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Review of  Deriving Nominals

Reviewer: Megan Schildmier Stone
Book Title: Deriving Nominals
Book Author: Dimitrios Ntelitheos
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): Malagasy, Plateau
Language Family(ies): Austronesian
Issue Number: 24.2802

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In “Deriving Nominals: A Syntactic Account of Malagasy Nominalizations”, Dimitrios Ntelitheos provides an analysis of the properties of deverbal nominals in Malagasy (Austronesian, Western Malayo-Polynesian) that is situated within a larger debate about the nature of the lexicon. As Ntelitheos writes in the preface, “this book aims mainly to reinforce the assumption that there is a single combinatorial component of grammar that builds morphosyntactic strings” (xv). Nominalizations are the perfect testing-ground for this issue, as it has long been observed that they show both lexical and syntactic properties, thereby mediating the lexicon-syntax interface (Lees 1960; Vendler 1968; Chomsky 1970; Fraser 1970; McCawley 1988; Grimshaw 1990; Marantz 1997; among many others). Ntelitheos brings new data to bear on this widely debated issue, arguing that the complex and diverse range of nominalizations in Malagasy can be accounted for without appeal to a generative lexicon.

Chapters 1 and 2 lay out the background information for the book. In Chapter 1, Ntelitheos begins by providing an overview of the theoretical assumptions that serve as the book’s foundation. The book marries the basic tenets of the Minimalist Program (Chomsky 1993ff) with a form of Distributed Morphology (DM; Halle and Marantz 1993; Marantz 1995, 1997a) which holds that all structure-building takes place in the syntax; this crucially differs from standard DM in that, for Ntelitheos, there is no morphological component at all. Another significant assumption is a cartographic syntax in which there is a highly articulated map of functional projections within the clause that share the same hierarchical order cross-linguistically (Rizzi 1997; Cinque 1999, 2002; Belleti 2004). The remainder of the chapter is devoted to a summary of previous approaches to nominalizations. Ntelitheos concludes the chapter with his primary hypothesis: “Derivational morphemes do not have ‘fixed’ subcategorization properties. They attach at different heights resulting in strings with diverse morphosyntactic properties” (33).

Chapter 2 summarizes the properties of Malagasy morphosyntax that are relevant to the remaining discussion. One of the most prominent features of Malagasy clausal structure is the ‘trigger’, or rightmost Determiner Phrase (DP), which encodes the highest argument. The examples in (1) below show the three available configurations: actor trigger (AT) in (1a), theme trigger (TT) in (1b), and circumstantial trigger (CT) in (1c) (p. 38; some minor typographical changes made for clarity). The three different configurations are related to different voice morphology on the verb: V in (1a), TT in (1b), and CT in (1c).

(1a) n.i.vídy boky ho any’ny mpianatra [ny mpampianatra] books for’ DET student [DET teacher]
‘The teacher bought books for the student.’

(1b)’ ny mpampianatra ho an’ny mpianatra [ny boky]’ DET teacher for’ DET student [DET books]
‘The teacher bought books for the student.’

(1c)’ ny mpampianatra ny boky [ny mpianatra]’ DET teacher DET books [DET student]
‘The teacher bought books for the student.’

Chapter 3 is a discussion of some of the properties of gerundive and referential nominalizations in Malagasy. Here, as elsewhere, the cartographic assumption is at the forefront: phonologically identical elements are assumed to merge at different levels in the syntax, forming nominalizations with different properties. The examples in (2) illustrate this point (p. 75; some minor typographical changes made for clarity).

(2a) ny adiny telo [ny ridrina]
PST.V.last DET hour three [DET NMLZ.V.drill.CT/LNK-Rabe wall]
‘Rabe’s drilling wall(s) lasted for three hours.’

(2b) [ny ridrina] dia ny fantsika
DET NMLZ.V.drill.CT/LNK-Rabe wall] TOP DET nail
‘Rabe’s (instrument for) drilling walls is a nail.’

The nominals, shown here in brackets, are phonologically identical, yet they have different interpretations in the given contexts. Ntelitheos shows that nominalizations of the type in (2a) (i.e. gerundive nominals) have many more verbal properties than those of the type in (2b) (i.e. result nominals). This fact, along with other data, leads him to propose a lower attachment height for the nominalizer f- in result nominals than in gerundive nominals in Malagasy. Ntelitheos notes that “[not] all nominalizers are of the same type” (73), and gives the example of gerundive –ing as an imperfective aspectual marker in English. In contrast, the f- nominalizer in Malagasy gerundive nominals replaces tense, selecting for an EventP.

