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Review of  Imperatives and Commands

Reviewer: José Hugo García-Macías
Book Title: Imperatives and Commands
Book Author: Chia-jung Pan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 22.1613

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Author: Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
Title: Imperatives and Commands
Series Title: Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Published: 2010

Hugo García, Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico, USA
Department of Literature, University of Guadalajara, Mexico


This book approaches the study of imperatives from a typological perspective, and
it is organized as a comprehensive description of the features that imperatives
share crosslinguistically. Due to the exhaustiveness of the information covered,
the author gives a limited amount of examples in the body of the text, and the
information is complemented with more observations and examples in endnotes at
the end of each chapter.
Chapter 1 presents the methodology and scope of the work. Here the author states
that the book is the result of the examination of nearly 700 grammars (p. 12),
complemented by her firsthand knowledge of languages as Tariana (Aikhenvald,
2003), a language spoken in the Amazon region, and Manambu, a language
spoken in Papua New Guinea (Aikhenvald, 2008). Aikhenvald opts for not
constructing a sample of any kind or for giving statistical counts. The author
this methodological decision on the fact that the number of documented languages
is relatively small compared to those languages yet not described: “what appears
rare to us at the present stage of knowledge may turn out to be frequent when we
start learning more about hitherto little-known languages and areas” (p. 12). This
first chapter also introduces two important pairs of distinctions. First, there
is the
form-function distinction between imperatives and commands, the former being a
formal category in any language and the latter being the speech act or the function
of commanding. The second distinction is between canonical and non-canonical
imperatives. Only those imperatives that are directed towards the addressee are
considered canonical, and more specifically, only those that use the second
person singular. All other imperatives forms are seen as non-canonical.
The aforementioned distinction between canonical and non-canonical imperatives
is developed and justified in chapter 2, which presents us with numerous examples
of canonical imperatives. The author shows that they are crosslinguistically more
frequent and less marked than other imperative forms. As a concluding remark,
the author elaborates on some inferential universals, e.g.: if a language has third
person imperatives, we expect it to have at least a hortative form as well (this
an imperative form directed towards the speaker and the addressee, see p. 76). In
addition, other structural facts are accounted for: e.g., how changing the subject
can cause a change of the function of the form (a change of the speech act).
Chapter 3 describes the main properties that distinguish imperatives from other
sentence types. In summary, in the languages of the world the following specific
characteristics are often found: a) a special intonation contour; b) a different
order of constituents from that of interrogative and declarative sentences, and
c) the fact that verbal categories in imperatives can acquire meanings or
overtones of politeness and pragmatic force (p. 113). Following her
methodological principle, the author does not give any statistical count, but
only mentions those features as the most relevant in her corpora.
Chapter 4 discusses grammatical categories that tend to accompany imperative
forms. Crosslinguistically, imperatives tend to code fewer grammatical
categories than their corresponding declarative sentences. The most relevant
grammatical features found in imperatives are aspect, time, spatial distance,
directionality of action, and evidentiality, but all these categories appear in
a more limited fashion than in declarative utterances. For example, the
evidential markers that can appear in imperatives are often limited to those
reporting secondhand information (pp. 138ff.).
Chapter 5 is dedicated to the study of negative imperatives (also known as
‘prohibitives’). Here, the author observes that prohibitives can either resemble
more closely positive imperatives or declarative sentences. They can also be
more elaborate than positive imperatives, or they may be more grammatically
simplified (p. 190).
Chapter 6 approaches imperatives from the perspective of their relations to speech
acts and politeness. The author notices that bare imperatives have the potential to
express many different speech acts. She also observes that bare imperative forms
tend to be less polite and have urgency overtones. Haiman’s principle of iconicity
is referred to several times throughout the book: “‘the greater the politeness, the
longer the message’” (p. 46, see also Haiman, 1983 and 1985). Systems of
honorifics are also covered in this chapter.
Chapter 7 focuses on imperative usages other than commanding, such as
blessings, curses, greetings, statements, etc. One salient instance of those cases
is the ‘dramatic imperative’ in Russian, which is used in narratives to “refer to
unexpected and spontaneous actions, without any implication whatsoever of a
command” (p. 248). After presenting a survey on the diversity of imperative
functions across languages, the author concludes that many of these functions
reflect “a directive speech act,” although not all them are commands (p. 252-253).
Chapter 8 describes strategies for performing commands other than by using
imperative forms. The author concludes that it is “not the case that ‘anything
in any language” (p. 288) but that each language has its own pragmatic
conventions for performing indirect commands.
Chapter 9 expands on cultural relativity by showing how the use of imperatives can
diverge across cultures. The author demonstrates that the pragmatics and
semantics of imperatives are not universal, but usage of imperative forms varies
according to the politeness conventions that each community has. This chapter
also includes information on how children acquire commands. She concludes that
“early acquisition of command forms, including imperatives themselves and
command strategies, is related to their frequency in carers’ speech and to their
formal simplicity” (p. 329). Thus, early acquisition of imperative forms is due to
children’s frequent exposure to these forms.
Chapter 10 explains diachronic processes that produce imperative forms or cause
grammaticalization into imperative markers. Special attention is paid to the
formation of prohibitives and non-canonical imperatives, since it is considered
canonical forms tend to resist change (p. 362). The author distinguishes five
sources of imperative formation: 1) desiderative and optative forms; 2) future and
intentional modality; 3) expressions of ability; 4) subjunctive and hypothetical
modal forms, and 5) processes of desubordination and incomplete speech (p. 363).
Chapter 11 approaches the phenomenon of language contact. The author shows
how the tendency to being able to say what members of a neighboring speech
community can say in their language often urges a community to develop a more
complex imperative system than the one available through their own language.
This scenario is profusely illustrated with languages such as Tariana and its
contact with other languages in the Amazonian area. Another situation described is
that of a language losing some features of its imperatives because of language
contact. This is, for example, the case of Nivkh, a Siberian language, which has
lost its first person dual imperative because of its contact with Russian (p. 383).
Chapter 12 summarizes the book’s findings and provides some suggestions
describing imperatives in a language. These suggestions are complemented with
an appendix mainly addressed to field linguists.


