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Review of  Newest Trends in the Study of Grammaticalization and Lexicalization in Chinese

Reviewer: Ksenia Antonyan
Book Title: Newest Trends in the Study of Grammaticalization and Lexicalization in Chinese
Book Author: Janet Zhiqun Xing
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 23.5311

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EDITOR: Xing, Janet Zhiqun
TITLE: Newest Trends in the Study of Grammaticalization and Lexicalization in Chinese
SERIES TITLE: Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM] 236
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

Ksenia V. Antonyan, Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow)


This volume presents an overview of recent developments in the study of grammaticalization and lexicalization in Chinese. It contains nine articles devoted to the development of different words and grammatical constructions in Chinese, and is divided into two parts. Part I (articles 1-7) centers primarily on issues of grammaticalization, and Part II (articles 8-9) focuses on lexicalization. The authors combine different methods and approaches to the analysis of the material. The main conceptual frameworks are Grammaticalization Theory and Construction Grammar. The contributors are scholars from mainland China and Taiwan. (One of the articles is written together with a prominent French scholar, Alain Peyraube.)

The scope of themes is very broad. Among the nine articles, five focus on the issue of a certain grammatical category, such as the emergence of the definite article, the development of modal verbs of volition, the emergence of the classifier class, the disappearance of the repeater, and the process of lexicalization. The remaining four articles are case studies of words which have undergone the process of grammaticalization: the sentence-final particle ‘ye’, the directional verb ‘lai’, the degree adverb ‘hen’, and the verb of giving ‘gei’.

The period of time taken into account is broad, too; it covers more than 3000 years.

The volume begins with an introduction by the editor, Janet Zhiqun Xing. She summarizes the main topics discussed in the book and gives an overview of the theoretical approaches represented in it. She observes that in the last three decades the study of grammaticalization and lexicalization has generated tremendous interest among Western researchers who study Indo-European and African languages (e.g., Heine & Reh 1984, Heine et al. 1991, Hopper & Traugott 1993, and many other works), whereas Chinese has hardly been studied by Western researchers with regard to these two phenomena. She points out that Chinese is typologically different from these languages and exhibits a rich and uninterrupted body of historical data (a recorded history of more than 3000 years). So, Chinese has a clear advantage over Indo-European and African languages when it comes to the study of grammaticalization.

She also points out the main peculiarities of grammaticalization in Chinese. Chinese is a language with serial verb constructions where verbs are not marked for tense, number, etc. So, verbs may become grammaticalized into function verbs more easily than they can in languages with agreement marking. (The reviewer would like to add that this is true also for the nouns: the nouns, having no inflection markers, can also be turned into function words more easily.)

Another notable peculiarity of grammaticalization in Chinese is the so-called accretion of meanings. According to Western researchers, semantic change in grammaticalization develops along the following cline: A > A, B > B. In Chinese the cline very often looks like A > A,B > A,B,C, where all of the three meanings (A, B, C) may co-exist.

1. The article by Qianrui Chen, “The development of the Chinese aspectual sentence-final marker ‘ye’,” shows that ‘ye’ has had two aspectual functions: static and dynamic. There are two different views on their relationship: whether the latter represents an extension of the former or whether there is any relationship between the two at all. Chen argues that dynamic ‘ye’ is derived from static ‘ye’, consistent with an established pattern of the grammaticalization of perfect markers in Chinese and other languages.

2. Mei Fang, in the article “The emergence of a definite article in Beijing Mandarin: The evolution of the proximal demonstrative ‘zhe’,” considers the discourse and pragmatic functions of the proximal demonstrative ‘zhe’ and the distal demonstrative ‘na’ in Contemporary Beijing Mandarin. The results of this study show that the definite article was derived from the demonstrative ‘zhe’ through its recognitional use, a process that is accompanied by the emergence of the use of ‘yi’ ‘one’ as an indefinite article. She argues that such a functional shift from a demonstrative to a definite article is a clear case of grammaticalization. As a result, a new grammatical category, definiteness, has emerged in Contemporary Beijing Mandarin, even though this pattern, as she points out, is not yet observed in written Mandarin Chinese.

3. The article “The grammaticalization of the directional verb ‘lai’: A construction grammar approach” by Cheng-hui Liu investigates the various syntagmatic functions of the directional verb ‘lai’. Liu concludes that the constructionist view seems to be the only available perspective to explain why the verb ‘lai’ has remained vital over an extraordinarily long period of time, without being obviously influenced by any changes.

