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Review of  Constructions: Emerging and Emergent

Reviewer: Thomas Hoffmann
Book Title: Constructions: Emerging and Emergent
Book Author: Peter Auer Stefan Pfänder
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 23.1581

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Editors: Auer, Peter and Pfänder, Stefan
Title: Constructions: Emerging and Emergent
Series Title: De Gruyter linguae & litterae / Publications of the School of
Language and Literature Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies 6
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2011

Thomas Hoffmann, University of Osnabrück


Ever since Chomsky’s ''Aspects of the Theory of Syntax'' (1965), the
competence-performance dichotomy has played a central role in syntactic
research: On the one hand, mainstream generative grammarians claim that
performance is influenced by “memory limitations, distractions, shifts of
attention and interest and errors (random and characteristic)” (Chomsky 1965: 3)
and they therefore focus only on competence (mainly by eliciting introspection
data). On the other hand, several researchers have pointed out that performance
is in fact much more systematic and rule-governed than mainstream generative
grammarians assume (Aarts 1991; Sampson 2001). Indeed, as the papers of the
present volume argue, there are a great number of syntactic phenomena that can
only be adequately described and explained once their real, on-line use in
actual discourse is taken into account.

''Constructions: Emerging and Emergent'' is a collection of papers that explicitly
look at syntactic phenomena in interaction. All of the authors adopt an approach
that treats language as a dynamic system and an adaptive resource in
interaction. Moreover, central to the volume are Hopper’s notion of grammar as
an emergent system as well as form-meaning pairings, i.e. constructions, as
elementary building blocks of grammar.

In the first contribution, ''Constructions: Emergent or emerging'' (pp. 1-21), the
editors, Peter Auer and Stefan Pfänder, provide an introduction to the central
topics and themes of the volume. In particular, they give an overview of the
concept of emergence outside the field of linguistics as well as Hopper’s notion
of emergent grammar. As they point out, emergent grammar for Hopper (e.g. 1987,
1998, 2004) is not a stable system that exists outside of language use. Instead,
speakers’ previous experiences are claimed to be constantly updated in and
adapted to specific interactional encounters. Closely related are approaches
that focus on the results of these online adaptations and on how these
diachronically affect the speakers’ mental representations (an approach which
Hopper calls ‘emerging grammar’). However, Auer and Pfänder argue that the
differences between emergent and emerging grammar approaches might not be as
great as suggested by Hopper. In particular, they stress that emerging
structures are sedimented fragments that have been entrenched through emergent
interaction. Auer and Pfänder outline the role of ‘constructions,’ i.e. pairings
of form and meaning, which they treat as emergent gestalts (prefabricated
syntactic templates that arise through interaction). Finally, Auer and Pfänder
give an overview of the various chapters of the volume.

The first of these contributions is Paul Hopper’s ‘Emergent grammar and
temporality in interactional linguistics’ (pp. 22-44). Hopper emphasises how
temporality in interaction crucially shapes constructions. In particular, he
looks at the ''such a/an'' construction (''Sam … has taken such an interest in this
retirement bit … That it- it really surprises me'', p.31) and sluicing (''They
argued but I don’t know what about.'') in emergent discourse. He explores
‘structuration’ (i.e. emergence) of constructions in context, particularly the
creative and interactional meaningful blending of fixed formulae (which allow
the hearer to project potentially following constructions at any point in time).

Simona Pekarek Doehler turns to left and right dislocation constructions in
French in her article ‘Emergent grammar for all practical purposes’ (pp. 45-87).
She shows the inadequacy of movement analyses, highlighting instead the
different discourse management functions of these two structures in on-line
syntax: left-dislocated elements can be used as try markers, i.e. attempts to
elicit a response indicating recognition from the hearer before the speaker
continues (A: ''l’acqua B: ouais A: …on sait que c’est de l’eau'' ‘A: water B:
yeah A: …one knows that it's PARTITIVE water’; p. 59). Right-dislocated
elements, on the other hand, reemphasise a turn-relevant point that the hearer
did not pick up on (A: ''et tu le détestes'' (longer pause) … ''euh: ton: parent
qui a- … dé vié'' ‘and you hate him (longer pause) … your parent who has gotten
on the wrong track’; p. 70). Thus, right-dislocated elements can be added to
utterances if a speaker wants to indicate that he or she requires feedback from
the hearer. Consequently, it is the recurrent interactional needs that lead to
the entrenchment of these constructional schemata.

