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Review of  Languages Across Boundaries

Reviewer: Daniel William Hieber
Book Title: Languages Across Boundaries
Book Author: Dik Bakker Martin Haspelmath
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): Mandinka
Issue Number: 26.542

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Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar, Sara Couture


This collection is dedicated to the memory of influential typologist Anna Siewierska, who passed away suddenly in 2011. Anna’s accomplishments include coordinating the Constituent Order group of the EUROTYP project (Siewierska 1998), and serving as the president of both the Societas Linguistica Europaea and the Association for Linguistic Typology. She wrote the seminal work on person (2004), co-edited an important volume on impersonal constructions (Malchukov and Siewierska 2011), and contributed several chapters to the World Atlas of Language Structures (2005a-f), among many other accomplishments.

This book is the outcome of the Anna Siewierska Memorial Workshop held in Leipzig in April 2012, which sought to draw connections to and expand upon Anna’s rich body of work. The book is xix + 400 pages, and the great care shown by the editors and publisher in terms of layout and formatting makes the book easy to reference and read.


The first chapter, ‘Person by other means’ (by Matthew Baerman and Greville G. Corbett), shows that the realization of person can be non-autonomous, i.e., expressed without morphology dedicated to that purpose. In some languages, the only realization of verbal person is through asymmetries in gender agreement on the verb. For example, third person in Archi may be distinguished by the fact that only third person makes a three-way distinction in noun class. While it is known that feature values can be non-autonomous in this way (Corbett 2013), the possibility that an entire feature might be non-autonomous is remarkable. This chapter bears the hallmark of Corbett’s Canonical Typology (Corbett 2005) in that it explores the indistinct boundaries of person marking, and so expands our knowledge of the ways the phenomenon can be realized.

The next chapter, ‘Patterns of alignment in verb agreement’ (by Balthasar Bickel, Giorgio Iemmolo, Taras Zakharko and Alena Witzlack-Makarevich), seeks to determine how frequently different criteria for assessing alignment in agreement yield conflicting results in languages crosslinguistically, depending on whether one examines the trigger potential, form, position, or conditioning factors of the agreement. The authors call these discrepancies Siewierska’s Problem, following her seminal article on alignment in ditransitive constructions (2003). They find that two-thirds of the sampled languages show some type of alignment discrepancy. In addition, they find that languages with larger morphological paradigms show greater discrepancies in their alignment. They suggest that this greater incidence of discrepancies arises via the repeated layering of newly grammaticalized morphemes that gave rise to such complex morphological systems in the first place. In short, the evolution of complex morphological systems provides more chances for a discrepancy to occur.

In ‘Human themes in Spanish ditransitive constructions,’ Bernard Comrie studies the rare cases when a ditransitive construction in Spanish has both an animate Theme and Recipient. Typically Recipients and Themes in Spanish ditransitives are flagged with the preposition ‘a’ when animate and referential, but when both the Recipient and Theme are animate, there is no ideal coding solution. Flagging both with ‘a’ introduces a potential ambiguity, but the ‘a’ is obligatory for animates. Comrie finds that speakers resolve this dilemma by marking human Themes the same way as Patients, by using ‘a’, despite the potential for ambiguity.

In ‘The generic use of the second person singular pronoun in Mandinka,’ Denis Creissels provides synchronic and diachronic accounts of a hitherto undocumented type of impersonal construction. Typically, 2nd person impersonal pronouns may only refer anaphorically back to another 2nd personal generic pronoun, as in expressions like the English aphorism, ‘you reap what you sow.’ While Mandinka allows for this pattern, second person generics may also ‘refer back to a variety of antecedents that could equally be resumed by 3rd person pronouns, without any difference in meaning’ (60). The function of this non-specific noun phrase is to specify and delimit the semantic domain of the impersonal pronoun, e.g. ‘[Anyone who contradicts me 1], [you 1] should go there and look at it.’ He suggests that this construction originated in vocative expressions, which were then reanalyzed as generics. This chapter is an excellent contribution to expanding our understanding of the range of behaviors that are possible in impersonal constructions.

