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Review of  Genitives in Early English

Reviewer: Penelope Thompson
Book Title: Genitives in Early English
Book Author: Cynthia L. Allen
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English, Middle
Issue Number: 20.2555

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AUTHOR: Allen, Cynthia, L.
TITLE: Genitives in Early English
SUBTITLE: Typology and Evidence
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2008

Penelope Thompson, University of Edinburgh

This is an empirical study in which Allen examines the development of genitive
constructions from Old English to Early Modern English. The study is backed up
by typological observations, including discussions of genitive constructions in
earlier and present-day Germanic languages. Allen challenges some of the common
morphosyntactic assumptions and analyses of the development of the genitive
using her own data surveys. This book would be of interest to scholars
interested in diachronic syntax and morphology, as well as historical linguists
and philologists who focus on the Germanic languages.

The introduction lays out the author's aims, which include the testing of
assumptions using empirical data, and the need for a typological approach to the
problem. Allen makes it clear that this book is one intended not only for
linguists, but also those interested in the history of English. As such, the
introduction provides background to the treatment of phrase structure in a way
that is accessible to readers whose focus is not syntax. The theoretical
framework adopted is Lexical Functional Grammar (Bresnan 2001). The introduction
also includes a discussion of the validity of 'universal' case hierarchies
(Primus 1995, 1999; Hawkins 2004) which state that the genitive case is low
ranked, and is not expected to occur in a language that lacks the more high
ranked cases.

Chapter one also engages with the important issue of the sources for the data.
Allen considers the problems of using texts from dead languages to make
assumptions about the grammar, including the potential for scribal influence in
copied texts and influence from Latin in interlinear glosses. She concludes that
such texts are indeed valid representations of the grammar as long as the data
are treated with sensitivity. Allen claims that due to the sociolinguistically
low status of English in both the Old English and Middle English periods, the
language is less likely to be formal and affected. This is fortunate for a study
of the language contained within the manuscripts, as it is less likely that the
language will be unrepresentative of the grammar of the author.

Chapter two examines genitive case in Germanic languages. Background is provided
on the nominal phrases and genitive case in Common Germanic. Allen examines how
the -s genitives that are found in Germanic languages differ in status. In
Present-Day English and Swedish, the -s genitive is often treated as a clitic
that attaches to the end of a phrase. She also refers to the criteria laid out
by Zwicky and Pullum (1983) for determining what constitutes a clitic. According
to these criteria, both Swedish and English -s genitives look like clitics,
though the author argues that they have inflection like qualities, and that the
idea of a single reanalysis from inflection to clitic in the history of English
is too simplistic.

Variability in case agreement in Early Middle English is found to be similar to
that in some Low Saxon Dialects. Allen also notes that the loss of Genitives
which is currently proceeding (as in Faroese p.57) provide evidence against
arguments related to the case hierarchy that the loss of the genitive would be
triggered by the loss of distinction between more robust categories, as the more
highly ranked cases are still distinct.

Chapter three focuses on the genitive case in Old English. This begins with a
description of the texts used and their printed editions. The texts included
represent Early West Saxon and Late West Saxon. The Late West Saxon texts,
including the first and second series of Ælfric's Catholic Homilies, Benetictine
Rule and the Homilies of Wulfstan, are not all assumed to come from exactly the
same period, as Allen intends to look for changes in Late Old English.

Allen notes that due to phonological changes and analogy there was syncretism in
case forms even in the earliest Old English texts, referring to Hogg's (1997)
arguments that this was more advanced than would be assumed in Old English
Grammars such as Campbell (1959). However, Allen claims that the nominative,
accusative, genitive and dative cases were still robust in Late West Saxon.

This chapter includes a discussion of genitive pronouns and possessors, and the
debate as to whether they should be classed as determiners or adjectives. Allen
argues against accounts such as those found in Demske (2001), which argue that
they are adjectives. Allen for example, argues that while possessives have
inflectional properties similar to adjectives, they are syntactically distinct,
and do not appear in adjectival positions.

Another focus of Chapter three is the prenominal genitive in Old English, which
falls into two categories:

a. Genitive agreement: The possessor phrase is a maximal projection, with the
determiner agreeing in gender, case, number with its genitive head.

b. Low prenominal (Chrisma to appear): The possessor has genitive case, but any
determiner preceding agrees not with it, but with the head of the larger
possessor phrase. Allen terms this 'head agreement'.

According to Allen, the two categories have different phrase structure, as
genitives classed as type (a) are at a higher level. A discussion of how to
analyze these types syntactically is given.

Allen concludes the chapter, proposing a number of ways in which functionality
may affect the position of genitives in Old English, including ease of processing.

