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Review of  Diachronic Construction Grammar

Reviewer: David Lorenz
Book Title: Diachronic Construction Grammar
Book Author: Jóhanna Barðdal Elena Smirnova Lotte Sommerer Spike Gildea
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 27.2134

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Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote


Diachronic studies in Construction Grammar have received increasing attention in the past decade. Notable larger publications include an edited volume (Bergs & Diewald, eds. 2008), a special issue of “Cognitive Linguistics” (Hoffmann & Trousdale, eds. 2011) and two book-length treatments (Hilpert 2013, Traugott & Trousdale 2013). Now “Diachronic Construction Grammar”, edited by Jóhanna Barðdal, Elena Smirnova, Lotte Sommerer and Spike Gildea adds to this body of research and presents studies that address relevant issues in grammatical change from a constructional perspective.

The volume comprises seven articles and a foreword by Willem Hollmann dedicated to the memory of Anna Siewierska. (The first, and longest, contribution is an overview article by Barðdal & Gildea. The other six are research articles on various processes and instances of language change taking a Construction Grammar perspective. Some present theoretical considerations and support them with case studies (Traugott, Smirnova); others present case studies from which theoretical hypotheses are derived (Sommerer, Fried, Torrent, Colleman). They cover a range of different languages: German (Smirnova), (Old) English (Traugott, Sommerer), (Old) Czech (Fried), Brazilian Portuguese (Torrent), and Dutch (Colleman).

The editors take an inclusive approach to Construction Grammar and do not commit to a specific strand of the theory; thus, the common denominator in the articles is the set of basic assumptions of Construction Grammar listed in Barðdal & Gildea’s opening article (p.10f):
Constructions are pairings of form and meaning, and as such, they are the basic building blocks of language
There is uniform representation of grammatical structures in that all linguistic units are viewed as form-meaning pairings
Constructions are organized in taxonomic dichotomies or hierarchies
The theory is monostratal, with no surface structure - D-structure distinction
There is no distinction between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’

The individual contributions are summarized in the following.

In their introductory article, “Diachronic Construction Grammar: Epistemological context, basic assumptions and historical implications”, Barðdal & Gildea “discuss the value of the Construction Grammar framework to solving perceived problems with diachronic syntax” (1). They start out from the “clear contrast between the (plausible) reconstruction of historical phonology and the (implausible) reconstruction of historical morphosyntax” (3) assumed by both Neogrammarians and Generative Grammar. Diachronic morphosyntax came into focus with grammaticalization research (Barðdal & Gildea avoid the term ‘grammaticalization theory’), which has accumulated evidence of systematic mechanisms in morphosyntactic change. Thus grammaticalization research is seen as the main forerunner of diachronic construction grammar; references to grammaticalization are frequent not only in this article but throughout the book (especially in Traugott’s and Smirnova’s contributions, see below). Barðdal & Gildea specifically note a number of studies from the 1990s that consider grammaticalization in a larger syntactic context, and which already show “the broad strokes of diachronic construction grammar” (8), albeit without a well-defined notion of ‘construction’; they specifically point to Harris & Campbell’s (1995) model of syntactic change based on three mechanisms: Reanalysis, Extension and Contact.

The heart of the article is an outline of morphosyntactic change from a construction grammar perspective, which comes under the modest heading “The basics of construction grammar and its diachronic implications” (10; ch.3). This section also incorporates summaries of the other papers in the volume, not as a simple listing but each at the relevant point of the discussion. In its basic assumptions, the outline follows prior work on the topic (most notably Traugott & Trousdale 2013), e.g. in the distinction of constructionalization –the emergence of a new construction– and constructional change (changes within an existing construction), as well as in positing three basic steps in constructionalization:

a semantically new use of a construction (sem1 -> sem2);
a syntactic reanalysis (syn1 -> syn2);
the new, distinct construction (sem2-syn2) undergoes further changes (‘actualization’).