In Chapter 4, Ntelitheos discusses participant nominals in Malagasy, focusing on instrumental and agentive nominals. He contrasts nominals built on the AT and CT forms of the verb, showing that CT-based nominals have many more verb-like properties than AT-based nominals: “accusative quantized arguments, adverbial modification, eventive interpretation, linking of external arguments, and episodic interpretation” (126). From this, Ntelitheos concludes that CT-based instrumental nominals encompass a larger syntactic domain than AT-based instrumental nominals, and thus, that the nominalizer f- merges much lower in the structure for the latter than the former. Ntelitheos also explains an apparent gap in the f-nominal paradigm (i.e. the lack of f-root and f-TT nominals) by positing that the f-nominalizer requires AT voice morphology in its local environment.

Chapter 5 provides a discussion of nominal clauses in Malagasy, which consist of a determiner followed by a clause with a fully inflected verb, as in (3) (p. 156; some minor typographical changes made for clarity).

(3a) [ny/ilay n.amp.i.anatra teny gasy an-dRasoa] dia Rabe
[DET/DEM language Malagasy ACC.Rasoa] TOP Rabe
‘The/This (one that) taught Malagasy to Rasoa is Rabe.’

(3b) ny adiny telo [ny/ilay n.amp.i.anatra teny gasy an-dRasoa]
PST.V.last DET hour three [DET/DEM language Malagasy ACC.Rasoa]
‘The/this (past) teaching of Malagasy to Rasoa lasted for three hours.’

While the examples in (3) have the same form, they contrast in interpretation, distribution, and syntactic structure. Ntelitheos argues that the form in (3a) is a headless relative clause, which undergoes a nominalization process via movement of the null clausal head to the specifier of the Complementizer Phrase (spec-CP), while the form in (3b) is an action nominal.

In Chapter 6, Ntelitheos uses evidence from voice morphology, binding, and modifier interpretation to argue that Malagasy participant nominals are actually reduced headless relative clauses. He summarizes his main claim as follows: “the overall structural design of participant nominalizations is based on the structural design of relative clauses, i.e. a determiner selecting for a clausal string that comes in different sizes” (213). Ntelitheos then speculates about the cross-linguistic applicability of this claim, incorporating data from six other language families, as well as other Austronesian languages. He draws a parallel between nominalizers and relativizers to give credence to his claim about the similarity between participant nominals and headless relative clauses. Ntelitheos ends the chapter by revisiting the syntax/lexicon debate, concluding that f-nominalizations in Malagasy are best treated as syntactic rather than lexical.

Chapter 7 provides a brief summary, as well as a discussion of potential areas for future research. Ntelitheos reiterates his goals of (1) introducing original data from Malagasy, and (2) providing a purely syntactic account of deverbal nominalizations. Future research topics include an investigation of what constrains the distribution of nominalizers and an extension of the typological inquiry into the relationship between participant nominals and headless relative clauses begun in Chapter 6.


This book provides an excellent overview and analysis of Malagasy nominalizations. One of the book’s merits is its argumentation style: the author clearly elucidates his claims and then supports them with strong evidence that is both empirical and theoretical. For the most part, the line of argumentation is easy to follow, which contributes to the book’s overall readability. Furthermore, the book has a good logical flow, beginning by outlining the necessary background information and assumptions, and then building on that work with new empirical facts about Malagasy and theoretical claims about the structure of nominalizations. Although Ntelitheos does a thorough job of providing relevant background information, to the extent that this book represents a continuation of previous work, knowledge of that previous work would enable readers to get the most out of the current volume. That said, I think this is a must-read for anyone interested in nominalizations, Malagasy, or the lexicon-syntax debate.

While the argumentation in general is quite clear, there are some fine-grained technical details that do not seem to be fully worked out. For instance, Ntelitheos asserts that “[t]he nominalizer defines the nominal domain and therefore higher projections will be nominal in nature” (96) without discussing what it means to be part of the nominal (or verbal) domain. Moreover, there is no discussion of the mechanism that prevents higher projections (above NominalizerP, where the nominalizing morpheme is merged) from being ‘verbal’ (e.g. Tense) rather than ‘nominal’ (e.g. Number). In fact, though Ntelitheos does not discuss this possibility, verbal projections must be allowed above NominalizerP, as in the case of certain denominal verbs following a V > N > V derivation pattern. The word ‘nominalization’ is one such example: the noun ‘nominal’ combines with the verbalizing suffix -ize to yield the denominal verb ‘nominalize’, which in turn combines with the nominalizer –ation to yield the deverbal noun ‘nominalization’. The existence of such forms indicates the need to allow verbal projections in the domain above NominalizerP, and it is unclear how this should be handled in Ntelitheos’s framework. One might assume that syntactic selectional restrictions are at play here, but Ntelitheos never spells that out, in spite of the fact that he makes appeals to the nominal and verbal domains on several occasions.

