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Review of  Grammatical Relations in Change

Reviewer: David Golumbia
Book Title: Grammatical Relations in Change
Book Author: Jan Terje Faarlund
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Issue Number: 12.3056

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Faarlund, Jan Terje, ed. (2001) Grammatical Relations in Change. John
Benjamins Publishing Company, vii+322pp, hardback ISBN: 1-58811-034-6,
$100.00, Studies in Language Companion Series 56.

Book announcement on Linguist:

David Golumbia, New York, NY

This is a stimulating volume in a growing series of works that examine core
grammatical questions from diachronic rather than (or in addition to)
synchronic perspectives. The essays range somewhat widely over the ground
suggested by the volume's title, while at the same time a certain amount of
fertile cross-pollination is evident (as befits the book's origin over two
conferences and additional collaboration among the authors). Many of the
essays treat the relation between subject and object, somewhat skewing the
book away from the generality suggested by its title. For at least half the
authors, changes in the subject/object relation become the focus, rather
than (or as exemplary of) more systematic issues in grammatical relations
(the focus, for example, of Lightfoot 1979, 1999; also see Faarlund 1990 and
Harris and Campbell 1995). Most of the essays examine ways in which one set
of case marking phenomena have been replaced by so-called structural case
(the organizing principle of modern languages like English, French and
Spanish), often over a period of many hundreds of years. The essays cluster
around a series of phenomena that are described more than they are
explained, namely the general reorientation of the world's languages toward
unmarked personal subjects and away from complex marking of the subject
position (more generally understood to be part of the loss of case marking).
The volume focuses on European languages, especially Northern European ones
and the interesting series of historical changes there, although welcome
contributions on North East Caucasian languages (Harris) Inuktitut (Johns)
and Popolocan (Veerman-Leichsenring) introduce more typological diversity.
The theoretical approaches offered are varied, combining insights from
various functional schools with generative and other formal approaches,
producing a useful mix of data, theory and theoretical critique.

In the brief Introduction Jan Terje Faarlund explains the focus of the book,
noting that "in principle [the term "grammatical relations"] can be used
about any grammatical dependency relation, in generative grammar defined as
head-complement relation or specifier-head relation. In most contexts it is
used about such relations within the Verb Phrase (VP), in other words about
the relations between the verb and its argument phrases. This is also the
meaning of the notion of grammatical relation adopted in most of the
chapters in this book" (1). In addition to the above-mentioned focus on
subject-object relations and the loss of case-marking Faarlund draws out
several other themes shared across the essays (not necessarily only found in
Germanic and Romance languages), including the required presence of overt
subjects in sentences and the spread of the passive.

1. How Far Does Semantic Bleaching Go: About Grammaticalization that Does
Not Terminate in Functional Categories (Werner Abraham)

Abraham's is among the farther-reaching contributions to the volume, raising
core questions about the nature of grammaticalization and the directions of
linguistic change, and situated no less within functional than formal
linguistic theory. Abraham challenges the core assumption in
grammaticalization theory that change proceeds from lexical to functional
categories, terminating in full semantic "bleaching" (theoretically, a
purely functional node) (see, e.g., Hopper and Traugott 1993). Abraham
details several examples from German and Germanic languages where the
terminal point of grammaticalization is not a functional node, focusing in
particular on means for expressing evidentiality. These patterns lead
Abraham to posit at least one mode of linguistic change not characterizable
as grammaticalization, a mode Abraham calls "family resemblance" (59), a
Wittgensteinian/cognitive-scientific concept that Abraham parses in
Minimalist terms. He argues that "it can only be speculated whether or not
he German items in question will ever reach this point of total bleaching so
as to yield purely grammatical morphemic status" (58), so that family
resemblance changes run at odds with canonical grammaticalization.

2. 'Oblique Subjects,' Structural and Lexical Case Marking: Some Thoughts on
Case Assignment in North Germanic and German (John Ole Askedal)

Askedal's essay inaugurates the main theme of the volume, namely changes in
subject/object marking in (especially Northern) European languages. Askedal
reviews the analytic history of so-called oblique subjects, "dative,
accusative or even genitive Noun Phrases (NPs) with essentially the same
distribution and syntactic rule properties as modern Mainland Scandinavian
subjects" (65). Askedal argues that oblique subject case assignment and
lexical case assignment within the VP are "systematically related phenomena"
(66). What relates them is something like a degree of configurationality,
connected elsewhere by Faarlund to changes in Scandinavian languages.
Historically, "Icelandic and the Mainland Scandinavian languages have moved
from what appears to have been a greater degree of nonconfigurationality
than German to what is now clearly a greater degree of configurationality
than that to be observed in Modern German" (89).