This is an ambitious work which contains an impressive amount of data on many
world languages. It is undoubtedly a valuable addition to a field of study which,
surprisingly, has not been very well explored. The classic paper on speech acts in
grammar by Sadock and Zwicky (1985) addressed some of the topics that are
treated by Aikhenvald, such as the frequency of the elision of subject pronouns in
imperatives, or the formal distinctions between prohibitives and positive
imperatives. A further elaboration of these topics is König and Siemund’s study
(2007), which describes other imperative-related constructions, such as hortatives
and optatives, which are also discussed in Aikhenvald’s work. Xrakovskij (ed.)
(2001) had been so far the only existent volume on the topic of imperatives. It
contains two theoretical papers and 24 articles describing imperatives in
languages. The articles are arranged according to the structural characteristics of
imperatives in the languages in question: languages with person and number
paradigms in the imperative only and not in other moods, such as Modern
Japanese and Mongolian; languages with person and number paradigms in both
imperative and other moods, such as Javanese and Turkic languages; languages
with imperative paradigms which include the verb forms of other moods as well,
such as Modern Hebrew and German; languages with imperative paradigms which
include verb forms comprising auxiliary verbs, such as English and French, and
finally, languages without imperative paradigms, such as Vietnamese and
Cambodian. This book is more limited in scope, but also more straightforward than
Aikhenvald’s work, which presents the data in a less organized manner, by
accumulating examples of the linguistic diversity she wants to convey.
More decisive are the differences in the theoretical approaches taken in both
books: the first paper in Xrakovskij’s volume is about the theoretical problems in
the study of imperative sentences. In this paper, Birjulin and Xrakovskij challenge
the traditional conception of imperatives as utterances directed to a second-person
who is also the agent of the verb and define imperatives more broadly, as a
sentence that has ‘prescription’ as its semantic content. Further, the other
theoretical article included in this book (Dolinina, 2001), argues that the
is not a verbal mood, but rather a speech act category which ‘frames’ a proposition
from the outside. Thus, from a theoretical perspective, these papers can be
considered more innovative than Aikhenvald’s more conservative approach.
Methodologically, Aikhenvald’s decision of not constructing a sample clearly
limited the generalizations that could be extracted from the data. Her argument for
doing so is that our knowledge of the languages of the world is still very poor,
any insights gained from the study of languages we know therefore cannot be
representative (p. 12). However, this argument can be reduced to the following
typological skepticism: If we had the descriptions of all languages of the
world, we
still would be missing descriptions of languages that have already disappeared, or
even of languages that will exist in the future. Therefore, we would never be
able to
make any generalizations at all. Not creating a sample seems even more unusual
if one notices that other monographs in the same series (Oxford Studies in
Typology and Linguistic Theory) contain constructed samples (e.g. Haspelmath,
1997; Cristofaro, 2003).
In spite of her skepticism, the author makes some generalizations, e.g.: “No
languages have been found which would have first person singular imperatives ―
but not non-singular or inclusive first person imperatives” (p. 53). These
generalizations can appear along with ad hoc explanations. For example, the
former statement is explained by a “predilection for including the addressee in an
imperative” (p. 53); and the occurrence of the verb in the first position in many
imperatives is attributed to the fact that “the action should be more important
the identity of those who are to perform it” (p. 93).
Other explanations use more elaborated linguistic theories and concepts. However,
the author tends to limit herself to the exposition of the main argument without
exploring further implications. For example, on the issue of the grammaticalization
of imperatives, the author observes that verbs “may evolve into grammatical
markers” (p. 346) and cites some instances, without explaining the paths of
grammaticalization that give rise to imperative forms.
In summary, the extension of the topics and the amount of data covered give this
book the character of a handbook more than that of a monograph. It is undoubtedly
a very insightful reading, which will be of interest not only for typologists
but also
for readers interested in the study of politeness, (inter-cultural) pragmatics, and
other formal and functional aspects of imperatives and commands.