4. Mei-chun Liu and Chun Chang, in the article “The degree-evaluative construction: Grammaticalization in constructionalization,” explore one type of attributive predication in Mandarin Chinese in which a degree modifier (‘hen’ ‘very’) is normally required to precede an attributive predicate. Through discussion of the interaction between grammaticalization and constructionalization, the authors demonstrate that the adverbial element ‘hen’ triggers the constructional interpretation and becomes grammaticalized into a constructional operator. The authors say that their study demonstrates how grammaticalization can go hand in hand with constructionalization in shaping the grammar of Mandarin Chinese.

5. In “The semantic historical development of modal verbs of volition in Chinese,” Alain Peyraube and Ming Li investigate different categories of volitional verbs in Chinese written texts from Archaic Chinese to Modern Chinese via the intermediate stage of Medieval Chinese. They argue that modals that originally expressed the meaning of ‘intention’ are the only ones that can become grammaticalized into future markers. It is less likely, if not impossible, that the other two types (‘want’ and ‘hope’) will evolve in this way because of their unique semantic and syntactic properties. They point out three types of semantic change in the development of the modal verbs of volition in Chinese: (1) Intention > Future, (2) Weak volition > Strong Volition, (3) Physical domain > Mental domain.

6. Janet Zhiqun Xing, the editor of the volume, in her article “Semantic change in the grammaticalization of classifiers in Mandarin Chinese” looks at the emergence, development, and disappearance of classifiers in Mandarin Chinese by investigating the semantic changes involved in the grammaticalization of 16 of the most commonly used Modern Chinese numeral classifiers. She provides historical evidence showing that three mechanisms -- metaphor, metonymy, and semantic reanalysis (following Eckardt 2006) -- play an important role in the emergence and development of classifier meaning while in the disappearance of classifiers, loss of semantic function and high frequency have been shown to be major contributing factors. The article contains a number of tables containing empirical data, which make the presentation vivid and convincing. It also has an Appendix which presents examples illustrating the historical development of all the 16 numeral classifiers considered in the article.

7. Cheng Zhang, in the article “The repeater in Chinese and other languages,” provides diachronic and synchronic evidence to refute the view that the repeater is the earliest numeral classifier in Sino-Tibetan languages. She argues that since the original meaning of the construction where the repeater is used is not compatible with that of the classifier, it is unlikely that the numeral classifier is derived from the repeater. From a semantic perspective, both diachronic and synchronic evidence shows that most numeral classifiers were not derived from repeaters.

8. Xiufang Dong’s paper, “Lexicalization in the history of the Chinese language,” discusses various issues related to the characteristics and processes of lexicalization in Chinese. First she demonstrates different types of lexicalization observed in the history of the Chinese language: lexicalization of lexical phrases, of functional phrases, and of syntactically unrelated phrases. Then she discusses the degree of lexicalization, constraints on lexicalization, the relation between syntactic change and lexicalization, and the interaction between Chinese typology and lexicalization. She points out that lexicalization, compared with grammaticalization, might have more idiosyncratic and language-specific features that are not, as yet, well understood by scholars. The relationship between the characteristics of lexicalization and language typology is an interesting topic that requires further investigation.

9. Feng-fu Tsao, in the article “Argument structure change, reanalysis and lexicalization: Grammaticalization of transitive verbs into ditransitive verbs in Chinese, Japanese and English,” investigates the change of argument structure, reanalysis and lexicalization of ‘gei’ ‘give’ from a transitive verb to a ditransitive verb in Chinese. In order for this to happen, a verb has to go through a process of grammaticalization or lexicalization such as serial-verb-construction condensation or adjunct incorporation. Tsao compares ‘gei’’s development with its counterparts in Japanese and English and finds that its Japanese counterpart also undergoes the serial-verb construction condensation while its English counterpart undergoes adjunct incorporation. He also formulates an important constraint on ditransitivization: this process involves only three naturally defined verb classes, namely, verbs of movement, creation and acquisition.


The articles collected in this volume demonstrate the application of typological findings to the analysis of Chinese material. The object of study is not only Mandarin Chinese itself (i.e. Putonghua), but also its varieties, e.g. Beijing Mandarin (chapters 2 and 6). The book is interesting and stimulating, and enriches both the study of the Chinese language and its history, and the development of linguistic theory. It is full of new hypotheses and ideas, and all of the studies are based on vast empirical data including language corpora and results of fieldwork.

