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Review of  Parts of Speech

Reviewer: Germana Olga Civilleri
Book Title: Parts of Speech
Book Author: Umberto Ansaldo Jan Don Roland Pfau
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 22.2283

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EDITORS: Ansaldo, Umberto; Don, Jan; Pfau, Roland
TITLE: Parts of Speech
SUBTITLE: Empirical and Theoretical Advances
SERIES: Benjamins Current Topics 25
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Germana Olga Civilleri, Department of Linguistics, Roma Tre University


The book is a collection of studies previously presented at a Conference on
Parts of Speech (henceforth PoS) held at the University of Amsterdam in 2006. As
explicitly stated by the editors in their short introduction, the volume aims at
offering a specimen of very different perspectives from which the study of PoS
can be approached.

The first article is about ''Word classes in sign languages.'' Since the paper is
not addressed to sign languages specialists, the authors, W. Schwager and U.
Zeshan, devote the first section to the presentation of some basic features of
sign languages and summarise some theoretical issues concerning PoS systems in
these particular kinds of natural languages. After assuming the essential
equivalence between sign and word (Zeshan 2002), Schwager and Zeshan underline
how the topic of identification of PoS in sign languages has been neglected by
scholars (with few relevant exceptions, from Supalla and Newport 1978 to
Johnston 2001). It is not clear according to which morphological and syntactic
regularities PoS should be recognised in sign languages. Thus, in the following
section, in order to determine relevant criteria to recognise PoS in sign
languages, the authors analyse extensively sets of data from two typologically
different languages: German Sign Language and Kata Kolok (the latter being used
by a village community in Bali with a high incidence of hereditary deafness).
Because of their typological distance, the base for their comparison is the
semantic level. Signs from both languages belonging to the same ''concept class''
(Sasse 1993) are compared on the basis of an established set of binary features,
which are supposed to be valid cross-linguistically. Then, the comparison can be
conducted at a syntactic level and a morphological level as well (at least for
languages with a larger array of morphological processes), with the aim of
determining to which extent syntactic and morphological criteria can be helpful
in word class assignment.

In ''Roots, stems and word classes,'' Ch. Lehmann deals with the levels of
categorisation of linguistic signs. Assuming the ascending sequence ROOT > STEM
> WORD FORM > PHRASE as representing the levels relevant for the categorization
of units with lexical meaning (Table 1, p. 45), his main question is the
following: At what rank of such a sequence is the linguistic sign categorised?
By using a small sample of roots from six languages (Latin, Spanish, English,
German, Mandarin Chinese and Yucatec Maya), Lehmann shows that this question can
be answered at the level of a single-language. Languages indeed differ in the
degree of autonomy of lexical meaning versus category meaning. For instance, the
same concept 'comfort' is coded in different ways in Spanish and Mandarin
Chinese: the Spanish stem 'consol-' can only be inflected as a transitive verb,
whereas the Mandarin Chinese stem 'anwèi' can be used both as a verb and as an
adjective. This means that in languages like Spanish, word class assignment
occurs at a lower level of grammatical categorization (see again Table 1) than
in languages like Mandarin Chinese. However, such a (primary) categorization
follows from a probability calculus: ''what will most probably be the syntactic
function of this lexical concept?'' (p.47). Moreover, it is determined by
universal cognitive principles among which the so-called time-stability of a
concept (Givón 1979; Croft 1991). On the basis of empirical data, Lehmann
arranges a scale of categoriality (= category determinacy) for roots and stems
of the target languages.

The contribution by W. Bisang (''Precategoriality and syntax-based parts of
speech'') is well aligned with Lehmann's perspective and analyses the topic of
word class assignment in Late Archaic Chinese (5th-3rd century BC). The aim is
to show that precategoriality in the lexicon cannot be a universal feature,
although most theoretical approaches take it for granted. Establishing whether
or not lexical items (=roots) are precategorial is an empirical issue to be
investigated at the level of the single language. Through the analysis of data,
Bisang illustrates the extent to which Late Archaic Chinese really has
precategorial (i.e. not preclassified) lexical items. Most of them can be
assigned to the noun-position as well as to the verb-position without any
difference in marking. However in some cases, lexical items show at least a
tendency to take either syntactic position, depending on the following
stereotypical implicature: CONCRETE OBJECTS > ABSTRACT OBJECTS (where '>' means
'implies stronger N-inference than'). Such a hierarchy can also be given in
terms of an animacy hierarchy: 1st/2nd PERSON > PROPER NAMES > HUMAN > NONHUMAN
> ABSTRACTS. This means that word class assignment depends on a probabilistic
factor (as Lehmann claimed too), which -- in Bisang's perspective -- is linked
with stereotypical implicatures that are based on the animacy hierarchy. Beside
such pragmatic aspects, the interpretation of lexical items in Late Archaic
Chinese is fully established within the syntactic framework of the argument
structure construction. Embracing the approach of Construction Grammar (e.g.,
Goldberg 2005), the author claims the meaning of lexical items to be the result
of their own lexical meaning plus the meaning contributed by the construction.
To this end, a number of syntactic constructions are tested.