3. The Notion of Oblique Subject and Its Status in the History of Icelandic
(Jan Terje Faarlund)

Taking up directly the themes of the previous chapter, Faarlund closely
examines the history of Icelandic to see whether the data support the
description of the phenomena known as "oblique subject." After all, "the
fact that a given NP can be placed in SpecIP is therefore not a proof that
it is a subject" (101). Sensibly, Faarlund turns to examine "what phenomena
can be considered subject properties in Old Icelandic" (103). Running
through a series of properties including subject-to-subject raising, subject
PRO, clause-bound reflexivization and others, Faarlund concludes that the
evidence for oblique subjects is weak. The strongest evidence is the
presence of oblique subject phenomena in Modern Scandinavian languages, but
this is attributed to a "synthetic type morphology [that] has been
maintained" in a "typically analytic" language (132).

4. Towards Personal Subjects in English: Variation in Feature
Interpretability (Elly van Gelderen)

Van Gelderen's chapter raises the level of generality from the last two
chapters (and no less the theoretical stakes), while maintaining the focus
on subject relations. Arguing that there is a "slight person split" during
the change from Old to Early Middle English, in which "third person pronouns
remain impersonal longer than first or second person," she follows Askedal
and Faarlund in situating these changes within larger typological movements.
She notes a correlation "between finding a person split and the presence of
both dative and accusative third person forms, and no split and the absence
of both dative and accusative" (152). As several authors have already noted,
diachronic processes seem most easily observed in part through the
observation of synchronic alternations. The person split, wherein
alternating approaches to the construction of grammatical relations can be
found in one language at one time "is accounted for if first and second
person pronouns lose morphological Case before third person ones do. This
loss is shown in both their morphology and in their function as 'ergative'
subject. With the introduction of an IP, it becomes possible to check Case
in the Spec of IP" (155). Van Gelderen's is the most explicit adoption of a
Minimalist approach in the volume, analyzing the change in person marking in
terms of Interpretable/Uninterpretable feature checking.

5. Focus and Universal Principles Governing Simplification of Cleft
Structures (Alice C. Harris)

Although largely engaged with issues raised especially in Harris and
Campbell (1995) and the model of change put forward there, Harris also
reflects on issues raised in the chapter by Abraham. Harris�s examples are
largely from Caucasian languages. She focuses on some universal processes of
the simplification of biclausal structures, a three-stage process in which
some biclausal structures can be analyzed as monoclausal. The current
chapter presents new evidence from the North East Caucasian languages
undertaken by Konstanine Kazenin in which synchronic alternations between
various possible biclausal reanalyses present themselves, both within
languages and across dialects. In particular she draws attention to the
phenomenon understood in linguistics more generally as focus and the
phenomena in North East Caucasian languages traditionally referred to "by
such terms as 'emphasis' and 'logical stress'" (160).

6. Recasting Danish Subjects: Case System, Word Order, and Subject
Development (Lars Heltoft)

Returning to themes raised in several previous chapters, Heltoft addresses
what he calls a change "from nominative subjects to categorical subjects"
(171) in Scandinavian languages. Heltoft applies a rigorously functional
approach that meshes thoughtfully with some of the other authors' more
formal methodologies. Heltoft raises the general context of the loss of case
marking throughout European languages, and notes that the familiar massive
changes to thematic roles and relations that characterize this loss
accompany the development of unmarked Scandinavian subordinate clause word
order that mandates "preverbal positions for sentence adverbials and
negation" (174). Heltoft turns to 14th and 15th century Danish texts to find
a system of iconic focus that structures the clause in Old Danish, but whose
application is limited to free adverbials in Modern Danish. This leads
nicely into a correlation between the observed subordinate clause structures
and the general move from iconic to structural case, according to which "the
development of categorical subjects and the decay of iconic focus in Danish
must be understood as one process" (191). Heltoft associates these changes,
in the spirit of Faarlund (1990), with the development of full NP/VP
structure in modern Scandinavian languages, which he argues is far less
pronounced in the earlier iconic system.