It is significant that the volume brings together articles on grammaticalization and lexicalization, for these processes are deeply interrelated (see Lehmann 1989, 1995).

The editor writes in the Introduction that the reason why Chinese has been little studied with regard to grammaticalization and lexicalization “is probably twofold: Western researchers are not familiar with the Chinese language and their Chinese counterparts are not familiar with the theoretical framework developed in the West” (p. 3). However, I believe that the editor has considerably underestimated both Western and Chinese scholars’ achievements. Not only are Chinese scholars quite familiar with grammaticalization theory, they have already made a serious contribution to it. They have organized a series of conferences on grammaticalization in the Chinese language and published five collections of articles on the basis of these conferences (e.g., see Wu & Zhang (eds.) 2011). Another international conference, devoted to grammaticalization and lexicalization in Chinese, was the 4th Kent Ridge International Roundtable Conference on Chinese Linguistics (Singapore, 2008), presenting the papers of scholars from China, USA (including the editor of this volume), Japan, Russia (including the reviewer), and Singapore. Important publications on the topic in mainland China are Shi Yuzhi (2002, 2003), Shi Yuzhi & Li Na (Charles N. Li) (2004), Wu Fuxiang (2005) and (2006). As for Western publications in English, the editor has not mentioned such important monographs as Shi Yuzhi (2002) and Xiu-zhi Zoe Wu (2004). There are also two Russian monographs discussing, among other issues, problems of grammaticalization and lexicalization in Chinese: Tan Aoshuang (2002) and Antonyan (2003) (a short presentation in English is found in Antonian 1998).

Xing writes that in Chinese the cline of grammaticalization is often A > A,B > A,B,C, where all the three meanings (A, B, C) may co-exist. In the opinion of the reviewer, this is due not only to the isolating nature of the Chinese language structure, as the editor puts it, but also to the long co-existence of the two literary languages of China: ‘wenyan’ and ‘baihua’.

Remarks on specific articles follow (the numbers refer to the article numbers as the editor gives them in the Introduction).

1. Qianrui Chen: the reviewer notes that the particle ‘ye’ is a discourse particle and it would be easier to understand its function if the author gave a larger context of its uses: one sentence is not always enough.

4. Mei-chun Liu and Chun Chang demonstrate the interaction of two theoretical frameworks: Grammaticalization Theory and Construction Grammar (see Goldberg 2005, 2006). I would suggest that ‘grammaticalization’ and ‘constructionalization’ refer to one and the same phenomenon, just viewed from different angles. I also remain convinced that it is the poly-functionality of Chinese words, especially in colloquial speech, that enables the usage of different parts of speech in the X slot in the construction {‘hen’ + X}, and not the qualities of the degree evaluative construction itself.

The Russian scholar A. A. Dragunov was one of the first to write on the desemanticization of ‘hen’ and its transformation into a formal element, a sort of copula (Dragunov 1952, pp. 209-213; see also the Chinese translation Long 1958, and the German translation, Dragunov 1960).

6. It seems to the reviewer that it is not theoretically correct to speak of the three mechanisms of grammaticalization -- metaphor, metonymy and semantic reanalysis. I would argue that these three notions belong to different spheres: metaphor (metaphorization, metaphoricalization) and metonymy (metonymization) are cognitive mechanisms/processes, while reanalysis (whether syntactic or semantic) is a linguistic notion that refers to the formal consequences of these processes.

7. The position of Cheng Zhang concerning the status of the repeater is not quite clear to the reviewer. That is, is it a part of speech or a syntactic function of a noun? The definition of the repeater (“a type of nominal modifier which is formally identical to the noun that it modifies,” p. 215) implies that it is a syntactic function, whereas the uses of this notion in the article imply that it is a part of speech. If it is a syntactic function and any noun can be used in this function, then how can we pose a question whether numeral classifiers were or were not derived from repeaters?

Some technical remarks: In the Table of Contents, as well as in the main text of the book, the chapters are not numbered. Meanwhile in the Introduction the editor refers to them by their numbers. The book would be much more user-friendly if the chapters were numbered.

It would be useful for the readers if the book provided information on the contributors’ institutions. It is only in Chapter 5 (p. 149) that this information is provided.

The volume contains a Subject index, but, unfortunately, some very important terms are missing; for example, the term ‘constructionalization’, one of the key terms for this volume.

