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Review of  Grammaticalization Paths of English and High German Existential Constructions

Reviewer: Florian Haas
Book Title: Grammaticalization Paths of English and High German Existential Constructions
Book Author: Simone E. Pfenninger
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 23.1215

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AUTHOR: Simone E. Pfenninger
TITLE: Grammaticalization Paths of English and High German Existential Constructions
SUBTITLE: A Corpus-Based Study
SERIES TITLE: Europäische Hochschulschriften. Series 21: Linguistics: Volume 345
YEAR: 2009

Florian Haas, Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik,
Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena


Whereas existential construction in Present-day English and certain types of
existential constructions in Modern German have been the subject of numerous
studies, a detailed contrastive examination of this clause type has not been
published so far. Simone Pfenninger provides a diachronic investigation of
existential constructions in the two languages, led by the question of why High
German does not have a prototypical existential construction that is
syntactically, semantically and pragmatically equivalent to the English
‘there’-construction. Her observations are based on a large amount of natural
language data, and her accurate discussion of examples from older stages of
German and the way she relates these to what is known about Modern High German
and English are especially out of the ordinary and impressive. The fact that she
combines synchronic and diachronic, and language-specific and contrastive
observations makes the book a rewarding read for German and English historical
linguists (especially if they are working on impersonal constructions), and for
those interested in contrastive linguistics as well as grammaticalization
theorists. Readers should have a good knowledge of German in order to follow the
data, many of which are not translated.

The book has twenty chapters, which are distributed over five Parts. In what
follows I will first summarize the five parts of the book and then turn to a
critical evaluation.


Part One
Part One introduces the terminology used in the remainder of the book and
describes the sources from which the historical and contemporary data are taken.
In a short introductory section, Pfenninger draws the reader’s attention to the
fact that an English existential sentence of the type ‘There is no more time’
has no less than ten possible translations in German. The remainder of the book
is basically an account of the asymmetry between a well-established existential
construction in English, on the one hand, and the variability between several
options of expressing the same state of affairs in German, on the other. The
historical development of existential constructions in the two languages is
explained in the context of grammaticalization.

The historical corpus, as described in Chapter 3, consists of a selection of Old
High German, Middle High German and early Modern High German texts. Being
familiar with general methodological issues of (German) historical linguistics,
Pfenninger argues convincingly for the choice of texts that she made. The Modern
High German and Modern English corpora (no terminological distinction between
Modern English and Present-day English is made) contain the first 100
existential ‘there’-constructions from each of a list of ten twentieth century
British and American novels, as well as their Modern High German translations.
In addition, nine English ‘there’-sentences in a questionnaire were translated
by 100 (German-speaking) Swiss subjects, in order to achieve a more complete
picture of the German existential constructions that translate English
‘there’-sentences. Part One ends with a summary of previous research and an
outline of the remainder of the book.

Part Two
Part Two, labeled “THE BEGINNINGS -- towards a historical explanation of the
difference between English and High German existential constructions”, begins
with a survey of word order changes and the evolution of the indefinite article
in Old and Middle English (Chapter 5). In Chapter 6 (“The derivation of the
English ETC [existential ‘there’-construction]”), Pfenninger turns to the
question of how Old English locative deictic ‘þær’ developed into the unstressed
expletive ‘there’. The change is described in terms of ‘desemanticization’,
taken to be a component of grammaticalization in much of the relevant
literature. When it comes to tackling the notorious question of whether ‘there’
has retained some of its original locative meaning, Pfenninger agrees with those
who claim that “expletive ‘there’ is not altogether meaningless but should be
regarded as an extension of the locative ‘there’, having never fully abandoned
its original locative roots.” (53) Section 6.1.3 subdivides Old English
existential constructions involving ‘þær’ according to the type of verb
(transitive vs. intransitive) and the syntactic status of what follows the NP
that is introduced, while section 6.1.4 traces the semantic changes of the verb
‘be’ that interacted with ‘there’ becoming obligatory. In section 6.2 on
existential ‘there’-constructions in Middle English the author discusses in
detail different types of changes undergone by the emerging existential
construction, focusing on the development of the expression ‘there’. In the
discussion of phonetic reduction it remains unclear why general changes in the
English spelling system are treated as instances of phonetic reduction. The
application of well-known principles of grammaticalization to the changes at
issue is generally convincing, yet in some cases there is no evidence. The
claims on frequency changes on p. 73, for instance, are not supported by actual
frequency counts.

