approach to clause
structure fails to do justice to the large body of literature that
argues for that type of account. For example, a widely-accepted view of
phrase structure in the Lexical-Functional Grammar tradition (Bresnan
2001, Dalrymple 2001) is that the inventory of syntactic categories is
not universally fixed. On this approach, the existence of a functional
head position can be motivated in two ways. First, a functional head
position can be motivated by the special syntactic elements that appear
there; see e.g. Kroeger (1993) on evidence for a distinguished position
in English, German, Warlpiri, and Tagalog in which only finite main
verbs and auxiliaries appear. Second, a functional head can be
motivated by the special positioning of certain elements; see e.g. King
(1995) on the special positioning of tensed verbs in Russian. There is
a large body of work in this tradition that argues for or against the
presence of functional categories in a given language on empirical
grounds. For example, Austin and Bresnan (1996) argue against the
existence of a CP in Warlpiri. Sells (1995) argues that Korean and
Japanese lack functional categories altogether. Roberts and Roussou's
failure to grapple in any serious way with the considerable body of
literature that assumes a WYSIWYG-like approach to clause structure
seriously weakens their claims about the superiority of the universal
architecture account.

Another lacuna in Roberts and Roussou's account is detailed discussion
of the body of work on the rise of new functional categories; see
Condoravdi and Kiparsky (2001), Kiparsky (1995, 1997) and Vincent
(1997) (also unpublished work by Ashwini Deo (2001)). Condoravdi and
Kiparsky (2001) discuss the rise of a composite functional projection
in Greek. Vincent (1997) (cited by Roberts and Roussou) shows that DP
emerged historically in Romance. Kiparsky (1995) (whose analysis is
reanalyzed by Roberts and Roussou) proposes that CP developed
historically in Germanic. A theme of this work is the examination of
changes in which the realization of functional categories shifts from
inflectional morphology to syntax. This literature provides empirical
evidence that structural change does occur and has important
implications for what comes under the purview of grammaticalization
studies. For Roberts and Roussou, grammaticalization is defined as the
creation of new functional material through the reanalysis of lexical
material or existing functional material. Just like onomasiological
categories (e.g., relational noun) in the model of grammaticalization
in Lehmann (1985), the universal architecture of functional projections
constitutes the preexisting landscape across which grammaticalization
drags functional and lexical elements. If Kiparsky et al. are correct,
though, the definition of grammaticalization must be extended to
include the establishment of new functional categories (as in Lehmann

What about Roberts and Roussou's learnability argument; i.e., that
structural change is hard to account for? First, this is an argument
from ignorance, a mode of argumentation that is weak at best. Second,
there is no real reason to think that existing learning algorithms
could not deal with structural change, if we put Roberts and Roussou's
assumptions about a universally invariant clausal architecture aside.
For example, much like the LFG literature described above, Bobaljik and
Thrainsson (1998) provide evidence that languages vary along the Split-
IP Parameter: languages with a positive setting for this parameter have
an AgrSP and TP as separate functional projections whereas languages
with a negative settting are characterized by an unsplit IP. Third,
Roberts and Roussou do not propose a formal learning algorithm
themselves, apart from e.g. some brief discussion of Clark and Roberts
(1993) in Chapter 1 (pgs 14-15) and some discussion of how the
simplicity metric for parameter values accounts for unidirectionality
in Chapter 5. Until this kind of work is done, it is difficult to
assess the viability of Roberts and Roussou's arguments against
structural change or their arguments for parametric change.

B. Morphology and syntactic acquisition

The causal factor in many of the changes that Roberts and Roussou
examine is claimed to be morphological. For example, they key the
development of English modals to the loss the infinitive marker "-en"
in early English (pg. 42). Likewise, the development of the English
infinitival marker "to" is said to be caused by the loss of subjunctive
morphology (pg. 107). For Roberts and Roussou, morphology is a cue for
marked syntactic structures, where a marked structure is one where a
lexical item spells out more than one feature. Movement is an example
of a marked syntactic structure. In (1), the lexical item Y realizes
the features associated with a low head (V) and a higher functional
head (T):

(1) [_TP Y + T [_VP ... t_Y ...]]

Change occurs when this cue for this marked structure has become
obscure or ambiguous; e.g., by morphophonological change, as in the
case of the development of English modals. Roberts and Roussou assume
that the language learner is the locus of change and variation. Do
language learners really use overt morphology as cues for the
acquisition of syntax? Work on acquisition suggests that the claim that
morphology drives syntactic acquisition is, at least, questionable. For
example, there is some evidence that children know whether verbs raise
or not before they acquire morphological distinctions; see e.g.
Lardiere (2000) (cited in Bobaljik 2002).

