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Review of  Polymorphous Linguistics

Reviewer: Sanford B Steever
Book Title: Polymorphous Linguistics
Book Author: Salikoko S Mufwene Elaine J. Francis Rebecca S. Wheeler
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.3239

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Date: Wed, 2 Nov 2005 16:49:25 -0800 (PST)
From: Sanford Steever
Subject: Polymorphous Linguistics: Jim McCawley's Legacy

EDITORS: Mufwene, Salikoko; Francis, Elaine J.; Wheeler, Rebecca S.
TITLE: Polymorphous Linguistics
SUBTITLE: Jim McCawley's Legacy
YEAR: 2005

Sanford B. Steever, unaffiliated scholar


James D. McCawley (1938-1999) is well-known for his many
contributions to phonology, syntax, semantics, linguistic logic and the
philosophy of science, not to mention the arts of cuisine and music.
While most linguists know his work primarily through his writings, he
also exerted a strong influence on the field through his teaching. In at
least two well-known cases, these two currents of his work coincided
in his two big textbooks, "Everything that linguists always wanted to
know about logic, but were ashamed to ask" (McCawley 1981)
and "The syntactic phenomena of English" (McCawley 1998), both of
which took shape in classrooms at the University of Chicago as Jim
sought to find textbooks that he could comfortably use without
continual caveats or heavy annotation.

This commemorative volume includes 22 contributions of linguists who
studied with him and whose work was shaped to some degree or
other by him. Their exposure to Jim's teaching ranges from taking
courses with him at an LSA summer Linguistic Institute to having him
as their primary dissertation advisor at Chicago.

As a matter of disclosure, I studied with Jim at the University of
Chicago, where he chaired my dissertation committee. Further, I am
also acquainted with half of the contributors to this volume, either as a
friend, a student, a classmate, a coeditor, a coauthor, or, in one case,
a roommate.


The volume begins with an appreciation of Jim McCawley as a scholar
and teacher, written by Salikoko Mufwene (xi-xvi), followed by a list of
Jim's publications (xvii-xxx). This is followed by the editors'
Introduction (1-23), which attempts to place the individual chapters in
the context of Jim's work and teaching. The volume is divided into six
parts: Phonology; Syntax; Tense, Aspect, and Mood; Semantics and
Pragmatics; Knowledge of Language; and Encyclopedia and

At a time and in a discipline when much linguistic theory was
expressed in terms of, and exemplified by, English, Jim inspired his
students to look for linguistic insights in other languages. This volume
includes discussions of linguistic phenomena in Bangla (1 article),
Burmese (1), Hindi (2), Hungarian (1), Japanese (4), Korean (2),
Lingala (1), Tamil (2) Zuni (1). In fact, when English phenomena are
analyzed in this volume, it is often by a scholar for whom English is a
non-first language (e.g., Mufwene, Farkas).

Timothy Vance's "Sequential voicing and Lyman's Law in Old
Japanese" (27-43), the only phonology paper in the volume, leads off
the set of 22 papers. It explores the history of sequential voicing, or
rendaku, in Japanese. Based on historical evidence, Vance shows
that, instead of a single bidirectional constraint, two separate
phonological processes are subsumed under this phenomenon.

E. Annamalai discusses two kinds of motivations in "NP gaps in Tamil:
syntactic versus pragmatic" (47-68). Some gaps in Tamil are shown to
be syntactically motivated (and recoverable), while others prove to be
pragmatically motivated. While the correlation between syntactic vs.
pragmatic motivation with certain definable structures is not absolute,
syntactic motivation appears to be unmarked for intrasentential gaps
while pragmatic motivation is unmarked for extrasentential, or
discourse, gaps.

Michael Shapiro's paper "Vaacya, prayoga, and Hindi sentences
without grammatical subjects" (69-82) argues that two concepts from
the indigenous Hindi grammar tradition can help us make sense of a
variety of "subjectless" sentences in Hindi. This paper ably exemplifies
Jim McCawley's "consumerist" approach to ideas about linguistic
analysis (see Lawler 2003).