Further basics of construction grammar with diachronic implications are the mental network of construction (the ConstructiCon) and the relative positioning of constructions on clines, e.g. from lexical to schematic. Here, the central questions, diachronic or otherwise, refer to how related constructions affect each other, such as whether a construction always ‘inherits’ the features of the more schematic construction it instantiates.

In the sections on usage-based approaches and the productivity of constructions, Barðdal & Gildea discuss the role of type and token frequencies. Entrenchment of a schema is strengthened by high type frequency, while token frequency strengthens the specific instances. Productivity is linked to type frequency, but token frequency can also contribute to it through analogy. Moreover, a construction of low type frequency may be productive if it has high ‘coherence’ (the degree of internal consistency between the types) and low ‘schematicity’ (the area it covers within a given functional-semantic space). Coherence and schematicity are the key elements of Barðdal & Gildea’s model of constructional competition, where an existing construction A faces competition from an incoming construction B. B initially has a low type frequency, but slowly expands while retaining its coherence; with B encroaching, A loses types, but in a way that retains its schematicity, not its coherence. Thus at a stage when A and B are even in terms of type frequency, B has higher coherence and is better poised to take over the functional domain they compete for.

Elizabeth Traugott’s contribution, “Toward a coherent account of grammatical constructionalization”, sets out to revise issues of grammaticalization in constructional terms. Traugott proposes a concept of grammatical constructionalization, which describes the development of procedural constructions (i.e. grammatical items). The distinction between contentful (lexical) and procedural (grammatical) meanings is gradient, and change is gradual and proceeds by a sequence of small steps, labeled as Innovation, Conventionalization, Constructionalization and Post-constructionalization. Traugott argues that this view of grammatical constructionalization as a “mixture of meaning and form changes” (59) is advantageous because, among other things, it does not segregate form from function but addresses the link between them, and it captures not only change in simple, atomic items, but also in more complex, schematic ones.

A special focus is on the roles of reanalysis and analogy in grammatical constructionalization. Here, Traugott argues for a distinction between the cognitive processes which enable change and the observable mechanisms of change. She suggests the terms parsing (cognitive motivation) and neoanalysis (mechanism) for reanalysis, and analogical thinking (cognitive motivation) and analogization (mechanism) for analogy. In a constructional view, analogical thinking is a crucial factor in language change; as for the mechanisms, neoanalysis is more central, since it is involved in all change, including analogization. These considerations are then exemplified in a revisit of a textbook example of grammaticalization, the development of the ‘going to’ future.

In the next article, “Constructionalization and constructional change: The role of context in the development of constructions”, Elena Smirnova presents a model of constructionalization that focuses on the role of context, based on similar models for grammaticalization (e.g. Diewald & Smirnova 2012). It consists of three stages: Untypical contexts, where an innovative use of a construction sets the preconditions for further change; Critical contexts, in which the construction is semantically and structurally ambiguous between an “old” and a “new” reading; and Isolating contexts which only allow the “new” interpretation, thus consolidating grammaticalization. In terms of constructionalization, this means that critical contexts instantiate both an existing and a new construction. The main characteristic of constructionalization then is the development of such critical contexts. Thus, Smirnova defines constructionalization as “the formation of a new construction by way of gradual accumulation and strengthening of contextual restrictions with resulting semantic and structural reorganization of language material” (89). This involves the semanticization of pragmatic implicatures in untypical contexts and structural reanalysis in critical contexts. Smirnova exemplifies this model by three case studies from German: «scheinen + zu» -infinitive, «würde» + infinitive and «gehören».

