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Review of  A History of English Reflexive Pronouns

Reviewer: Claudia Lange
Book Title: A History of English Reflexive Pronouns
Book Author: Elly van Gelderen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 12.1341

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van Gelderen, Elly (2000) A History of English Reflexive Pronouns:
Person, Self, and Interpretability. John Benjamins, hardback, xiv,
277 pp., Linguistics Today 39

Claudia Lange, Technische Universitaet Dresden

Synopsis: Van Gelderen has repeatedly dealt with reflexive and
emphatic SELF in the history of English from a generative
perspective. In her last monograph on the subject, adopting the
Minimalist framework, she attempts nothing less than to link "the
changes in reflexives to the transformation of English from a
synthetic to an analytic language" (p. 1), or, to be more
specific: "... I argue that languages and different stages of the
same language differ as to which features are Interpretable. [...]
the status of features ultimately accounts for differences in word
order, Case and agreement across languages, and for whether a
language is synthetic or analytic. It will also account for the
referential or non-referential nature of pronouns" (p. 12). While
it is in line with current generativist thinking to locate
parametric differences between individual languages as well as
differences between historical stages of the same language to the
rise of new Functional Categories (FCs) and the changing status of
features, tying the emergence of a clear division between pronouns
and anaphors to the same process is a novel approach.

The book consists of 7 chapters, preceded by an introduction in
which van Gelderen specifies the theoretical framework
underpinning the book, namely Minimalism (Chomsky 1995) with its
theory of feature checking. Briefly and simply, each lexical item
carries grammatical features which have to be checked in the
course of a derivation, with strong features triggering overt
movement. Features are further either Interpretable, that is
relevant to the interpretation at the level of Logical Form (LF),
or Non-Interpretable at LF; they exist to trigger movement to a
higher FC to become checked and erased. In Modern English, case
and all verbal features other than tense (person and number) are
Uninterpretable, while in Old English (OE), case features are
Interpretable. As the quote above already indicates, van Gelderen
crucially makes use of the notions of feature strength and feature
Interpretability to motivate her analysis. Reinhart and Reuland's
(1993) Chain Condition is another theoretical prerequisite which
figures prominently in van Gelderen's account. It states that "A
maximal A- chain ( contains exactly one link -- a1 -- that
is both +R and case marked" (p. 696) and licenses the use of plain
pronouns as reflexive anaphors in case they are -R, that is not
referential. The property of being referential is defined as
involving "a full specification for phi-features and structural
Case" (p. 697), so assuming that OE pronouns have Inherent case
makes those pronouns referentially defective, which is why they
can function as reflexives. The remainder of the book is devoted
to tracing the loss of Inherent Case and the changes in feature
composition throughout the history of English and to linking these
processes to the rise of new reflexive markers.

The first two chapters provide a detailed text- based study of
reflexivity in Old and Middle English. Chapter 1 gives a
descriptive account of the way reflexivity was expressed in OE. It
tackles two issues: first, the reflexive use of the personal
pronoun, which contradicts the Binding Principles and is therefore
in need of explanation within the framework adopted, and second,
the use of the 'emphatic' adjective SELF. Van Gelderen examines
different texts in turn, most extensively Beowulf. More data to
illustrate reflexivity in OE come from the Junius manuscript, the
Exeter Book and for late OE from Alfred's Pastoral Care and
AElfric's Homilies. The picture that emerges from examination of
these texts is the following: the accusative personal pronoun
regularly serves as the reflexive pronoun. SELF appears
predominantly in attributive position modifying mainly nominal
subjects rather than pronouns; it is typically used
'emphatically'. In the later OE texts, SELF continues to be used
as modifier providing emphasis, but also increasingly postmodifies
personal pronouns used reflexively. The question of whether
dialectal differences are responsible for the change in
distribution of SELF is then addressed by comparing two
interlinear Bible glosses: the Northumbrian (Northern) Lindisfarne
Gospels and the Mercian Rushworth Glosses. Van Gelderen concludes
that the more northern and earlier texts used SELF more sparingly,
but if so, SELF tended to be used more frequently with a
reflexive. Thus, the situation in OE is consistent with R&R's
Chain Condition. The picture begins to change, however, when the
development in Middle English (ME) is taken into account.