Turn-taking also plays an important role in Arnulf Deppermann’s ‘Constructions
vs. lexical items as sources of complex meanings’ (88-126). Deppermann
investigates the interplay of lexical meaning potential and on-going adaptations
within real-time conversations, focusing on two German constructions with
''verstehen'' ‘know/understand’ (''Verstehst du?'' ‘Do you understand?’ and ''(Noun
Phrase) nicht verstehen (können) (Complement Clause)'' ‘can/do not understand
(Noun Phrase/Complement Clause)’. He stresses that the instantiations of both
constructions have a wide range of discourse functions (including signalling
concern of insufficient hearer uptake, problems of formulation or refocusing in
the case of ''Verstehst du?'' or pre-disagreement and reproach in the ''(Noun
Phrase) nicht verstehen (können) (Complement Clause)'' construction). This, he
argues, implies that constructions do not have a single, fixed meaning, but that
they instead are flexible schemata with abstract meaning potentials.

In ‘Online changes in syntactic gestalts in spoken German’ (pp. 127-155),
Wolfgang Imo explores the question of how often garden-path sentences actually
occur in everyday interaction and whether they cause any problems of
understanding at all. He maintains that neither lexical nor syntactic ambiguity
is a common phenomenon in modern German, potentially due to the disambiguating
role of inflectional morphology. More importantly, real ambiguities do not seem
to cause major communication problems since hearers always project multiple
potential continuations that even allow the resolution of apokoinu/pivot
structures in which two apparently independent constructions are merged into a
single utterance (cf. e.g. the blend in [da hat se GSAGT,]A [ja SCHÖNheit muss
leiden]B [hat die KUH zu mir gsagt]C ‘[then she said] A [well beauty has to
suffer] B [this cow said to me]C’ (p. 144, in which the sequences A-B and B-C
are both well-formed quotative strings).

Structures that combine entrenched and open parts are the topic of Susanne
Günthner’s paper (‘Between emergence and sedimentation’; pp. 156-185). Günthner
examines three ‘bi-clausal’ constructions in German, pseudo-clefts, ''Die
Sache/das Ding ist …'' (‘the thing/point is …’) and extraposition with ''es''
(‘it’), all of which start out with a relatively fixed, sedimented part, which
is followed by a fairly open schematic slot. These entrenched parts have a range
of conventional functions, such as floor-keeping or the expression of speaker
stance. On top of that, however, the first clause also has an important role in
allowing the hearer to project the structure to come and helping the speaker in
his temporal, on-line discourse management.

Thiemo Breyer, Oliver Ehmer and Stefan Pfänder look at ‘Improvisation,
temporality and emergent constructions’ (pp. 186-217) in situated interaction.
They are mainly concerned with the creative adaptation, aka improvisation, of
pre-fabs in collaborative story-telling. As they point out, the specific
temporality of discourse opens up the possibility of joint language play. Thus
discourse participants can pick up on previous utterances in the conversation or
common cultural background and together improvise on these structures. Means
available to speakers for this include analogy and montage, i.e. the combination
of different elements into new and unexpected entities by e.g. blending
constructional templates.

The next paper, by Peter Auer and Jan Lindström, ‘Verb-first conditionals in
German and Swedish: Convergence in writing, divergence in speaking’ (pp.
218-262) is the only one that contrasts constructions in spoken and written
registers. Drawing on comparative corpus data of German and Swedish, they find
that the conditional V1 construction is used frequently in written German, while
it surfaces only rarely in spoken German. In contrast to this, the construction
is widely used in both spoken and written registers in Swedish. As Auer and
Lindström argue, this difference in distribution can be explained by the fact
that V1 structures in German are used for a greater number of alternative
structures and thus only allow for a weak projection of the conditional meaning.
In Swedish, on the other hand, the construction is semantically much more
focussed on the conditional interpretation and thus allows for a more reliable

Dagmar Barth-Weingarten and Elisabeth Couper-Kuhlen take a close look at the
interaction of ‘Action, prosody and emergent constructions’ (pp. 263-292). They
contend that it is not only the frequency and syntactic / semantic cohesion of
strings that leads to their entrenchment. They suggest that togetherness in
action (as e.g. part of a turn-at-talk) and prosodic/phonetic form play a
crucial role. Based on the findings on VP conjunction in a corpus of American
telephone conversations, Barth-Weingarten and Couper-Kuhlen argue that the
closer the prosodic unity of VP conjunctions (with respect to e.g. intonation
and timing), the greater the ‘togetherness of action’ (p. 264) and consequently
the more likely the entrenchment of a conjoined VP string will be.

‘On the emergence of adverbial connectives from Hebrew relative clause
constructions’ (pp. 293-331) by Yael Maschler is the last contribution to the
volume. Maschler notes that, according to prescriptive grammars, relative
clauses in Modern Hebrew must be introduced by the proclitic complementizer
''she-'' and contain a resumptive element (pronoun, inflected preposition or
verbal inflection, depending on the syntactic function that is relativized).
Only in subject and object relative clauses is it considered acceptable to leave
resumptive pronouns unrealised. Yet, in his corpus of casual Hebrew
conversation, he finds that it is adverbial complements that exhibit the
greatest proportion of such ‘empty’ pronouns. As a closer look at these tokens
reveals, many contain a head noun that is fairly semantically empty (e.g. rega
‘minute’). According to Maschler, this, and the fact that ''she-'' is generally
used as a subordinator in Hebrew, has lead to a reanalysis of the antecedent
noun + relativizer ''she-'' sequence as a single temporal connective word that
introduces a temporal adverbial clause.