In the following articles, “The influence of constructions in grammaticalization: Revisiting category emergence and the development of the definite article in English”, Lotte Sommerer analyses the grammaticalization of the Old English demonstrative «se» into the definite article ‘the’ as a case of grammatical constructionalization. The central mechanisms of this are analogy and frequency. Sommerer sees the advantage of a constructional approach in the focus on larger constructions rather than atomic items. Thus, the object of her analysis is not the demonstrative/determiner but the entire Noun Phrase in Old English. Here, Sommerer observes three preferences: although definiteness marking is optional, the noun is typically preceded by at least one determinative (possessive pronoun, genitive construction or demonstrative); the element determining reference is leftmost; the demonstrative is by far the most frequent determinative. This triggers a reanalysis to a Noun Phrase with an obligatory determinative slot at the left and the demonstrative as the default filler of that slot. This analysis is strengthened by taxonomic influence, as the most frequent structure of Old English Noun Phrases (definite or indefinite) have one item preceding the noun. Sommerer suggests that this preference is then applied schematically to less abstract levels (i.e. the definite NP). The result is constructionalization, the emergence of a new construction Det+N.

Mirjam Fried’s article “Irregular morphology in regular syntactic patterns: A case of constructional re-alignment” deals with the formation of participle adjectives (PAs) in Old Czech. Next to the regular formation pattern (V-«ú-c-», e.g. «kajúcí» repenting) there is a set of irregular forms which are morphologically intransparent (e.g. «min-ujúc»- passing), which Fried calls ‘pseudo-PAs’. PAs and pseudo-PAs show different tendencies in function and in the syntactic structures they occur in. Semantically, pseudo-PAs show fewer traces of their verbal origin than regular PAs; both occur in constructions that are either more compatible with regular PAs or with pseudo-PAs. The crucial observation then is that when there is a ‘mismatch’ between item and construction, e.g. a pseudo-PA in construction more compatible with regular PAs, the pseudo-PA often compensates for this by displaying more features of (action) verbs. Diachronically, this leads to mutual adjustments in the word forms and the constructions. Their mutual influence eventually leads to a fixation of categorial status, i.e. the pseudo-PAs becoming full-fledged adjectives. This may be considered a case of constructionalization, though not in the sense that there be a new construction where before there was none, but in terms of a new “conventional affiliation between an item and a syntactic pattern of a certain type” (168).

Tiago Timponi Torrent’s article is entitled “On the relation between inheritance and change: The Constructional Convergence and the Construction Network Reconfiguration Hypothesis”. The Constructional Convergence Hypothesis states that “historically unrelated constructions are capable of participating in the same formally and functionally motivated network through a series of changes that cause their form and meaning to merge into an already existing pattern” (175); the Construction Network Reconfiguration Hypothesis that “inheritance relations in construction networks change over time as new constructions emerge” (ibid.). These are exemplified by the development of the Para Infinitive family of constructions in Brazilian Portuguese. The Para Infinitive pattern emerges in the 13th century out of the convergence of four constructions which have diverse origins but come to be associated with one another due to developing formal and semantic similarities (Constructional Convergence). The family is extended further in subsequent centuries through various processes of grammaticalization, analogy and chunking. In the process, the existing relations between constructions in the family undergo changes, which can lead to new synchronic inheritance links between historically unrelated constructions (Construction Network Reconfiguration).

In “Constructionalization and post-constructionalization: The constructional semantics of the Dutch «krijgen»-passive from a diachronic perspective”, Timothy Colleman investigates the rather recent innovation of passives with the verb «krijgen» ‘get’ in Dutch. From its earliest attestations around 1900, this construction is strikingly productive; Colleman identifies four semantic clusters in data from the early twentieth century, suggesting that the «krijgen»-passive has developed from multiple sources in parallel, through “not one but several critical constructions” (234). In its further development the construction shows various semantic extensions (e.g. to projected rather than actual transfer, and to verbs of communication), which are seen as a post-constructionalization loss of restrictions. As a result the «krijgen»-passive now has a different semantic range than the corresponding active double-object construction, which shows its independence as a construction within “a family of ‘transfer’ constructions” (247).


The book is excellent in what it is, and if it has its limitations, they are few and rather lie in what it is not. If we consider the current popularity of Construction Grammar, and that virtually everything in language has a diachronic dimension, then “Diachronic Construction Grammar” is a very wide field. A collective volume like the book reviewed here cannot achieve a complete coverage of everything that is, or might be, diachronic construction grammar. For example, probabilistic variationist approaches are lacking from the collection (but constructional competition is treated in the overview article). That said, the volume achieves a coherent collection of excellent and well-presented studies, opened by a comprehensive and inspired overview article. The overview article draws on the contributions as well as many findings from the last decades, which makes it a very worthwhile read. My only and very minor complaint is that the specific cases are often presented without examples and remain abstract.