Chapter 2 proceeds from early ME with special emphasis on
Layamon's Brut, other texts taken into account are The History of
the Holy Rood Tree and Hali Meidhad. For later stages of the
language, van Gelderen discusses the Gawain Poet and Chaucer. She
deals first with the grammaticalization of SELF during this
period, exemplifying the relevant changes with examples from the
two manuscript versions of Layamon. It turns out that the new
compound reflexive pronoun+SELF appears first in the third person
while first and second person continue to be used reflexively. Her
explanation for this person split makes reference to differences
in feature specification: "In older English, first and second
person pronouns have fewer fully marked phi-features (e.g. for
person and number) and can therefore continue to function
anaphorically even though they lose Inherent Case; third person
pronouns, on the other hand, have fully marked phi-features and
when Inherent case disappears, they cease to function

In chapter 3,"Pro-drop and feature strength" van Gelderen presents
evidence that OE had pro-drop of at least four different kinds:
with infinitives ("big PRO"), with expletive or non-referential
subjects, and topic-drop. Her emphasis is on showing that, unlike
generally assumed, referential pro- drop exists in OE. Her overall
aim is to use the occurrence of pro-drop as an indicator of why
third person pronouns continue to be used reflexively even after
the loss of Inherent Case: since, as she shows, pro-drop is more
common with third person subject pronouns, this is taken to prove
that there is a difference in feature specification: third person
pronouns are more specified in virtue of being more deictic and
can therefore license pro-drop. Pro-drop continues to occur in
English, as is demonstrated in the remainder of the chapter. She
concludes that subject pro-drop is not productive after the
seventeenth century, which for her indicates that by that time,
person and number features are unspecified, coinciding with the
demise of the simple pronoun as reflexive marker.

Chapter 4, "The loss of verbal agreement and verb-movement",
extends her argument even further by linking the occurrence of
pro-drop in different texts to the degree these texts display
progressive loss of verbal agreement. Agreement in the third
person is kept up longer than for first and second person, again
taken as an indicator of different feature strength. Additionally,
van Gelderen argues that "with the loss of inflections, features
become Uninterpretable and FCs are introduced"(p. 152).

Chapter 5 is devoted to "The Loss of Inherent Case". In chapter 1,
van Gelderen explained the use of simple pronouns as reflexives
with reference to the notion of Inherent Case: since inherently
Case marked elements are not referential (-R) for purposes of
binding, they satisfy Reinhart & Reuland's Chain Condition and can
be used reflexively. In this chapter, she provides evidence for
the existence of Inherent Case in OE; points in favour of that
assumption are: rich morphological case marking, case assignment
according to the theta-role of the verb and/or preposition,
retention of cases under movement (passivization). According to
her, morphological case continues to be assigned to third persons
up to early ME even after it ceases to be assigned to first and
second person by late OE.

In chapter 6, "Ergativity and the person split", van Gelderen
examines constructions with non-nominative Agents or Experiencers
such as the impersonal, which she labels 'ergative'. With the
focus once more mainly on 'Beowulf', she finds a person split
again in that third person pronouns in possessive constructions
with 'be' take dative case while first and second person pronouns
are assigned the nominative. She concludes that "it can be argued
that third person pronouns continue to be assigned thematic
(inherent) Case by the verb and need not move to a Specifier of an
FC to check Case (p. 239) ... Therefore in Old and early Middle
English, the demise of impersonals and the loss of inherent Case
are related because in both cases, first and second person
pronouns are the first to experience the loss."

Summing up, the seventeenth century saw the end of pro-drop as
well as the demise of the simple pronoun used reflexively, both
developments being due to the change to Structural Case and to
person and number features having become unspecified by that time
(p. 136). The change from a synthetic to an analytic language goes
along with an increase in Non- Interpretable features. A synthetic
language is more likely to use plain pronouns as reflexives
because their features are still strong, that is Interpretable.
When the language becomes more analytic, with "a general increase
in Uninterpretable features"(p. 247) personal pronouns can no
longer be used reflexively.