Harold Schiffman's "The grammaticalization of aspect in Tamil and its
semantic sources" (pp.83-107) invokes both metaphor and
grammaticalization to explain certain auxiliary constructions in Tamil.
This chapter is a version of the author's paper, "The role of metaphor
in the grammaticalization of aspect in Tamil," presented at the
American Anthropological Association, Chicago, November 1999.
Having just published a book on the Tamil auxiliary system (Steever
2005), I can offer two remarks. First, the appeal to "metaphor" to
explain the development of auxiliary structures appears to be neither
sufficient nor necessary. It is not sufficient because the English
translation of a metaphor that putatively motivates an auxiliary
structure in Tamil does not do so in English and so must be language-
or structure-dependent; it is not necessary because more prosaic
linguistic factors can be shown to explain auxiliary structures (Steever
1993). Second, while grammaticalization is inherently a diachronic
process, Schiffman presents no historical evidence in support of its
operation in Tamil. True, the sandhi rules of Modern Tamil permit the
pronunciation of the auxiliary compound verb vantu viTTaarkaL 'they
did-2 come-1' as vantiTTaanka 'id.', but the word-formation rules of
the language still motivate a segmentation of the latter into two words
with as many word and morpheme boundaries as the former so this
alternation is synchronic, not diachronic

Tista Bagchi's "Causation and tense in subordinate clauses:
conjunctive participles and conditionals in Bangla and Hindi" (109-
134) explores the interaction of unaccusativity and ergativity with
tense and causation in the formation of subordinate clauses in Bangle
and Hindi. This chapter contributes to the extensive literature on the
syntactic characterization of conjunctive verb forms in the South Asian
linguistic area.

Etsuyo Yuasa's "Independence in subordinate clauses: analysis of
nonrestrictive relative clauses in English and Japanese" (135-160)
asks whether McCawley's analysis of English nonrestrictive relative
clauses as forming discontinuous constituents with their heads can be
applied to Japanese. An answer in the affirmative is provided by
several syntactic arguments, showing that Jim's analysis can naturally
explain similar phenomena in languages as typologically different as
English (non-SVO, in Jim's terms) and Japanese (SOV).

Elaine J. Francis' "Syntactic mimicry as evidence for prototypes in
grammar" (161-181) extends McCawley's claim that syntactic
categories are not bundles of discrete syntactic features, but
prototypes that reflect syntactic, semantic, morphological and possibly
other dimensions of linguistic structure. Demonstrations such as this
suggest that strict X-bar theories need to be viewed more critically and
constructed more flexibly if they are to reflect actual linguistic

Geoffrey Huck's "Gerundive modifiers in English and Korean" (183-
201) studies differences in absolute and relative gerundive modifiers
in English and Korean. He proposes to extend Na's (1991) restriction
on Korean relative clauses (the Thematic Well-formedness Condition)
to the analysis of gerundive modifiers, which in some early analyses
appeared to be highly reduced relative clauses.

Yoko Sugioka's "Multiple mechanisms underlying morphological
productivity" (203-223) explores deverbal compounds in Japanese
and discovers a distinction between processes that exhibit rule-like
behavior and others that do not, attempting to relate them to a
distinction between a mental rule (that obviates the need to store
individual derivatives) and memory (which allows such storage).

Salikoko Mufwene's "How many be-s are there in English" (226-246)
takes one of McCawley's arguments for auxiliaries a step further,
claiming that copular "be" is transformationally inserted rather than
base-generated, and therefore resembles auxiliary "be." This unites
the copular, existential and auxiliary uses of the word under a single

Robert Binnick's "On McCawley on Tense" (249-260) provides a
thoughtful critique of McCawley on the semantics of tense. From
McCawley's celebrated analysis of the English present perfect, which
he contrasts with an early analysis of Partee's, Binnick attempts to
educe a more general treatment of verbal tense and aspect.

Wesley Jacobsen's "On the fuzzy boundary between tense and
aspect in Japanese" (261-282) argues against some traditional
grammarians that Japanese does in fact have tense. He notes that
under certain circumstances and in certain settings, temporal notions
coalesce as tense (including relative tense, or taxis) while in others
they coalesce as aspect.

Lynn Nichol's "Counterfactuality in Burmese" (283-294) takes up the
expression of counterfactual conditionals in Burmese. She concludes
that while one can have a constant semantic characterization of
counterfactual conditions across languages, the morphosyntactic
realization of counterfactuality admits a degree of variation. The
distinction between ordinary and counterfactual conditions in Burmese
is shown to turn on an attitudinal evaluation of distance between the
real world and alternative possible worlds.

Suk-Jun Chang's "Retrospective mood in Korean: A constraint-based
approach" (295-326) presents an analysis of the retrospective verb
paradigm on Korean, one that has been variously characterized as a
tense or mood.

Laurence Horn's "An Un- Paper for the Unsyntactician" (329-365)
analyzes the increasingly productive word-formation process that
generates English nouns such as "Un-cola." Perhaps better than any
other paper in this volume, Horn's captures the sense of delight and
glee that Jim McCawley could bring to the analysis of some corner of
language that no one had bothered to spend much time looking at.
Both scholarly and witty, this paper shows how the semantics of un-
words, as often happens in derivational morphology, can deviate — in
predictable ways — from the basic compositionality of their component
parts, which is no mean feat.