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that morphology cues syntax. In
order for this to work, we need to have a model of the morphology-
syntax interface. Roberts and Roussou seem to be advocating a
morphology-driven approach in which variation in morphology is the
cause of syntactic variation (Borer 1984). However, there is no
explicit connection made between their approach and work like
Rohrbacher (1999), which gives a related account. In contrast, in
certain realizational approaches to morphosyntax (e.g., the Late-
Insertion model of Bobaljik and Thrainsson 1998, Bobaljik 2002,
Thrainsson 2003), morphology is a reflection, rather than a
determinant, of syntactic structure, and is licensed by the same
syntactic elements that determine, for example, (lack of) movement. In
this type of approach, morphology may provide a cue to syntax, but
there may also be other non-morphological cues (e.g., the position of
certain elements). Unfortunately, Roberts and Roussou do not address
this type of model. In order to have a truly explanatory model of the
relationship between morphology and the acquisition of syntax, it will
be necessary to more fully spell out their model of the syntax-
morphology interface, and deal directly with the evidence from
acquisition cited above.

C. Lexical splits

A lexical split refers to a situation where a functional head is paired
with a formally identical (lexical or functional) head. For example, in
Standard English, "need" and "dare" function as either auxiliaries or
transitive verbs (pg. 43). Roberts and Roussou derive lexical splits in
two ways. For functional heads paired with other functional heads
(e.g., the complementizer "that" and the demonstrative "that"),
different readings attributed to a single lexical item correspond to
different positions in which the lexical item can be merged in clause
structure. For functional heads paired with lexical heads (e.g., the
auxiliary "need" and the transitive verb "need"), the account is
roughly similar. Differences in interpretation correspond to position
in phrase structure, as well as the presence or absence of argument
structure: lexical heads have argument structure but functional heads
do not. This analysis has a couple of nice properties. First, it
satisfies the desire for parsimony: for functional heads, it is not
necessary to posit a separate lexical item for each interpretation.
Second, Roberts and Roussou account for the gradualness of
grammaticalization by positing that lexical clines are a consequence of
lexical splits.

It is not clear how Roberts and Roussou's analysis works out formally,
though. Consider the difference between lexical and functional heads.
Roberts and Roussou do not give a detailed description of argument
structure at the level of individual lexical items. This is an
unfortunate gap given that the presence vs. absence of argument
structure is one of the key distinctions between lexical and functional
heads in their approach. More generally, Roberts and Roussou give
neither a formal specification of what features lexical entries consist
of nor even a single complete lexical entry. The closest they come is
an informal discussion of the makeup of the lexical entries for "want"
and the reduced auxiliary "'ll" (pg. 230).

The lack of formal specification for lexical entries also makes it
difficult to compare the consequences of Roberts and Roussou's approach
to lexical splits with that of other approaches; e.g., Construction
Grammar (Fillmore 1999, Fillmore and Kay 1999). In Construction
Grammar, it is possible to allot aspects of meaning to a construction
(a pairing of form and meaning) rather than to the words making it up.
In that way, it is not necessary to say that all functional elements
are assigned a meaning (Zwicky 2000) or to posit spurious homophonic
elements. The Construction Grammar account of lexical splits is roughly
similar to Roberts and Roussou's account in which it is also not
necessary to posit a separate lexical item for each interpretation of a
functional head. Rather, as discussed above, differences in
interpretation arise from different placements of the functional head
in clause structure. An important project would be to explore the the
different empirical ramifications of these two approaches to lexical
splits. Unfortunately, Roberts and Roussou neither provide enough
detail about the lexicon to make that comparison possible nor do they
explore frameworks beyond the one that they are working in.

D. Language as a perfect system

As discussed above, the goal of Roberts and Roussou's book is to
address two questions. First, they seek to address the question of
syntactic change in the context of the Minimalist Program. Second, they
intend to address a question raised by the Minimalist Program itself:
how do we explain the existence of parametric variation and change when
"language is in some sense a perfect system (the strong minimalist
thesis: Chomsky (1995: 1-10), (2000:96f.), (2001:1-2))" (pg. 1).
Roberts and Roussou's answer to the second question, in short, is that
parametric variation and change is a consequence of the imperfect
mapping from syntax to PF.

Syntactic change and variation can only be understood as an
imperfection if the assumption that language is perfect system is
shared. Recent discussions of this assumption appear in Johnson and
Lappin (1999: 124-133) and Natural Language and Linguistic Theory
(Volume 18, Issue 4 and Volume 19, Issue 4). Roberts and Roussou do not
refer to any of these discussions. This is unfortunate given that one
of the two central questions of their book is predicated on the
assumption that language is a perfect system. Without some kind of
examination of this assumption, the question about how to explain the
apparent imperfection of language change and variation will likely be a
non-issue for some readers.

Of course, even if the a priori idea that language is a perfect system
is not shared, we still need to provide an empirically accurate,
simple, and nonredundant account of change and variation. For readers
that do not share Roberts and Roussou's assumption about the optimal
design of language, Roberts and Roussou's theory of parametric change
and variation will be judged according to these criteria. The
perfection or imperfection of language will ultimately play no role in
deciding if Roberts and Roussou's theory makes any lasting


I am grateful to Peter Sells and Elizabeth Traugott for their comments.
All remaining errors are my own.


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Brady Clark is a PhD student in linguistics at Stanford University,
where he is involved in several research projects in historical
linguistics, semantics, pragmatics, and tutorial dialogue systems. He
received his BA in linguistics from the University of Washington in

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