There is a similar issue concerning restrictions on the nominal domain and variable attachment height. In a chart on page 103, Ntelitheos shows the varying properties of f-AT and f-CT result nominals, as opposed to f-CT gerundive nominals. The result nominals exhibit not only fewer verbal properties, but also more nominal properties, than do the gerundive nominals, including adjectival modification and the presence of possessors. Ntelitheos is explicit about how the additional verbal properties are available to gerundive nominals: the nominalizer attaches higher in the tree, allowing a larger verbal functional structure inside the nominal. However, the lack of availability of nominal properties for gerundive nominals remains a mystery. As Ntelitheos states, “At the point where the nominalizer attaches, the extended projection changes from verbal to nominal. This means that the remaining functional domain will be nominal in nature and thus will allow for the licensing of adjectives….Finally, possessors will also be available since a possessor selects for nominal strings” (105). If this is the case, what prevents adjectives and possessors from appearing with gerundive nominals, which contain a nominalizer, albeit higher in the structure than result nominals?

In addition to these concerns, Ntelitheos’s analysis raises some other questions that are fruitful areas for continued investigation. One such area is the general domain of variable attachment height. Is there something special about the nominalizer that allows it to have multiple attachment sites? If so, what makes it special? Are there other morphemes that have this property? Finally, how does one reconcile variable attachment height of morphemes with the cartographic program, which posits a universal hierarchy of syntactic projections?

As a final point of critique, there are persistent glossing errors throughout the book that cast a shadow on some of the finer points of the argumentation and analysis. As an illustrative example, page 190 has three numbered examples, each of which has at least one glossing error: In (320a), the Malagasy and English gloss lines have the name ‘Rabe’, while the free translation line has the name ‘Rasoa’; in (321a), the present tense morpheme is glossed as PST; in (322a), the name ‘Rabe’ is again used in both the Malagasy and English gloss lines, while ‘Rasoa’ is used in the free translation; and in (322b), the phrase ‘ny zaza’ (‘the child’) has no English gloss. Although these are relatively benign errors -- particularly the name-glossing mistake, which is rampant throughout the book -- they underscore the potential for much more serious errors in the glossing, which readers who are not familiar with the Malagasy language will be unable to detect. Additionally, there are numerous inconsistencies in the use of brackets, slashes, periods, and apostrophes within examples that make them at times difficult to decipher. The tree diagrams are similarly confusing, as the lines indicating movement go through or behind parts of the tree, obscuring movement paths. Example (43) on page 46 exemplifies this concern; all three trees suffer from this confusing notation.

All in all, Ntelitheos achieves his goal of bringing new empirical data from Malagasy to bear on the debate about the nature of nominalizations, and provides some compelling arguments for his position that these data can be handled without a separate morphological component. “Deriving Nominals” is an important contribution to the study of morphosyntax, both empirically and theoretically, and I highly recommend it to readers interested in this field.


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Chomsky, Noam. 1970. Remarks on nominalization. In R. A. Jacobs and P. S. Rosenbaum (eds.), Readings in English transformational grammar, 184-221. Waltham, MA: Gin and Company.

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Marantz, Alec. 1997. No escape from syntax: Don’t try morphological analysis in the privacy of your own lexicon. In A. Dimitriadis, L. Siegel, C. Surek-Clark, and A. Williams (eds.), University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, Vol 4.2, Proceedings of the 21st Annual Penn Linguistics Colloquium, 201-225.

Rizzi, Luigi. 1997. The fine structure of the left periphery. In L. Haegeman (ed.), Elements of grammar, 281-337. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

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Megan Schildmier Stone is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. She is currently a Visiting Student at the University of Texas at Austin. Megan’s research interests are in morphology, syntax, and semantics, with two special areas of focus: deverbal nominalizations, with a particular interest in Cherokee; and English idioms and other noncompositional uses of language. She is currently writing her dissertation, which uses both traditional and experimental methods to investigate what idioms can tell us about the limits of human language.

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