The chapter titled ‘The referential hierarchy: Reviewing the evidence in diachronic perspective’ by Sonia Cristofaro presents a strong challenge to the explanatory power of the referential hierarchy (a.k.a. the topicality or animacy hierarchy). Cristofaro shows that many of the functional explanations given for the referential hierarchy are untenable when one looks at the origin of these hierarchies in different languages. Cristofaro explains that the ergative markers in a split ergative system typically derive from indexicals, and since indexicals cannot generally co-occur with pronouns, it is no surprise that pronouns (on the left end of the referential hierarchy) do not tend to display ergative alignment. In languages where ergative markers originate in other devices, no such alignment splits are found. Thus there is no need to resort the relative referentiality or topicality of arguments to explain the hierarchy, and in fact such an explanation would be circular. This chapter is a fine homage to Anna Siewierska, who herself emphasized the dual synchronic-diachronic nature of alignment and the referential hierarchy.

‘Towards a distributional typology of human impersonal pronouns, based on data from European languages’ (by Volker Gast and Johan van der Auwera) has as its primary aim to combine two previously disparate semantic maps into a single framework -- Giacalone Ramat and Sansõ’s (2007) cline of ‘man’-pronouns from species-generic uses to definite pronominal uses, and Siewierska and Papastathi’s (2011:604) semantic map of third person plural impersonals. The resulting map is a ring connecting back on itself, where each node differs from that next to it along just a few variables. The authors show that the impersonal constructions of Europe cover the map in very different ways, with some impersonal constructions encompassing every function in the map (e.g. English ‘they’), others that cover just two nodes (e.g. English ‘someone’), and most that cover some contiguous sub-portion of the map. This new map is a potentially robust typological-descriptive tool for comparing impersonal constructions crosslinguistically.

Beate Hampe and Christian Lehmann’s chapter ‘Partial coreference’ addresses the strategies with which languages handle partial coreference between the subject and the object of a clause. What is at issue here is whether languages code these constructions in the same way as full coreference expressions (e.g., reflexives in English, as in ‘I exploit myself’) or disjoint reference expressions (e.g. ‘I exploit us’, where no marking is necessary). The authors review data from three languages with robust morphological coding of person and number of both subject and object on the verb. They find that “whenever there is partial coreference, the subject-object relation cannot be coded on the verb at all” (165). That is, the cells for those parts of the agreement paradigm (e.g. the slot for 1s>1p) are blank. Moreover, the avoidance of partial coreference explains all the gaps in the paradigm.

Martin Haspelmath’s chapter ‘Argument indexing: A conceptual framework for the syntactic status of bound person forms’ argues that the distinction between ‘agreement’ and ‘bound pronominals’ is an unhelpful one. He suggests that the distinction is motivated by an ad hoc desire to avoid redundancy in indexation, but that redundancy in language is well-attested elsewhere and thus not problematic. He takes the position that ‘agreement’ and ‘bound pronominals’ are merely different aspects of a broader phenomenon, which he labels ‘indexation’. He then defines three subtypes of indexation: cross-indexes, which may appear either with or without an independent noun phrase; gramm-indexes, which must always appear with an independent noun phrases; and pro-indexes, which never do. The result is to systematize a project that Anna Siewierska set out to draw attention to, that is, the unity of person forms, bound or free.

William Croft takes Haspelmath’s position a step further in his chapter ‘Agreement as anaphora, anaphora as coreference.’ Croft argues compellingly that ALL indexes should be viewed as referring rather than anaphoric - in his terms, an “independent-reference” analysis, as opposed to a traditional “grammatical-dependency” analysis. An implication of this position for anaphora in discourse is that it reframes anaphora as a matter of ''constructing, modifying, and accessing the contents of mental models of an unfolding discourse within the minds of speaker and addressee'' (Cornish 1996:22, cited on p. 105). Thus anaphora signals a continuation of the existing attention focus, while deixis shifts the addressee’s attention from an existing object to a new one derived from context. The paper presents a thought-provoking reconception of person marking and its function in discourse and cognition.