The book contains a considerable number of typos. This concerns primarily the pinyin transcription of Chinese phrases, and tone signs (e.g., ‘yuǚwén’ instead of ‘yǚwén’, p. 21, ‘ Hànyû shî gâo’ instead of ‘Hànyŭ shĭ găo’, p. 302). One also comes across extra symbols and technical guidelines for the authors (p. 85, line 16 from below, p. 152, line 2 from above) that should have been omitted in the final version of the text. There are also typos in proper names (‘Echardt’ instead of ‘Eckardt’, p. 1, ‘Kutiva’ instead of ‘Kuteva’, p. 3) and diagrams (Diagram 1, p. 109), as well as in the translation of Chinese examples (‘The child is can be taught’ instead of ‘The child can be taught’, p. 25).

The editor does not explain why she uses the brackets in the scheme A > A, B > (B) (p. 3). Heine et al. (1991, p. 74) do not use the brackets and put the scheme as follows: A > A, B > B.

The title of the ancient Chinese dictionary “Shuo wen jie zi” is translated as “Definition and explanation of words and characters” (p. 176). The translation is not precise. The authors of “Chinese Lexicography” (Yong & Peng 2008) translate it as “An Explanatory Dictionary of Chinese Characters” (p. 435). Actually, the title means “Explaining the simple characters (‘wen’) and analyzing the composite ones (‘zi’)”; the notion of word is not used in the title.

Nonetheless, all of the articles are important contributions to the corpus of work on diachronic change in Chinese. They expand the understanding of Western scholars interested in the history of the Chinese language. The results of the studies are useful for cross-linguistic research in various domains, such as aspectual typology, typology of poly-predicative constructions, modal verbs, nominal classifiers, etc. They will also be very useful for teaching the Chinese language and its theory and history, since it contains interesting data on new tendencies in language use not yet reflected in textbooks and normative grammars.


Antonian, Ksenia. 1998. Resultative verb compounds in Mandarin Chinese: Grammaticalization and lexicalization. Cahiers de Linguistique - Asie Orientale. Vol. 27(2). Paris. Pp. 255-265.

Antonyan, Ksenia. 2003. Morphologiya rezultativnych konstrukcij v kitayskom yazyke (Morphology of Resultative Constructions in Chinese). Moscow: Muravei (in Russian, English summary).

Dragunov, Aleksandr A. 1952. Issledovaniya po grammatike sovremennogo kitaiskogo yazyka (Research on the Grammar of Contemporary Chinese). Moscow: Leningrad.

Dragunov, Aleksandr A. 1960. Untersuchungen zur Grammatik der modernen chinesischen Sprache. (German translation of Dragunov 1952.) Berlin: Akademie-Verlag (Ostasiatische Forschungen : Sonderreihe Monographien.)

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Heine, B. & Reh, M. 1984. Grammaticalization and reanalysis in African languages. Hamburg.

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Long, Guofu (Dragunov, Aleksandr A). 1958. Xiandai Hanyu yufa yanjiu. (Chinese translation of Dragunov 1952.) Beijing: Kexue chubanshe.

Shi, Yuzhi 2002. The establishment of Modern Chinese Grammar. The formation of the resultative construction and its effects. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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Shi, Yuzhi & Li, Na. 2004. Hanyu yufahua de lishi. Xingtai jufa fazhan de dongyin he jizhi (A History of Grammaticalization in Chinese. Motivations and mechanisms of evolution of Chinese morpho-syntax). Beijing: Beijing Daxue chubanshe.

Tan, Aoshuang. 2002. Problemy skrytoi grammatiki (Problems of hidden grammar). Moscow: Yazyki slavianskoi kultury.

Wu, Fuxiang (ed.). 2005. Hanyu yufahua yanjiu (Research on grammaticalization in Chinese). Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan.

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Wu, Fuxiang & Zhang, Yisheng (eds.). 2011. Yufahua yu yufa yanjiu (Grammaticalization and research on grammar), Vol. 5. Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan.

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Ksenia V. Antonyan (Antonian) is senior research fellow at the Department of East and Southeast Asian Languages at the Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow). Her field of research is Modern Chinese grammar, verb compounds and the phenomena of grammaticalization and lexicalization. She published a book, “Morphology of Resultative Constructions in Chinese” (Moscow: Muravei, 2003; in Russian, English summary). She has taught three courses: Chinese, Theory of Chinese Grammar and History of Chinese Grammar at Russian State University for Humanities (Moscow).