Chapter 7 turns to the history of German word order. The “grammaticalization” of
verb-second order in Middle High German made it sometimes necessary for
unstressed adverbs and (later) dummy elements to occupy the sentence-initial
position. This also holds for the highly polysemous element ‘thô’, which in Old
High German fulfilled the same expletive function of Middle High German ‘ez’
(Modern High German ‘es’). Pfenninger points out that the deictic ‘thâr’
(meaning “there”) is also often preposed in this way. The development of ‘thâr’
into an existential element comparable to English ‘there’ is discussed in
chapter 8, where the author then asks “whether the demise of the High German
existential ‘thâr’-construction and the prevalence of the English
‘þær’-construction are related to major changes that occurred in the history of
these two languages.” (p. 107) It is argued that Modern German ‘da’ (“there”)
derives from both ‘thâr’ and ‘thô’, the two expressions -- supported by phonetic
reduction and similarity in meaning -- having been reanalyzed as a single word
at some point. Pfenninger concludes (section 8.3) that the expressions ‘there’
and ‘da’ have undergone a very similar path of grammaticalization, at least to a
certain degree, which again raises the question of why an existential
construction involving ‘da’ in German has not achieved the generality of its
English counterpart containing ‘there’. It seems that resulting from an
interplay of factors, ‘da’ has never reached the stage at which it could be used
as a default strategy for existential statements. Different types of existential
constructions in Old High German are then discussed in great detail. Pfenninger
also considers the pragmatic conditions under which the respective constructions
are used.

One of the reasons why High German has not developed an existential construction
involving the deictic ‘da’ that is as generally used as the English
‘there’-construction seems to be the competing ‘es’-construction. Since the
syntactic structures in which German ‘es’ (“it”) occurs are varied, these
constructions are distinguished and their history is described in Chapter 9
(titled “‘Creatus sum, ergo sum’: MHG constructions with ‘geben’”), also
relating the relevant changes to other changes in German syntax. Further
strategies of making existential statements in Middle High German are presented
in the same chapter.

In Chapter 10 (“Summary of Changes”), the changes leading to the asymmetry
between the Modern English and the Modern High German systems of existential
constructions are summarized and again related to more general changes in the
word order constraints of English and German. The chapter also contains a
discussion of Haiman’s (1974) account in which he makes a bipartite distinction
between two types of languages relating to the behaviour of their expletives.

Part Three
The third part of the book deals with “ETCs [existential ‘there’-constructions]
in Modern English. It contains a chapter on “Syntactic Classification” (Chapter
11), one on “Semantic Classification” (Chapter 12) and a chapter on pragmatic
aspects (Chapter 12, “Pragmatic Approach”). The combinatory properties of the
expletive ‘there’ are addressed in great detail, especially the issue of which
verbs occur in ‘there’-existentials. Pfenninger then distinguishes between
“existential” and “non-existential” ‘there’-constructions according to the kinds
of assertion that the relevant sentences make (p. 238). Since the term
‘existential’ is used in a wider sense throughout the book, it might have been
better at this point to use a different term for the narrow conception of
existentials under discussion. Non-existential ‘there’-constructions, in this
view, include clauses that contain another verb instead of ‘be’, such as “There
seemed little left of the body…” (p. 239), but also so-called ‘locative ETCs’
like the one in “He will straddle the line, aware up to the point of knowing he
is getting the worst of both worlds, but never stopping to wonder why there
should ever have been a line…” (p. 241)

Part Four
The fourth part of the book (“The Modern High German Counterparts”) again takes
a contrastive perspective and compares the English ‘there’-construction to its
Modern High German counterparts. It consists of four chapters: Chapter 15 (“The
Status of ‘es’ in ModHG”), Chapter 16 (“Syntactic Approach to the High German
Counterparts”), Chapter 17 (“Semantic and Pragmatic Approaches to the ModHG
Counterparts”) and a short summary in Chapter 18. The data are mainly responses
to a translation task carried out by (Swiss) native speakers of German, on the
one hand, and translations of English novels, on the other. These chapters also
highlight the various syntactic and semantic/pragmatic constraints on using the
different German existential constructions. Following Chapter 19 (“Final
remarks”), there are appendices. Appendices 1-17 contain tables which list the
frequencies of the various structures under consideration as they appear in the
primary sources. Appendix 18 displays additional examples of the constructions
involving the verb ‘vinden’ as discussed in section 9.6.


The book under discussion is a comprehensive investigation into a notoriously
tricky area of grammar. The analysis of Present-day English existential
sentences has given rise to many studies, including several monographs, and yet
some of the most important questions are unresolved (e.g. the issue of whether
the expletive ‘there’ has retained something of its originally locative meaning
or the question of how presentational clauses involving ‘there’ are
synchronically and diachronically related to so-called ‘locative inversion’).
Pfenninger shows that she is familiar with this research and critically reviews
it, but at the same time she approaches existentials from two points of view
that have hitherto been neglected: historical development and English-German
contrasts. The latter perspective is combined with the historical one in such a
way as to tackle the very interesting question of why German has not developed
an all-purpose existential construction comparable to the English
‘there’-construction. Even though there are some weaknesses and inconsistencies
in the specific arguments she advocates (see below), the overall scenario
Pfenninger proposes appears plausible and demonstrates how tracing the
competition of different constructions over the history of a language can lead
to a better understanding of a synchronic situation that would otherwise remain
mysterious. It would have been interesting to see how far the insights stemming
from the historical approach taken in this book are compatible with the
generalizations presented in Hartmann (2008), a comparative study of English and
German existentials carried out in a generative framework. Presumably, the
latter study had not yet been available to Pfenninger at the time of writing.