Andrej A. Kibrik’s chapter ‘Peculiarities and origins of the Russian referential system’ aims to determine how East Slavic languages came to have near-obligatory subject pronouns in contrast to West and South Slavic languages. Kibrik provides two complementary answers to this question: internal (grammaticalization) and external (language contact). Internally, he shows that past tense forms used to be synthetic, consisting of a participle plus person-marked copula. This copula was subsequently lost, and so the subject pronouns became the “main carriers of referential function” (228). Externally, the East Slavic system closely resembles that of obligatory subject pronouns in Germanic, which is suggestive of contact. None of the neighboring non-Germanic languages could have been the source of the East Slavic pattern, because none of them exhibited this pattern historically. Kibrik also presents archival evidence for showing that the pattern of high-frequency subject pronouns spread from areas of economic contact with Germanic to the rest of the East Slavic area.

Andrej L. Malchukov’s paper examines ‘Alignment preferences in basic and derived ditransitives’, where derived ditransitives are constructions like causatives and applicatives. Using data from the ditransitive database (Malchukov and Haspelmath, in preparation), Malchukov finds several typological tendencies. First, if a language has indirective alignment of derived ditransitives, then it will also have indirective alignment for basic ditransitives. Conversely, if a language exhibits neutral alignment with basic ditransitives, it will exhibit neutral alignment with derived ditransitives. There is a general tendency for basic and derived ditransitive constructions to match their alignment patterns. Moreover, in order for derived ditransitives to show neutral alignment, basic ditransitives must show neutral alignment as well (thus neutral alignment forms an implicational scale). By way of explanation, Malchukov points to cognitive research showing that derived ditransitives are modeled on basic ones, and that “derived ditransitives often allow two objects because they are more complex formally and thus can have more arguments” (281).

Marianne Mithun’s chapter, ‘Prosody and independence: Free and bound person marking’ brings prosodic evidence to bear on the question of what underlies the difference between bound and free person forms in Mohawk. She surveys each of the functions of free person forms and their prosodic effects. Crucially, in every case the free pronouns are accompanied by a notable increase in pitch, while - by contrast - bound pronouns have a relatively flat pitch contour . Free forms also appear in different positions when used for topicalization. Mithun shows that it is precisely this marked prosody and placement in positions apart from the verb that prevented these particular uses of the free pronouns from undergoing grammaticalization to bound person forms on the verb. Thus what characterizes the free person forms in Mohawk as a group is that they are “simply an assortment of forms that do not share in the positional and prosodic patterns that would be conducive to fusion with a host” (311). This is a straightforward and clearly argued chapter that makes a powerful point regarding the importance of prosody and discourse in shaping morphosyntactic patterns.

‘The origin and evolution of case-suppletive pronouns: Eurasian evidence’ by Johanna Nichols presents a typology of historical pathways by which suppletive pronouns may arise. This in itself makes the chapter an excellent typological reference. Nichols then applies this typology to explaining suppletive paradigms in the languages of Eurasia. To summarize broadly, inflectional person marking tends to dominate in the east, while lexical person forms dominate in the west, with a gradual cline between the two.

The final chapter in the volume, ‘Suppletion in person forms: The role of iconicity and frequency,’ was coauthored by Dik Bakker and Anna Siewierska just prior to her death, and aims to provide a functional explanation for the distribution of suppletion in person forms. It compares data from a 488-language sample with predictions made by iconicity-based and frequency-based explanations. Of particular interest is the fact that suppletion is more frequent for number than case, and more frequent for first and second person than third. Their results show that the distribution of suppletion in number across languages “does not conform to any but a rather watered down interpretation of the iconicity principle” (371). Similar results stem from the examination of case suppletion. At the same time, the authors show that there is only a partial correlation between frequency and the distribution of suppletion for number, and no correlation to suppletion for case. They conclude that “frequency cannot be the single explanation behind the distribution of suppletion [...] It may, however, be a force in competition with others, arguably iconicity” (385-386). It is thus the interaction of iconicity with the less-prominent frequency that may best account for the distribution of suppletion in their sample.


The fortuitous result of the memorial workshop, where each author was encouraged to focus on research for which Anna is known, is a surprisingly well-focused volume that pushes the boundaries of research on person, treating a number of subtle and key issues in the field. These forays into the less clear-cut areas of the typology of person would not have been possible without Anna’s pioneering and foundational works, which therefore serve as the framework that each of the papers in this volume begins with. This shared stance gives the volume a cohesion that other edited volumes lack.