Chapter four investigates the genitives in Middle English, focusing largely on
the loss of adnominal genitive types. By the end of the ME period, the -es
marker of genitive case for masculine and neuter has become a possessive marker
for all nouns, singular and plural. Allen discusses the development of what was
a pure inflection becoming a more clitic-like element. It is often assumed that
the loss of the obsolete genitive types was triggered by morphological change,
though Allen argues that this is too simplistic.

Four periods of Middle English are referred to: M1, M2, M3 and M4. The chapter
includes a summary of the Middle English inflectional situation from texts from
these four periods, and also the status of the determiners. A section is devoted
to each of three types of adnominal genitives which are lost: Non-partitive
postnominal genitives, partitive genitives and obsolete (non-partitive) semantic

In section 4.3, Allen focuses on the adnominal -es genitive in the 'pre group'
period. The 'pre group' period refers to the texts in which group genitives,
which are clearly very different morphosyntactically from OE genitive
inflections have not yet taken hold. Allen discusses evidence for and against
treating the possessive marker differently in this 'pre group' period from in
Old English. Two differing arguments are discussed: 1. That the possessive
marker is already a clitic by this stage, and (2) That the possessive marker
should not be treated as a case marker because -es had become restricted
essentially to proper nouns and kinship terms, as in modern Dutch -s (Weerman
and de Wit 1999). Allen provides data that contradict argument (2), claiming
that at no period of Middle English were -es genitives grammatically restricted
to such simple possessor phrases. Allen goes on to consider the question of
whether the Middle English -es is indeed a case marker, and how to deal with it

Chapters five and six examine constructions in Germanic such as Dutch ''Jan z'n
boek'' 'Jan's book' (literally 'Jan his book') (p. 186). Allen refers to such
constructions as POSSESSOR DOUBLING. In Chapter five it is noted that
constructions which appear to be the same as the Dutch one above also appear in
the history of English. However, Allen argues that 'his' in Middle English
examples should be labelled POSS, as it should not be treated as an ordinary
possessive pronoun. These constructions in Middle English, Allen argues, are not
the same as those found in Dutch. Rather than the term possessor doubling, Allen
refers to the English examples using the neutral term SEPARATED GENITIVES. The
true possessor doubling cases are examined in chapter five, and the English
cases of separated genitives are examined in chapter six. In the possessor
doubling cases, Allen considers questions such as whether the linker agrees with
the possessor in number and gender, finding that where possible, it does. Allen
notes that possessor doubling constructions arise when case marking becomes a
less central feature of the language. Though she acknowledges that there may be
a connection between the two, she argues that deflexion is not totally
responsible for the rise of possessor doubling, and that the notion that case
marking could no longer mark relationships marked by possessor doubling should
be rejected.

Chapter seven examines the co-occurrence of genitives with the definite article
or demonstrative in the history of English, presenting data that show that
constructions in which a possessor precedes a determiner, POSS DET, disappear in
Early Middle English. The DET POSS construction is found in Early Modern
English, though Allen finds that it disappeared around the beginning of the
Early Middle English period, only to resurface after the thirteenth century.
Allen provides data that show that these two constructions are not simply
variants which are the result of free word order. She concludes that the loss of
both of these constructions may be more related to discourse preference than to
any change in the word class to which possessives belong, calling for an
investigation into the discourse functions of such constructions in living

The book concludes by summarizing the major empirical findings and issues. One
important issue throughout is the question of the relationship between deflexion
and changes to genitive constructions. Allen maintains that the connection is
only indirect, and that although English has undergone a change from an
inflected language to one that signifies grammatical relationships using word
order, the idea that this whole change stems from phonological change is too
simplistic. Evidence for this argument comes partly from the fact that Old
English already showed signs of a greater reliance upon word order and
prepositions. The postnominal genitives and genitive objects fell out of the
language despite the existence of the genitive as a morphological case. Allen
claims that it is the appearance of optionality in case marking that caused the
obsolescence of genitive constructions. Allen states that all of the changes
that have been found support the idea that change progresses gradually, but
falling in frequency until there is no longer enough surface evidence for the
original form to be acquired. This is in opposition to theories of language
change such as Lightfoot (1991, 1999) in which change is innovated in the
grammar, with obsolescence resulting from it. Allen finally suggests some
important directions for future studies of syntactic change, including
sociolinguistically informed studies of living languages.

This book is a very interesting read. The data-orientated observations are
challenging to the literature and the analyses are convincing. The background
information is presented in an accessible way, and Allen handles the project
itself with attention to detail.