The article by M. Donohue on ''Covert word classes'' examines syntactic categories
in Tukang Besi, an Austronesian language of Indonesia. Despite the existence of
precategorial roots in Tukang Besi, Donohue shows recognizing word classes to be
important, if sometimes difficult. Its usefulness emerges, for instance, when
describing affixation strategies (pp. 91-93): e.g. some suffixes show
restrictions on the input word class, others do not. The main focus of the
discussion is on a particular class of 'property concepts,' which might
correspond to adjectives in other languages. In Tukang Besi, this is a covert
word class in the sense that it cannot be defined based on particular specific
morpho-syntactic properties. Nevertheless there is enough internal semantic
consistency -- the lexemes denote property concepts -- to suggest that they be
treated as a separate word class.

The fluid status of adjectives across languages is the topic of another
contribution: ''Pragmatic factors in the development of a switch-adjective
language'' by Y. Koloskova and T. Ohori. The case study is drawn from the
Miyako-Hirara dialect of Ryukyuan (a sister language of Japanese), which is
characterized by the presence of the so-called 'switch-adjective' (Wetzer
1996:80), i.e. it employs both 'nouny' and 'verby' morpho-syntactic strategies
for its adjectival roots. Both the strategies are used to encode adjectives in
the predicative function (= predicative adjectives). The paper aims at revealing
which factors determine the choice of either strategy and argues that in
Miyako-Hirara this depends on pragmatic factors, i.e. the informational status
of the predicate. By discussing a range of exemplifications, the authors claim
that predicative adjectives are marked by 'nouny' morphological and
distributional patterns when the property denoted by the adjective is new to the
hearer (focus domain). By contrast, 'verby' morphological and distributional
patterns encode a property which is supposed to be familiar to the hearer
(presupposition). From a typological point of view such a mixed pattern is not

D. Gil's paper discusses ''The acquisition of syntactic categories in Jakarta
Indonesian.'' After giving a short overview of the different theories of
syntactic categories in the linguistic literature, Gil explains the criteria
that led him to the adoption of one of them, i.e. the one ''involving a relation
of domination not based on set inclusion'' (p. 137). A significant part of the
article (Section 2) is devoted to the presentation of such a theory -- which is
syntactic and formal, being partially in line with the description of Chomsky
(1970). Of course, Gil's adoption of an empirical method is a strong difference.
The fundamental prediction that simpler syntactic categories (higher in the
Syntactic Category Tree) be existentially prior to more complex ones (lower on
the Syntactic Category Tree) is tested in the domain of ontogeny, i.e. first
language acquisition, by using a large corpus of Jakarta Indonesian.

In their short paper ''Possible phonological cues in categorial acquisition,'' J.
Don and M. Erkelens present the result of an experiment in which adult native
speaker of Dutch were asked to categorize a certain number of stems as nouns or
verbs. The aim was to determine whether word categories can be assigned solely
on the basis of phonological information aside from semantic and syntactic
properties of the word. Phonological cues identified by Trommelen (1989) are
used in order to sketch out a sort of phonological identikit for word classes.
Since the experiment seems to confirm phonological cues as helpful elements in
the discrimination of nouns and verbs (as others previously did for English),
according to the authors this would support the claim that this strategy is also
plausible in children's word acquisition.

Another short article, ''Lexical semantic constraints on noun roots and noun
borrowability,'' by L. Nichols, deals with matters of language contact, taking
into account the peculiar case of Zuni, an isolate language spoken in New
Mexico. Nichols shows that noun (= noun roots, not complex nouns) borrowing is
limited into languages -- like Zuni -- in which particular constraints limit the
lexical semantic content of noun roots. Borrowed nouns, indeed, must enter into
the semantic categories of nouns permitted by constraints on the native root
lexicon that limit noun roots to natural kinds (e.g. animals, plants, people,
etc.). This case is evidence of the fact that crosslinguistically noun borrowing
may be subject to restrictions.

The last three papers all share a link with the so-called Amsterdam model of PoS
(whose foundations are in Hengeveld 1992). Starting from the assumption of this
model, in his article ''Degree words, intensification, and word class
distinctions in Romance languages,'' V. Salazar-García displays how some of its
problematic aspects may be solved by extending the fundamental basis of the
theory to another domain, that of linguistic variation. In order to do so, it is
necessary to think flexible and rigid grammatical strategies (described as
separate by the Amsterdam model) to be compatible with each other. An analysis
of degree adverbs (like 'hardly, barely, extremely') in Spanish is conducted
with the aim of showing the benefits of such a new theory. This theory accounts
indeed for the fact that a quantifier may carry out more than one function, due
to the different degree of categorial flexibility of quantifiers.

Flexibility of PoS is also the topic of the following contribution, by J.
Rijkhoff, ''On flexible and rigid nouns,'' whose central claim is that ''nouns that
are used cross-linguistically to refer to a single, concrete object can be
divided into flexible and rigid subtypes'' (p. 227). From a semantic point of
view, flexible nouns are characterized by the fact of being vague so that
category assignment is established in phrasal context. By using a representative
sample of the world's languages, Rijkhoff describes a set of nouns according to
the categories of Shape and Homogeneity, which are, in his terminology, the
features of nominal Seinsart , i.e. 'kind of being' (vs., verbal Aktionsart).
These features are shown to correlate with important grammatical phenomena such
as number agreement. Furthermore the author displays how the distinction between
rigid and flexible nouns also plays a role in the PoS hierarchy: Verb > Noun >
Adjective > (manner) Adverb (Hengeveld 1992).

