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Review of  The Syntax of Old Norse

Reviewer: Michael T. Putnam
Book Title: The Syntax of Old Norse
Book Author: Jan Terje Faarlund
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Norse, Old
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 16.3576

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Date: Mon, 12 Dec 2005 09:06:44 -0500
From: Michael T. Putnam
Subject: The Syntax of Old Norse

AUTHOR: Faarlund, Jan Terje
TITLE: The Syntax of Old Norse
SUBTITLE: With a survey of the inflectional morphology and a
complete bibliography
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2004

Michael T. Putnam, Department of Germanic Languages and
Literatures, University of Michigan


The last couple of decades have evidenced a revitalization of interest
in the time-honored discipline of historical linguistic inquiry.
Traditionally, historical linguistics has concerned itself primarily with
phonological issues and has paid much less attention to aspects of
syntax. Since the instantiation of the Principles-and-Parameters (P &
P) framework in generative syntax, many issues in diachronic syntax
have been revisited and reassessed through the lens of modern
theoretical concepts. Surprisingly, relatively few studies have been
devoted to the historical syntax of one particular language or
language family applying current syntactic theory. In his text ''The
Syntax of Old Norse'' Jan Terle Faarlund seeks to provide an analysis
of the syntax of Old Norse within the basic Principles-and-Parameters
enterprise. The last comprehensive presentation of Old Norse syntax
existing to date is Marius Nygaard's ''Norrøn syntax'', published in
Dano-Norwegian in 1906. Faarlund's contribution is therefore a
welcome edition being the first comprehensive treatment of Old Norse
syntax in a century and being the very first edition of such a volume in

Aside from providing substantial empirical data from Old Norse,
Faarlund's text faces two principle challenges, challenges the author
readily admits. First, Faarlund hopes that his descriptive work ''will be
of interest to students and scholars working on historical Germanic
linguistics, diachronic syntax, or Scandinavian languages, as well as
to philologists and others interested in Nordic languages, civilizations,
and history'' (p.xi). Recognizing that his target audience may not be
well versed on the latest nuances in generative syntactic theory,
Faarlund condenses his discussion of core theoretical concepts to
Chapter 1 consisting of only six pages. Although the author
introduces other components of the theory in future chapters
describing individual structural and phrasal units, i.e., noun phrases,
verb phrases, etc., everything is presented on a ''need-to-know''
basis. In my opinion, this presentation of theory does not get bogged
down in more theory-internal arguments and makes this work
readable to those unfamiliar with recent trends in modern syntactic
thought. Second, a fundamental concern of generative linguistic
inquiry centers on descriptive and explanatory adequacy. Perhaps
the most poignant methodological stumbling block is the assumption
that a true description of the internal grammatical competence of Old
Norse speakers is impossible. To combat this shortcoming, Faarlund
posits ''any description of speakers' internalized grammar, whether
dead or alive, is a hypothesis of this kind, since the actual object of
study is never available to direct observation'' (p.1). The latter
aforementioned challenge is more of a philosophical issue, however
the former, namely, integrating current syntactic theory into an
analysis of Old Norse for both linguist and non-linguist alike,
determines the success or failure of this volume. As argued in this
review, I feel that Faarlund's text successfully lays out the essential
aspects of syntactic theory while subtly providing data and
argumentation that challenge current claims in the theory. In this
regard, ''The Syntax of Old Norse'' is successful on this account.

The structure of this volume is as follows: Chapter 1 offers brief
definitions and explanations on Old Norse, the sources from which
empirical data was extracted and fundamental linguistic (syntax)
considerations. Faarlund introduces the role of phrase structure in
universal grammar (X-bar theory), binding, c-command relations and
adjunction in this initial chapter. As stated above, Faarlund utilizes
these fundamental tools discussed in this introductory chapter to
development further theoretical considerations in later chapters.
Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the phonology and inflectional morphology
of Old Norse. Although the central focus of this text is the syntactic
structure of Old Norse, the existence of these chapters is intended to
function ''as an aid to the understanding of the inflectional patterns
which play a role in syntax'' (p.7). At any rate they assist those
unfamiliar with Old Norse texts with resources that can help familiarize
them with data presented in future chapters. The remainder of the
chapters in the book provides an in depth breakdown of the various
key components of Old Norse syntax: Chapter 4 introduces the noun
phrase in Old Norse. Chapters 4 and 5, discussing Determiner
Phrases and Adjective Phrases respectively, build upon the
fundamental claims established in Chapter 4. Chapter 7 concerns
itself with prepositional phrases, and Chapter 8 focuses on the verb
phrase. The remainder of the book (e.g., Chapters 9, 10 and 11)
analyzes sentential-level phenomena, i.e. finite sentences,
subordinate clauses and reflexive binding.