Critical evaluation: The book provides a wealth of data which is
extremely useful for everybody interested in the topic regardless
of theoretical orientation. The discussion is based on a
meticulous examination of texts and illustrated with an abundance
of examples. The problem of which texts to choose is a notorious
one in all historical linguistics and particularly prevalent when
one uses texts counts and statistics in order to prove a point, as
van Gelderen does. I would just like to note that for both OE and
ME, secular sources such as chronicles, wills and laws are not
taken into account, which could have changed the picture since
they are for the most part not translated from Latin. It is
further dubious whether her table on p. 66, taken to illustrate
the decline of emphatic SELF, has any empirical value as the texts
compared are from wildly different genres. Her chronology of texts
is also on shaky grounds; Alfred's Pastoral Care should certainly
not be grouped under late OE, and although van Gelderen
acknowledges that the two Layamon manuscripts are now thought to
be from more or less the same time, she still bases most of her
argument for the grammaticalization of pronoun + SELF on precisely
the development from one manuscript to the other. Van Gelderen
claims that around 1250, SELF underwent grammaticalization and
became a noun first in combination with a third person pronoun;
she assumes that the internal structure of pronoun + SELF changed
from a noun modified by an adjective to a determiner with SELF as
nominal head. Her claim that SELF became a noun around that time
is based on exactly one example (p. 104) from the OED, dated to
1300. The next instance listed in the OED is from 1472, casting
doubt on the assumption that nominal SELF was already well
established at that time. Relying on the notion of
grammaticalization to account for the unexpected emergence of the
compound reflexive raises a theory-internal problem:
grammaticalization theory fundamentally makes use of the notions
of gradualness and functionalism in order to account for
linguistic change, notions which so far had no place in generative
diachronic syntax (but see van Kemenade (1999) for an attempt at

Another theory-internal problem concerns the relation of
(abstract) Case to (surface) case: to assume that OE had Inherent
Case is more or less uncontroversial, so chapter 5 of the book is
not telling a new story; the question which so far has not
satisfactorily been answered is how morphological (surface) case
and (abstract) Case are related (cf. van Kemenade/Vincent (1997)).
Van Gelderen, in tabulating the progressive loss of inflectional
morphology, seems to take a one-to-one relationship between case
and Case for granted and does not discuss this fundamental issue
any further. Another point where the great merit of the study, the
detailed investigation of actual texts, clashes with the
theoretical framework is the purported variability of feature
strength: "In summary, Old English has pro-drop, especially with
third person and slightly more with singular than with plural,
which is not unexpected if the third person features are
specified. One of the problems is that the presence or absence of
features is never absolute: the strength of the features can vary"
(p. 137). This seems to me a big problem indeed for a theory which
standardly stipulates binary divisions and strict categories.
Further, allowing variable feature strength makes the whole study
meaningless in the sense of unfalsifiable unless some principled
account of the parameters of variation is provided. A more general
point is that to my knowledge, there is no crosslinguistic
evidence that the synthetic or analytic character of a language
and the form of the reflexive are in any way related, which casts
some doubts upon the analysis as a whole.

Chomsky, Noam (1995) The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT

K�nig, Ekkehard & Peter Siemund (1999) "Intensifiers and
Reflexives: A Typological perspective." In: Frajzyngier, Zygmunt &
Traci S. Curl (eds.), Reflexives. Forms and Functions. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins. 41-74.

- -- (2000) "The Development of Complex Reflexives and
Intensifiers in English." Diachronica XVII: 1.39- 84.

Reinhart, Tanya & Eric Reuland (1993) "Reflexivity." Linguistic
Inquiry 24.4: 657-720.

van Gelderen, Elly (1999) "Bound Pronouns and Local Anaphors.".
In: Frajzyngier, Zygmunt & Traci S. Curl (eds.), Reflexives. Forms
and Functions. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 187-225.

van Kemenade, Ans & Nigel Vincent, eds. (1997) Parameters of
morphosyntactic change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

van Kemenade, Ans (1999) "Functional categories, morphosyntactic
change, grammaticalization." Linguistics 37-6: 997-1010.

Claudia Lange is junior lecturer in Linguistics at the Technische
Universitaet Dresden. She is working on her PhD on SELF in the
history of English.