7. Ergative to Accusative: Comparing Evidence from Inuktitut (Alana Johns)

Johns applies a generative approach somewhat in harmony with van Gelderen's
to a very different empirical base. Along with several other authors, she
notes that diachronic phenomena must be realized as synchronic alternations
for speakers, and it is not always clear why and how change is taking place
in these contexts. Johns analyzes statistical patterns in the distribution
of person splits (ergative/absolutive vs. nominative/accusative
constructions for transitive clauses) among the various dialects of
Inuktitut to show that what seems to be a shift from ergative to nominative
alignment is taking place. Western dialects restrict nominative
constructions to a higher extent, while there is a "subtle but distinct
disfavoring of the ergative" construction in the easternmost dialect
Labrador Inuttut. Suggestively, Johns relates these changes to processes
underway in other languages, so that we may in fact be seeing the marks of
"a change from inherent case in the Western dialects to structural case in
Labrador Inuttut" (218).

8. Subject and Object in Old English and Latin Copular Deontics (D. Gary

Miller argues that so-called deontic expressions of the type "the water is
to boil" can inherently accommodate either a subject or object analysis of
the neuter third person noun. This results in a pattern of change in which
constructions involving the verb "to be" plus an infinitive/gerundial show
thematic object initially surfacing in the nominative, and then a
reananlysis in which thematic object surfaces in the accusative. In English,
these constructions began as purposives, and then were reanalyzed
semantically to express necessity, while the change to structural case
created a more natural option for subject analysis via WH movement with PRO
subject, "what is one to do," where Miller argues that "what" is accusative.
Conflicting pressures to analyze the neuter noun as subject or object
coexist, but Miller argues that this ambiguity itself can serve as a
"sufficient cue to motivate" change in the sense ascribed by Lightfoot
(1999) to explicit triggers of change.

9. The Loss of Lexical Case in Swedish (Muriel Norde)

Norde surveys the loss of lexical case in a more sweeping fashion with a
focus on Swedish. Consonant with the focus on synchronic alternations over
time raised in several other essays, she notes a variety of mechanisms for
the maintenance and stabilization of inflectional case that coexisted with
their loss. These mechanisms "managed to slow down the eventual collapse of
the case system" (241). This is an interesting ascription of something like
intentionality to the various pressures involved in historical change,
certainly not an uncontroversial position. Norde adopts a relatively
theory-neutral approach toward the variety of what she calls "deflexional"
processes, arguing that both speaker and hearer employ least-effort
strategies that are also in competition. The change to structural case
centers on an economy of both production and perception, in which it is
"more efficient (for both speaker and hearer) to mark case on only one
single element in the noun phrase, instead of adding an inflectional suffix
to all elements (concordial case)" (258). But this turns out to be a kind of
intermediate stage in development, which at first helped to maintain lexical
case in which there is one distinctly marked phrasal element. The transition
from this stage to fully structural case is more problematic, especially
since in some areas (especially involving gender) Swedish still shows some
of the single encoding phenomena that have been lost in other modern
Germanic languages such as English.

10. The Coding of the Subject-Object Distinction from Latin to Modern French
(Lene Sch�sler)

Sch�sler also examines the loss of lexical case, here looking at the
transition from Latin to French, and in particular focusing on the ways in
which this transition reflects a reorientation of the ways in which subject
and object are identified. Sch�sler argues that nominal and verbal
inflection correlate with relative freedom in verb order and with what
Sch�sler calls "verbal valency," all connected via a need to maintain clear
distinctions between the subject/object functions (but not necessarily the
grammatical categories). Sch�sler examines a wide range of texts from many
stages of French and Latin development, accounting for several
previously-opaque facts especially in Middle French, where case marking has
largely been lost and yet word order seems to remain relatively free; again,
mechanisms to maintain clear distinctions between functional subjects and
objects remains an organizing principle. The loss of case marking is seen as
a transition from "less transparent" sentence structures in case marking
languages to "more transparent" and, interestingly, "redundant" sentence
structures in structural case languages (292). Sch�sler is able to relate
these changes to those aspects of case marking still maintained in
structural case languages, chiefly the persistent distinction between
subject and direct object, which remains marked in French (and in English as