Donka Farkas' "Semantic noun phrase typology" (368-87) proposes a
crosslinguistic typology of noun phrases based on a division between
structural distinctions and what she calls fine distinctions. After
examining English and Hungarian, she concludes that surface gross
clausal combinatorics are insensitive to the fine nominal distinctions
which may be made in semantic analysis.

Almerindo Ojeda's "The Paradox of Mass Plurals" (389-410) proposes
a framework in which to resolve the paradox presented by mass
plurals, a conundrum which Jim bequeathed to linguists for analysis.
His treatment draws upon such different languages as English,
Lingala and Zuni.

Katharine Beals' "Everything That Linguistics Have Always Wanted to
Know about Ironic Presupposition and Implicatures but Were Ashamed
to Ask" (411-429) attempts to tease out the conditions under which
ironic statements are to be correctly interpreted. She concludes that
the correct interpretation of irony depends on reference to linguistic
conventions, not solely on a linguistically independent characterization
of irony as a rhetorical figure.

William O'Grady's "Deficits in Pronoun Interpretation: Clues to a
Theory of Competence and Acquisition" (434-454) uses processing
theory to give actual cognitive substance to the way in which
pronouns might be interpreted. This suggests that the way in which
pronouns are interpreted may come under general cognitive
capacities, rather than a dedicated linguistic faculty.

Jerry Morgan and Georgia Green's "Why Verb Agreement is Not the
Poster Child for any General Formal Principle" (455-478) notes that
many theoretical paradigms stake their claims to (partial) explanatory
competence on their analyses of subject-verb agreement, then
proceeds to show why such a reliance is misplaced. They
demonstrate that both verb agreement in English and the linguistic
generalization(s) that characterize it are far from uniform, requiring
appeal to as many as five different principles. It would be a worthwhile
project to apply this kind of analysis to languages where verb
agreement is more extensively elaborated.

Barbara Luka's "A Cognitively Plausible Model of Linguistic Intuition"
(479-502) presents a cognitively-based theory in virtue of which
speakers' linguistic intuitions about their languages may be explained.
She uses metacognitive attribution and preferences in implicit
learning, or MAPIL, to help explain how speakers ground conscious
decisions about their linguistic judgments in implicit memory for
previously encountered linguistic structures.

Peter Daniels' "Language and Languages in the Eleventh Britannica"
(505-529) rounds out the volume, providing a glimpse of what an
educated nonspecialist just before World War I might have known
about language and languages by surveying the Encyclopedia
Britannica (1910-11). Although the editors attempted to recruit this
chapter to the literature on "colonial" (and "postcolonial") critiques of
language (page 20), it stands on its own as an enjoyable antiquarian
study (using computer-aided searches) of what "unmarked"
knowledge about language was available at a time when the sun
never set on the British Empire.


This volume succeeds as an able tribute to Jim McCawley's strengths
as a teacher. These papers, taken collectively, illustrate a number of
lessons that Jim emphasized in his classroom teaching. His approach
to language and linguistics lay less with endorsing a specific set of
theories and more with an inquisitive, penetrating and critical
approach to the analysis of language. He emphasized a respect for
the role of meaning in language and its potential to influence syntax;
downplaying of notational systems and foregrounding of the insights
that theories might lead to; deep involvement in languages other than
English, with an emphasis on languages of Asia; and a consumerist
approach to linguistic ideas and theories. In this last instance,
particularly, Jim held that the better a consumer and critic one was of
linguistic theories, the better prepared one would be to create and use
such theories.

The only noticeable gap in this already rich volume is the lack of a
chapter that directly takes up one of Jim's main currents of thought,
Linguistics and the Philosophy of Science. If none of the authors
tackles it head on, however, the influence of this strand in Jim's work
is nevertheless apparent in several chapters in the way that the
authors will draw on multiple, well, polymorphous, approaches to
language which they can use to express linguistic insights.

Finally, kudos to the MIT Press, the editors, and the copyeditors for
their meticulous preparation of this volume.


Lawler, John. 2003. Obituary: James D. McCawley. Language 79:614-

McCawley, James D. 1981. "Everything linguists always wanted to
know about logic, but were ashamed to ask." Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

McCawley, James D. 1988. "The syntactic phenomena of English."
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Na, Younghee. 1991. Relativizability in Korean. Manuscript, University
of Toronto.

Steever, Sanford B. 1993. "Analysis to synthesis: the development of
complex verb morphology in the Dravidian languages." New York:
Oxford University Press.

Steever, Sanford B. 2005. "The Tamil auxiliary verb system." London:


Sanford Steever's interests include syntax, morphology and historical
linguistics, particularly as they occur in the Dravidian languages. His
book, "The Tamil auxiliary verb system," released this summer, is
dedicated to three scholars, including Jim McCawley.

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