Aikhenvald, A., Yuamali Ala, J., & Luma Laki, P. (2008). The Manambu language
of East Sepik, Papua New Guinea. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Aikhenvald, A. (2003). A grammar of Tariana, from northwest Amazonia.
Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Birjulin, L. A., & Xrakovskij, V. S. (2001). Imperative sentences: theoretical
problems. In V. S. Xrakovskij (Ed.), Typology of imperative constructions (pp. 3-
50). München: Lincom Europa.

Cristofaro, S. (2003). Subordination. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Dolinina, I. B. (2001). The imperative paradigm: meaning and form. In V. S.
Xrakovskij (Ed.), Typology of imperative constructions (pp. 501-509). München:
Lincom Europa.

Haiman, J. (1983). Iconic and economic motivation. Language. 59(4), 781-819.

Haiman, J. (1985). Natural syntax : iconicity and erosion. Cambridge; New York:
Cambridge University Press.

Haspelmath, M. (1997). Indefinite pronouns. Oxford: Oxford University Press
König, E., & Siemund, P. (2007). Speech act distinctions in grammar. In T.
Shopen (Ed.), Language typology and syntactic description (2nd ed., Vol. 1, pp.
276-324). Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sadock, J. M., & Zwicky, A. M. (1985). Speech act distinctions in syntax. In T.
Shopen (Ed.), Language typology and syntactic description (Vol. 1, pp. 155-196).
Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Xrakovskij, V. S. (Ed.). (2001). Typology of imperative constructions. München:
Lincom Europa.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Hugo García is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico, USA. He is also an Associate Professor of Linguistics on leave at the Department of Literature at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico. He received his M. A. in Applied Linguistics at the University of Guadalajara and is currently completing his Doctorate in Linguistics at the University of New Mexico. He is also a Teaching Associate at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of New Mexico. His research has been mainly focused on pragmatics and more specifically, on speech acts. He is currently working on an investigation on the typology of sentence types.

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