Although the goal of this volume is to present a concise, simplified
theoretical model to explain empirical data from Old Norse,
occasionally the author fails to provide fundamental details to basic
aspects of the theory. Take for example the morphosyntactic
agreement properties of determiner phrases (DPs). Faarlund outlines
the distinction between structural and lexical case (p. 21) but offers
little explanation as to how structural case is licensed in the theory
presented in his book. Functional projections responsible for
agreement phenomena such as this (AgrP) are not mentioned in this
text. The displacement of nominal elements into the ''middle field''
takes place by means of adjunction (cf. Section 9.7). It is therefore left
open how agreement features such as phi- and case-features are
accounted for even in this basic presentation of syntactic theory.
Another problem with the presentation of theory in this book is the
occasional lack of references of key topics in the subject index. For
example, Faarlund introduces the concept of semantic roles (p.21-23)
and elaborates further on their importance in constructing the verb
phrase in Chapters 6, 7 and 8. For readers unfamiliar with current
syntactic theory, this is a central concept. Unfortunately, the
term ''semantic role'' is not mentioned in the subject index.

Another shortcoming of this book is the lack of inter-textual reference
to certain theoretical formulations within the text's presentation of
theory. In Chapter 4 (Noun Phrases) the author introduces an
intermediate functional projection between the determiner phrase (DP)
and the noun phrase (NP) that he labels the 'Reference Phrase' (p.
56-7). The existence of a referential phrase as an intermediary is not
an established component of mainstream theory, but is rather a
personal invention of the author himself (Faarlund, p.c.) (See however
Putnam 2006 for similar arguments). In the latter chapters that
discuss sentential phenomena and more global aspects of syntactic
theory, the author incorporates footnotes to give proper credit to
previous scholars and literature. My last slight criticism concerns the
final chapter on reflexive binding. Due to the relatively short length of
the chapter and its almost pure theoretical content, perhaps it would
have been more appropriate to integrate these data into early
sections of the text (cf. Sections 3.7.4 and/or 8.2).

Aside from these minor quibbles, the book is a tremendous success.
The piecemeal presentation of the theory is clear and systematic,
especially to the non-syntactician. The expansion of theoretical
knowledge is subtle and not overwhelming, and is always
accompanied by a healthy dose of relevant data to illustrate and
support these assumptions. The data sets themselves are a treasure
trove of information that challenges certain long-held theoretical
assumptions. For example, in his treatment of relative clauses in Old
Norse, the author notes that relativization may cross clause
boundaries. Certain examples serve as potential counter-examples to
the allegedly universal restriction that a subject cannot leave a clause
introduced by a complementizer (p. 263). Discontinuous XPs also
abound in the data, in particular prepositional phrases (PPs) and verb
phrases (VPs). From a glance, these data also force a reinvestigation
of constraints on local and non-local (i.e. long) head movement. The
wealth of data will benefit future studies aiming at linguistic
change/parameter setting in Scandinavian syntax as well as other
typological comparisons with both related and distinct language


Whether or not this volume on the syntax of Old Norse is intelligible to
scholars outside of linguistics remains to be seen. In hindsight it may
have perhaps been more appropriate to be a little more 'theory savvy'
in approach. Leaving that aside, Faarlund's ''The Syntax of Old
Norse'' stands as a strong companion reference work to more
philologically-based introductory works such as Gordon's ''Introduction
to Old Norse'' (1981). The discreet introduction of theoretical nuances
(e.g. referential phrases) and the wealth of empirical data make this
text of great interest not only for historical linguistics but also for those
involved in more theoretical research.


I thank Jan Terje Faarlund for engaging in personal communication
with me about this text.


Gordon, E. V. (1981) An Introduction to Old Norse 2nd Edition.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Putnam, Michael T. (2006) ''Prolific Scrambling: A Radical Approach to
Middle Field Scrambling in West Germanic.'' Ph.D. dissertation,
University of Kansas.

Mike Putnam is a Lecturer/Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the
Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University
of Michigan. His research focuses on theoretical syntax, Germanic
linguistics and contact linguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199271100
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 320
Prices: U.K. £ 55.00