''Constructions: Emerging and Emergent'' is a coherent, well-edited volume that
should be of great interest to linguists working with usage-based frameworks,
Construction and Cognitive Grammarians as well as researchers working on
interaction and discourse analysis. All contributions show that a careful,
qualitative analysis of authentic corpus data allows researchers to better
understand the formal and functional properties of constructions as well as
their use in discourse. This is particularly important since many Construction
Grammarians, despite drawing on corpus data, still only analyse decontextualized
sentences. As the results from the various articles of ''Constructions: Emerging
and Emergent'' indicate, however, such an approach might fail to uncover crucial
features of constructions such as e.g. their prosody or discourse management

At the same time, the purely qualitative approach taken by more than half of the
authors also has certain drawbacks. For example, Breyer, Ehmer and Pfänder’s
contribution basically rests on the exemplary analysis of two conversation
extracts, which obviously raises the question of whether or not one can
generalize the findings from so small a database. Now, Breyer, Ehmer and Pfänder
consider their paper to be an explorative one, which might justify their
approach. Many of the other papers, however, also face the same problem. All the
examples discussed do indeed seem to exhibit diverse functions such turn-taking
and -yielding, eliciting hearer feedback, pre-disagreement and reproach or the
expression of speaker stance. Yet, one wonders how many of these functions are
statistically frequent enough to become sedimented. In order to answer this
question, I would suggest supporting the findings with quantitative corpus
studies. Note that this does not mean that I deny that single utterances can
emerge by the creative assembly of constructions that have never been combined
before. As Hopper points out (and Günther convincingly shows in her
contribution), however, language use largely consists of combining existing
pre-fabs (sedimented formulaic pieces with open slots and fixed expressions).
Consequently, quantitative, statistical analyses would enable researchers to
specify how much of their data can be explained by, for example, discourse
management functions and how many tokens are in fact creative, one-off on-line
constructs (this holds for the papers by Auer and Pfänder, Hopper, and Pekarek
Doehler) or how frequent garden-path ambiguities are per construction type (cf.
the contribution by Imo).

On the positive side, four contributions to the volume already take such an
approach and also include quantitative data on their phenomenon under
investigation (namely, Deppermann; Auer and Lindström; Barth-Weingarten and
Couper-Kuhlen; Maschler). Of these, Auer and Lindström’s paper is probably the
best example of how a careful combination of qualitative and quantitative
approaches can yield insights into the use of a construction well beyond what
the individual methods would have allowed. The only thing missing from their
paper is a statistical analysis of their data. In fact, only one paper in the
volume, the one by Barth-Weingarten and Couper-Kuhlen, reports statistical
results (and these, unfortunately, seem flawed: for their Table 1 (p. 280), they
find two significant factor combinations, yet a chi-square test of the
analysable tokens in the table only gives an insignificant result of X-squared =
4.39, df = 2, p-value > 0.10). Overall, this is somewhat disappointing in that,
as argued above, the great number of potentially relevant variables clearly
warrant statistical investigation.

Despite these points of criticism, ''Constructions: Emerging and Emergent'' is an
important volume that combines discourse and interactional approaches with a
Construction Grammar perspective. It contains a great number of findings and
raises many new questions that should spawn further research. Especially
linguists working in the usage-based Construction Grammar framework should take
great interest in the volume since it alerts them to the importance of formal
and functional properties of constructions beyond the sentence-level.


Aarts, Jan. 1991. Intuition-based and observation-based grammars. In Karin
Aijmer and Bengt Altenberg (eds.), English Corpus Linguistics. London/New York:
Longman, 44-62.

Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Hopper, Paul. 1987. Emergent Grammar. Berkley Linguistic Society 13. 139-157.

Hopper, Paul. 1998. Emergent Grammar. In Michael Tomasello, ed. The new
psychology of language. Mahwah, NJ. 155-175.

Hopper, Paul. 2004. The openness of grammatical constructions. Chicago
Linguistic Society 40. 153-175.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2001. Empirical linguistics. London/New York: Continuum.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Thomas Hoffmann is Assistant Professor at the University of Osnabrück. His main research interests are usage-based Construction Grammar, synchronic syntactic variation, and World Englishes. He has published articles in international journals such as Cognitive Linguistics, English World-Wide and Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory. His monograph 'Preposition Placement in English' (2011) was published by Cambridge University Press and the 'Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar' (co-edited with Graeme Trousdale) will appear later this year. Currently, he is writing a textbook on 'Construction Grammar: The Structure of English' for the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series.

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