Another accomplishment of this book is that each of the contributions works as a cogent study of a specific phenomenon but with a clear aim of contributing to the larger picture of a diachronic construction grammar. The overview article incorporates all the contributions in its outline of morphosyntactic change, and many of the articles also make references to other contributions to the volume. This gives the book a strong coherence and invites the reader to consider the connections and differences between the studies.

The book relates to other recent work in diachronic construction grammar and makes some relevant contributions to current topics in this field. I would like to specifically draw attention to two issues here: the notions of constructional change and constructionalization, and the network relations between constructions.

In their review of Traugott & Trousdale’s 2013 book, Börjars et al. (2015) raise doubts about the usefulness of the concepts of constructionalization and constructional change, arguing that it is not clear “what it means to be a new construction as opposed to being the same construction, but changed” (374). There may be no ultimate answer to this question, but the papers in “Diachronic Construction Grammar” address the issue with some useful insights. Constructionalization is described as a process of small steps (Traugott) and gradual reorganization (Smirnova, Torrent) that is propelled by innovations and preferences in usage (Sommerer, Fried, Colleman). These are not completely new observations, but their importance is integral to a constructional approach to change; constructions as generalizations over concrete utterances will change gradually with shifts in usage frequencies and contexts of use.

Moreover, constructions are connected in a network; thus, what changes is not just individual constructions, but also constructions’ relations to each other. This is mostly spelled out in terms of taxonomic relations, i.e. instantiation and inheritance links. For example, an extending construction comes to instantiate more types (e.g. Colleman, Smirnova), or some lower-level constructions’ affiliations with more schematic constructions may change (e.g. Fried, Torrent). Less prominent in the studies in this volume are associative relations between constructions on the same level of abstraction (horizontal links, which include subpart links and associations evidenced through priming effects, cf. Diessel 2015). As these are part of the constructional network, they surely have a role in constructional change as well. To spell this out is a matter for future research; yet some of the concepts presented in this volume can be seen as pointing in this direction, specifically analogical thinking (Traugott), the role of context (Smirnova) and network reconfiguration (Torrent).

In sum, the editors and authors have produced a very readable and stimulating volume that will certainly play an important role in the further development of diachronic construction grammar. With its aim of gaining a better understanding of change by taking a constructionist stance, the focus is not too narrow, nor too wide. As a result, the book will be relevant to any scholar interested in morphosyntactic change, as well as to construction grammarians interested in the diachronic dimension of grammar.


Bergs, Alexander & Gabriele Diewald (eds.). 2008. Constructions and language change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Börjars, Kersti, Nigel Vincent & George Walkden. 2015. On constructing a theory of grammatical change. Transactions of the Philological Society 113(3). 363-382.

Diessel, Holger. 2015. Usage-based construction grammar. In Ewa Dąbrowska & Dagmar Divjak (eds.), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 296-322.

Diewald, Gabriele & Elena Smirnova. 2012. Paradigmatic integration: The fourth stage in an expanded grammaticalization scenario. In Kristin Davidse, Tine Breban, Lieselotte Brems & Tanja Mortelmans (eds.), Grammaticalization and language change: New reflections, 111-134. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Harris, Alice C. & Lyle Campbell. 1995. Historical syntax in cross-linguistic perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hilpert, Martin. 2013. Constructional change in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hoffmann, Thomas & Graeme Trousdale (eds.). 2011. Variation, change and constructions in English. Special Issue of Cognitive Linguistics 22(1).

Traugott, Elizabeth C. & Graeme Trousdale. 2013. Constructionalization and constructional change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
David Lorenz is a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer in English Linguistics at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg. His current research interests are cognitive linguistics, construction grammar and language variation & change.