11. Changes in Popolocan Word Order and Clause Structure (Annette

The book's final chapter takes us once again away from European languages
both typologically and geographically. It also moves us from an examination
of the general loss of case marking toward changes in grammatical structure
due to language interaction and, more specifically, colonialization.
Veerman-Leichsenring presents evidence from four Popolocan (Mexico)
languages that seem historically to have been characterized by what might be
called a highly irregular and semantically-based structure; the languages
are all presumed to have had VSO as the unmarked word order. Recently, the
four languages have been variously impacted by Spanish colonization and
apparently by Spanish linguistic features, lexical as well as grammatical,
and including word order. Thus the most affected of the Popolocan family
(Ixcatec and two Mazatec dialects) today take on Spanish SVO order as the
unmarked one, and have abandoned or almost abandoned non-Spanish grammatical
properties such as the use of coreferential terms and lexical classifiers.
In addition abundant Spanish prepositional phrase structure, including
especially the structures for comitative and instrumental phrases, is found
in the least conservative of these languages, while the least influenced
(Popolocan) continues to display the semanticized and highly coreferential
structures common to all four languages in the past.

This is a dense, thoughtful, varied collection of theoretical essays that
nevertheless provokes some frustrations in the interested reader. The focus
on the loss of case marking generally is welcome, as is the effort to bring
a variety of methods and approaches to bear on a similar set of questions.
Thus the contributions of Askedal, Faarlund, van Gelderen, Heltoft, Miller
and Sch�sler form a neat set of essays all focused on nearly the same
problem: how, and to a lesser extent why, did so many of the languages of
Europe make the transition from an inflectionally-based language to one
based in so-called structural case? One of the clear points that emerges
from reading these essays together is that while of course this phenomenon
has many features, the features are nevertheless connected in suggestive
ways. Together they paint a picture of a kind of areal movement in
grammatical features that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented and/or
undocumented elsewhere in the linguistic world, where a large majority of
the languages of an entire region, over a period of many hundreds of years,
all migrated so fully toward such a radically different structural type.
Given the relative rarity of structural case prior to the modern era, how
and why was such a coordinated change possible, and what made it happen?
These questions of causality appear to be beyond the book's intended reach,
though not beyond its grasp at times; the contributions by Faarlund and
Heltoft especially seem to point at the conceptual issues that undergird the
investigation. Faarlund especially raises the question by looking at some
modern Scandinavian languages that did not participate fully in the loss of
case marking, and Abraham's essay addresses this matter head-on, though from
a very different direction, with reference to German.

Like Abraham's essay, those of Johns, Harris and Veerman-Leichsenring seem
lifted in from another book, although one very close in subject to this one.
Abraham touches on several phenomena that seem intimately related to the
historical loss of case marking, but his discussion is largely about other
topics, and one cannot help wanting to read his thoughts on this particular
issue since it occupies so much of the rest of the book. One wishes there
were more connections all around: a few of the essays on the subject/object
distinction seem not to take full account of phenomena in languages where
the subject/object split is not grammatically prominent (some evidence about
which is offered by other essays, especially the ones on non-European
languages). In fact, the data and analyses presented by Johns, Harris and
Veerman-Leichsenring seem so suggestive not just in themselves but also in
light of the general European picture painted by the other authors that one
finds it hard not to want to read about the relationship between the various
patterns. Are these non-European processes of change somehow "the same as"
the European development of structural case, or a result of that
development, or both, or neither? One can ask the question in a converse
direction: despite its rapidity, how do we know that the changes in
Popolocan are a result of contact with Spanish and not also of processes
already underway in the language (or in languages more generally), akin to
those causing Labrador Inuttut to become accusative? Is the tendency toward
structural case part of a general tendency toward optimization, efficiency,
or clarity (as several of the authors suggest), or the result of random
drift (which seems unlikely), or the result of other factors? And how fully
can the entire system of grammatical relations change (a question raised
more by the book's title than by any particular essay)? Finally, to raise a
point most directly addressed only by Johns, although mentioned by many of
the authors: how do language users move from perceived synchronic
alternations to the more general and predictable patterns of language change
- what mechanisms are at work that impel the speaker to change the language
in these particular ways? It is hard not to hope that several of these
authors will see this book as a spur to further work on these important

Faarlund, J. T. (1990). Syntactic Change: Toward a Theory of Historical
Syntax. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Harris, A. C. and Campbell, L. (1995). Historical Syntax in Cross-Linguistic
Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopper, P. J. and Traugott, E. C. (1993). Grammaticalization. New York and
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightfoot, D. (1979). Principles of Diachronic Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Lightfoot, D. (1999). The Development of Language: Acquisition, Change, and
Evolution. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.

The reviewer is an independent scholar who works on cultural studies of
linguistics, philosophy and computation.