Allen is careful not to silently assume a theoretical position. Readers can be
assured that where an approach is not theoretically neutral, this will be made
explicit and the implications discussed. For example, Allen puts forward a
convincing argument against the treatments of possessives as adjectives,
claiming instead that they are determiners. In section 3.7.1 she cites evidence
such as the fact that when a possessive follows a determiner, it still has a
strong inflection, whereas an adjective following a determiner would follow the
weak declension. Demske (2001) argues that unlike determiners, possessives do
not control whether following adjectives decline weak or strong. Allen argues
that on the contrary, possessives do cause following adjectives to be declined
weak, as would a determiner. She goes on to show that the exceptions to this
rule posited by Demske (2001) represent a peculiarity of the adjective AGEN
'own', rather than a property of the possessives.

With respect to the potential problem in historical linguistics of using
written-only texts in order to trace linguistic development, Allen ensures
validity in a number of ways. Firstly, the data have been collected very
carefully, and Allen is sure to refer to the true dates of manuscripts. Allen
checks forms of interest found in the York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old
English Prose (YCOE) (Taylor et al 2003) not only against the printed editions
but also in the facsimiles when available. She is also careful not to make the
common mistake of assuming that a manuscript represents that language of the
assumed date of compilation, when its actual date may be much later. Secondly,
the typological considerations found in chapter two lend weight to the
discussions of Old and Middle English in later chapters, as similar processes of
genitive loss are found in living languages which have native speakers who can
give grammaticality assessments. These points will be welcome to linguists who
will be interested in the syntactic developments, and also to philologist readers.

In chapter two, Allen notes that the loss of genitives which is currently
proceeding provide evidence against the case hierarchy related argument that the
loss of the genitive would be triggered by the loss of distinction between more
robust categories, as the more highly ranked cases are still distinct. Allen
(p.58) argues that by following the strong version of the case hierarchy (Primus
1995, 1999; Hawkins 2004) we might expect this remaining distinction between
nominative and dative for example, to prevent the loss of the genitive. However,
she also states that this does not disprove the idea that a dative/accusative
distinction is necessary for the retention of the genitive case. I would agree
with this last statement, as it seems likely that one of the assumptions
implicit in the case hierarchy would be that the low-ranked genitive would be
the most vulnerable to change, and that the loss of the genitive in Faroese does
not contradict that. However, Allen provides convincing arguments for the
non-universality of the hierarchy, for example, the retention of genitive case
in many Middle English texts. Allen's claim that it is merely a 'strong
tendency' seems very reasonable.

Allen's Old English data are from Early and Late West Saxon, and she points out
in section 1.9.2 that since most of the extant texts in Old English are of the
West Saxon dialect, and the Middle English lengthy texts are not of this
dialect, the differences may be diatopic as well as diachronic. It may therefore
be interesting in future studies to examine some of the non-West Saxon texts
such as the Vespasian Psalter.

In sum, this book will be essential reading for anyone who is interested in
aspects of not only the genitives, but also wider questions such as the effect
deflexion has upon syntactic change. The book provides not only a useful
background to the topic, but is also a groundbreaking and careful empirical
study providing a wealth of information.

Bresnan, Joan. (2001). _Lexical-Functional Syntax_. Oxford and Malden, MA:

Campbell. (1959). _Old English Grammar_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chrisma, Paola. (To appear). Genitive Constructions in the History of English.
To appear in G. Banti, P. Di Giovine, and Paolo Ramant (eds), _Typological
Change in the Morphosyntax of the Ido-European Languages_. München: Lincom Europa.

Demske, Ulrike. (2001). _Merkmale und Relationen: Diachrone Studien zur
Nominalphrase des Deutschen_. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Hawkins, John A. (2004). _Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars_. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Hogg, Richard. (1997). Some Remarks on Case Marking in Old English'.
_Transactions of the philological society_.

Lightfoot, David. (1991). _How to Set Parameters_. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lightfoot, David. (1999) . _The Development of Language: Acquisition, Change and
Evolution_. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Primus, Beatrice. (1995). Relational Typology. In Joachim Jacobs (ed), _Syntax:
Ein Internationales Handbuch Zeitgenössischer Forschung_ [An International
Handbook of Contemporary Research]. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter,

Primus, Beatrice. (1999). _Cases and Thematic Roles: Ergative, Accusative and
Active_. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Taylor, Ann, Anthony Warner, Susan Pintzuk and Frank Beths. (2003).
_York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose (YCOE)_. Department of
Language and Linguistic Science, University of York. Distributed through the
Oxford Text Archive.

Weerman, Fred and de Wit, Petra. (1999). The decline of the Genitive in Dutch.
_Linguistics_ 37: 1155-1192

Zwicky, Arnold M. and Pullum, Geoffrey K. (1983). Cliticization vs. Inflection:
Englishn't'. _Language_ 59: 502-513.

Penelope Thompson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her research
focuses on the morphophonology of Old English, with a particular focus upon the
verb systems. Her MLitt (University of Newcastle) examined the morphophonology
in West Saxon adjectives within a Stratal Optimality Theoretic framework.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199216681
ISBN-13: 9780199216680
Pages: 368
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