This volume accomplishes even more than it set out to. Not only is it a worthy homage to the impact that Anna Siewierska has had on typology and the study of person, but it also contributes to typology in more general ways. It furthers our understanding of the role of person indexing in discourse and cognition (Haspelmath and Croft’s contributions), illustrates the importance of prosodic and discourse-based explanations for synchronic distributions (Mithun’s chapter), and shows that alignment surfaces in many different ways in different parts of the grammar, urging us to be more nuanced in our descriptions (Bickel et al.’s chapter). It questions one of the most important implicational hierarchies in typological explanation (the referential hierarchy; see Cristofaro's chapter), and provides an extremely useful historical typology of case suppletion in pronouns (the chapter by Nichols). Finally, Siewierska and Bakker conclude by showing that two of the most oft utilized explanations in functionalism -- frequency and iconicity -- are not as straightforward as is typically assumed, and challenge functionalists to explore their complex interaction further.

In all, the contributions to this volume do much to advance the field of typology. I believe any typologist would be remiss not to have this book on their shelf, especially given its reasonable price. I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in person or typology, and I suspect that it will soon become an important and much-referenced book in the field.


Corbett, Greville G. 2005. The canonical approach in typology. In Zygmunt Frajzyngier, David Rood and Adam Hodges (eds.), Linguistic diversity and language theories. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Corbett, Greville G. 2013. Canonical morphosyntactic features. In Dunstan Brown, Marina Chumakina and Greville G. Corbett (eds.), Canonical morphology and syntax, 48-65. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Giacalone Ramat, Anna and Andrea Sansò. 2007. The spread and decline of indefinite “man”-constructions in European languages: An areal perspective. In Paolo Ramat and E. Roma (eds.), Europe and the Mediterranean as linguistic areas: Convergences from a historical and typolological perspective, 95-131. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Malchukov, Andrej L. and Martin Haspelmath. in preparation. Ditransitive constructions.

Malchukov, Andrej L. and Anna Siewierska (eds.). 2011. Impersonal constructions: A cross-linguistic perspective. (Studies in Language Companion Series 124). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Siewierska, Anna (ed.). 1998. Constituent order in the languages of Europe. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Siewierska, Anna. 2003. Person agreement and the determination of alignment. In Dunstan Brown, Greville G. Corbett and Carole Tiberius (eds.), Agreement: a typological perspective, vol. 101, 339-370. (Transactions of the Philological Society 101). Oxford: Blackwell.

Siewierska, Anna. 2004. Person. (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Siewierska, Anna. 2005a. Gender in personal pronouns. In Martin Haspelmath, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil and Bernard Comrie (eds.), World Atlas of Language Structures, 182-185. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siewierska, Anna. 2005b. Alignment of verbal person marking. In Martin Haspelmath, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil and Bernard Comrie (eds.), World Atlas of Language Structures, 406-409. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siewierska, Anna. 2005c. Verbal person marking. In Martin Haspelmath, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil and Bernard Comrie (eds.), World Atlas of Language Structures, 414-417. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siewierska, Anna. 2005d. Third-person zero of verbal person marking. In Martin Haspelmath, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil and Bernard Comrie (eds.), World Atlas of Language Structures, 418-421. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siewierska, Anna. 2005e. Order of person agreement markers. In Martin Haspelmath, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil and Bernard Comrie (eds.), World Atlas of Language Structures, 422-425. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siewierska, Anna. 2005f. Passive constructions. In Martin Haspelmath, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil and Bernard Comrie (eds.), World Atlas of Language Structures, 434-437. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siewierska, Anna and Maria Papastathi. 2011. Towards a typology of third person plural. Linguistics 49(3). 575–610.
Daniel W. Hieber is a graduate student in linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he focuses on language revitalization in the U.S. Southeast and language documentation of the endangered languages of Kenya. Prior to graduate school, he worked for the language-learning software company Rosetta Stone, first as part of their Endangered Language Program where he created language-learning software for the Chitimacha, Navajo, and Iñupiaq language communities, and later as a member of their research labs developing tagged corpora. His primary research interests are typology, functionalist explanation, language documentation and revitalization, and the economics of language.

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