However the distinction between rigid and flexible PoS -- already well
acknowledged by Hengeveld et al. (2004) -- is further investigated by K.
Hengeveld himself and E. van Lier in their contribution ''Parts of speech and
dependent clauses in Functional Discourse Grammar.'' On the basis of a sample of
23 languages, the authors adopt the theory of Functional Discourse Grammar in
order to show that PoS and dependent clauses constructions can both be described
by their functions in a comparable way. After introducing the Functional
Discourse Grammar formalism and placing PoS in this model, Hengeveld and van
Lier show dependent clauses to be functionally defined in the same way as PoS --
certainly, in this case, complex clausal units substitute PoS lexical units. The
last part of the article analyses how flexible and rigid PoS systems correlate
with morpho-syntactic function-marking.

The common thread of this volume, as expressed in the title, is typological
research on PoS in which empirical methods are well anchored to a clear
theoretical apparatus. My evaluation of the volume is strongly positive. Besides
the very high quality of every contribution, I particularly appreciated the
continuity of the discussion in which the assorted parts fit well together:
every essay is functional to and helps a better comprehension of the others.
Even the order in which the papers have been presented helps the reader to
follow the thread of discussion, despite the differences of topics and
theoretical frameworks of the papers. Many research fields are brought together:
(stricto sensu) theoretical linguistics, research on sign languages, language
acquisition, pragmatics, language contact, diachrony. All these perspectives are
linked together by common typological interests that characterize each
contribution of the book.

Many of the contributions are reports on research that is still in progress.
However, they offer useful cues on future research about specific word classes
and above all they are examples of theoretical and methodological rigour. For
instance, Lehmann's discussion of levels of categorization offers a key for
looking cross-linguistically at the concept of root, avoiding misunderstandings
that often happen when one tries to have different research frameworks interact
(see e.g. Civilleri, forthcoming). Some frameworks (e.g., generative grammar)
claim the root to be pre-categorial, whereas others (e.g., classic comparative
linguistics) consider the root as meaningful and categorised. Thus, one should
be aware that the same term may encode two different concepts.
In the existing literature about PoS, the book remarkably tries to go beyond the
differences among research fields and perspectives by emphasizing the guidelines
that should inspire all of them. The importance of empirical investigation is
underlined by many authors and each of them also shows the way in which scholars
should ground their research on a firm theoretical basis. Such a theoretical
solidity is crucial for any methodology of analyzing linguistic data.


Chomsky, Noam (1970): ''Remarks on nominalization.'' In: Readings in English
Transformational Grammar, R.A. Jakobs and P.S. Rosenbaum (eds.), 184-221.
Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Civilleri, Germana Olga (forthcoming)'' ''Il concetto di radice tra virtuale e
attuale. Note sulle radici predicative del greco antico.'' In: Études Romanes de
l'Université Masaryk de Brno 2.

Croft, W. (1991) Syntactic Categories and Grammatical Relations: The Cognitive
Organization of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Givón, Talmy (1979) On Understanding Grammar. New York: Academic Press.

Goldberg, Adele E. (2005) Constructions at work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hengeveld, Kees (1992): ''Parts of Speech.'' In: Layered Structure and Reference
in a Functional Perspective, Michael Fortescue, Peter Harder and Lars
Kristoffersen (eds.), 29-55. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hengeveld, Kees, Jan Rijkhoff and Anna Siewierska (2004): ''Parts-of-speech
systems and word order.'' Journal of Linguistics 40: 527-570.

Johnston, Trevor (2001): ''Nouns and verbs in Auslan (Australian Sign Language):
an open or shut case?'' Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 6(4): 235-257.

Sasse, Hans-Jürgen (1993): ''Das Nomen -- eine universale Kategorie?''
Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 46: 187-221.

Supalla, Ted and Elissa L. Newport (1978): ''How many seats in a chair? The
derivation of nouns and verbs in American Sign Language.'' In: Understanding
Language through Sign Language Research, Patricia Siple (ed.): 91-132. New York:
Academic Press.

Trommelen, Mieke (1989): ''Lettergreepstruktuur en woordkategorie''. De Nieuwe
Taalgids_ 82(1): 64-77.

Wetzer, Henry (1996) The Typology of Adjectival Predication. Berlin: Mouton de

Zeshan, Ulrike (2002): ''Towards a notion of 'word' in sign languages.'' In: Word:
A Cross-Linguistic Typology, Robert M.W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
(eds.): 153-179. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Germana Olga Civilleri graduated in Classics at the University of Palermo. She received her PhD in Linguistics at Roma Tre University with a dissertation on deverbal nouns in Ancient Greek. Her research interests are Classical languages, historical linguistics, case systems, the noun-verb continuum, deverbal nouns, and word formation and the lexicon.