A few critical remarks are in order. Potential readers should be aware that a
good knowledge of German is required in order to follow the discussion of the
data. Only parts of the German examples are translated, and none are glossed. In
addition there are several quotations from the German research literature which
are not translated into English. Thus, on the one hand the fact that a book
mostly concerned with the history of a German grammatical structure is written
in English is to be very much appreciated, given that this makes it accessible
to the wider linguistic community. On the other hand, the lack of glossing and
translations renders many details inaccessible to those readers for which it
actually makes sense to publish the book in English rather than German.

Apart from the fact that the sequencing of chapters is not optimal, I found it
hard at certain points to understand how a given argument fits into the overall
line of argumentation. In addition, some generalizations are formulated without
the necessary precision. Concerning the expletive topic ‘es’, for instance, it
is said: “I have repeatedly mentioned that the pragmatic function of the High
German ‘es’ is to emphasize the meaning of the verb.” This generalization is
presumably meant to concern the information structure of the respective
sentences. As it stands, however, it remains unclear what it exactly means to
“emphasize the meaning of the verb”. Regarding the classification of syntactic
structures as existential constructions, it appears that the author assumes a
quite unrestricted view of this class of constructions. On p. 177 she analyzes
as “existential verbs” a group of German verbs such as ‘sehen’ (“see”) and
‘hôrchen’ (“hear”) which imply the existence of a given participant without
asserting its existence. Strictly speaking, such a definition would force us to
counter-intuitively consider any verb that combines with an argument referring
to a new participant an existential verb (like the verb ‘see’ in “I saw a
knight”). There are also contradictory statements. Discussing the German ‘es
gibt’-construction, Pfenninger claims “that the impersonal ‘geben’ in ‘es gibt’
cannot entirely shed its inherent ‘leads to’ sense, …” (p. 225). On the next
page she states, however, that “the EGC [‘es gibt’-construction] coexisted and
competed at one stage with the existential ‘be’-construction, then extended its
range of meanings to include those of the latter and eventually replaced it.”
(p. 226; see also p. 300) Since the existential ‘be’-construction clearly did
not exhibit the ‘leads to’ sense, it is contradictory to claim that, on the one
hand, the EGC at some point included the meanings of the existential
‘be’-construction and kept that special meaning component of leading to
something, on the other. To be sure, there are uses of German ‘es gibt’ that
have preserved this meaning component (Pfenninger gives a number of examples in
chapter 9), but to contend generally that the verb ‘geben’ in this construction
“cannot entirely shed its inherent ‘leads to’ sense” is too strong a claim.

Unfortunately, the editing of the book is rather poor, which should of course
not be blamed on the author, but rather on the publisher. One comes across a
substantial number of typos, typographical and other inaccuracies (e.g. on p.
230 it is claimed “that over 78% of the ETCs investigated are complemented by
extensions.” The corresponding table shows a total of 75.6%, however). There are
also sentences such as “Finally, it is important to make a distinction between a
distinction should be made between ‘expletive subjects’ and ‘expletive topics’.”
(p. 10). Example numbers mentioned in the text sometimes do not correspond to
the actual numbers of the examples (e.g. p. 216; the wrong numbers seem to be
leftovers from an earlier draft). Pfenninger’s use of abbreviations is somewhat
too excessive, in my view. Although most of them are transparent and standard,
for some it is at times difficult to trace what they stand for. A list of
abbreviations is missing.

As far as the structure of the book is concerned, I think that the twenty
chapters (excluding appendix and references), which were suitable to the format
of the PhD thesis on which the book is based, should have been restructured.
More specifically, the book would be more readable if the number of chapters and
sections were smaller and the sequencing of (sub)topics more transparent. There
is no doubt that the structure of the book reflects different stages in the
author’s research. From the reader’s perspective, however, a structure in which
the data from Part Four, for instance, were integrated into the other chapters
would perhaps be more appropriate.

Despite these critical remarks it should be stressed again that in view of the
wealth of data collected in this book, as well as the numerous analyses and
conclusions, the monograph is worth reading. Indeed, given that no comparable
contrastive and historical study of existential constructions is available,
linguists working on existential/presentational constructions should take into
account the book under review.


Haiman, John (1974) Targets and Syntactic Change. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.

Hartmann, Jutta (2008) Expletives in Existentials: English ‘there’ and German
‘da’. Utrecht: LOT.

Florian Haas is a lecturer at the Department of English and American Studies, University of Jena. His main research interests are in typology, contrastive linguistics and the study of grammatical changes in English. He received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Free University of Berlin in 2008, with a dissertation on the expression of reciprocity.

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