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Review of  Argument Structure and Grammatical Relations

Reviewer: Roxana Iuliana Popescu
Book Title: Argument Structure and Grammatical Relations
Book Author: Pirkko Suihkonen Bernard Comrie Valery Solovyev
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): Aghul
Issue Number: 24.833

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“Argument Structure and Grammatical Relations: A cross linguistic typology” is a volume of papers from a symposium on this topic. It comprises 14 articles, discussing different aspects of argument structure and grammatical relations applied to languages from all over the world (Europe, North and Central Asia, and western North America). After a concise introduction by one of the volume’s editors, Bernard Comrie, there is a series of papers on the notion of alignment typology, case marking (nominative-accusative), ergative verbs, agent-patient noun phrase arguments, typology of grammatical relations and many other notions directly or indirectly related to the topic of the volume.

In his paper “A deceptive case of split-intransitivity in Basque”, Asier Alcázar focuses on the asymmetry of Basque unergatives and transitives based on the absolute construction and reduced relative clauses, questioning the universality of unergatives as syntactically intransitive. Generally, unergative verbs are considered intransitive in Basque and they are either verbs (objectless) or light verbs (their object is separable from ‘egin’ ‘do’). However, due to the fact that Basque uses a range of morphemes for case marking, person indication and number agreement with some intransitives (although generally associated with transitivity), the author demonstrates that split-intransitives tend to become ergative.

Bernard Comrie brings into discussion “Some argument structure properties of the verb ‘to give’ in the languages of Europe and Northern and Central Asia”. Case marking and other morphosyntactic properties are analyzed in monotransitive and ditransitive constructions, focusing on the non-Agent arguments, such as Recipient, Theme, and Patient. Presenting examples from more than 33 different languages, the author concludes that the indirect object (the Recipient) is more frequent in ditransitive constructions with the verb ‘give’. He brings as an argument the ‘syntactic primacy’ in a ditransitive construction of non-Agent arguments, considering that it may sometimes match case marking alignment. However, the author demonstrates that the Recipient is mostly preferred over the Theme, on the one hand, due to the proximity to the verb, on the other hand semantically. The author shows that the translation of the word ‘to give’ can be influenced by the features of the relation of the Recipient argument with the speaker in terms of person/number and power/solidarity. Therefore, syntactic primacy is also given a semantic choice, the studied languages offering plenty of examples to show the popularity of the Recipients over the other objects.

Greville G. Corbett, in “Grammatical relations in a typology of agreement systems”, argues that grammatical relations are not sufficient to determine a typology of agreement relations. Thematic roles and verbal semantics, communicative functions and surface case also help identify the type of agreement. After presenting a theoretical framework on grammatical relations based on the Relational Hierarchy (Johnson 1977) and the Accessibility Hierarchy (Keenan & Comrie 1977), the author mentions some problems with grammatical relations which restrict agreement, such as dummy subjects (English ‘there’), backward agreement/attraction (copula and the noun phrase in the predicate), and possessive constructions. The paper proceeds by discussing to what extent all the other features combined (thematic roles, communicative functions and case) help in establishing agreement. Comrie’s (1975) and Robblee’s (1993) Predicate Hierarchies are further applied to some Russian prose works to analyze agreement according to thematic roles which influence it. In addition, the author suggests that languages have communicative functions that influence agreement and that the subject does not necessarily control agreement, especially when the subject is focused and not the topic. There can also be object agreement, when the topic is emphasized. Further, the author brings into discussion cases, such as nominative, genitive and accusative that influence number and gender agreement by giving the results of a study on 415 examples from literary Russian texts. To sum up, the paper concludes that grammatical relations do not account for agreement entirely, but they also depend on the meaning of the clause and their communicative functions.

Michael A. Daniel, Timur A. Maisak and Solmaz R. Merdanova discuss the issue of “Causatives in Agul”. After introducing Agul with its sociolinguistic situation, its genetic affiliation and its grammar, the authors divide their paper into 3 sections: section 2 describes formal properties of causative verbs and productive constructions (e.g. infinitives with the verb ‘aq’as’ ‘do’ and periphrastic ‘do’ causatives), and non-productive constructions (e.g. ‘do’ causatives, labile verbs and lexical causatives); section 3 describes semantic features of Agul causatives and contrasts between the attested patterns; and section 4 comprises some typological background and highlights the common and uncommon features of Agul causatives. The authors give a typology of the dichotomy between the non-productive and periphrastic causatives. The discrimination of semantic roles of the Causer and the Causee are debated as part of the causative constructions (direct or indirect) and case markers. Finally, there is an overview and an East Caucasian perspective, periphrastic causatives being considered intermediate between bi- and monoclausal constructions.

Andrei Filchenko, in “Continuity of information structuring strategies in Eastern Khanty: Definiteness/topicality”, discusses how discourse is rendered cohesive based on grammatical relations. He analyzes information structuring both pragmatically and semantically by means of elision, word order, agreement, case, voice and possessive markers, applying all these to corpus data from Khanty, a Finno-Ugric language. His paper shows that there is a strong correlation between reduced morphological complexity and discourse referents, which are pragmatically dominant and focuses on the possessive markers, as pragmatic markers of the referents. The author notes the frequency of objective/definite vs. subjective/indefinite conjugations in Khanty, understood as involving the formal properties of the Object (O) Argument, such as: possessive constructions, pronouns, demonstratives, embedded clauses, elided/zero objects. The position of the argument in O (transitive non-Subject) may vary, due to its pragmatic properties: a fixed SOV position for an unidentifiable Object referent or variations (either OSV or SVO) for an identifiable and pragmatically active Object referent. Embedded non-finite clauses are also identified in Khanty as subject-controlled, but this is not mandatory (for example some adverbial, complement or relative clauses do not have a coreferential S of the non-finite clause with the S of the matrix clause). This choice depends on the pragmatic properties of the referent (identifiability and activation). Thus, the author demonstrates that the main strategies for information structuring in Eastern Khanty are based on pragmatic features: identifiability, activation, definiteness and topicality.

John A. Hawkins, in “Patterns of asymmetry in argument structure across languages: Some principles and puzzles”, discusses the co-occurrence of rule applicability asymmetries, formal marking asymmetries and linear ordering asymmetries, described in terms of hierarchies which can be explained on the one hand according to processing and performance, and on the other hand by declining levels of frequency and accessibility. The author discusses the questions raised by hierarchies and their correlating properties: favoring syntactic and morphologic rules for higher positions (e.g. verb agreement with Nominative before Accusative); zero marking preferred for higher positions; linear ordering related to hierarchy positions or case hierarchy. The author shows that the hierarchies among the arguments of a predicate depend on the principles of complexity, citing different views on this topic in the literature, such as Hawkins (2004), Blake (1990), Primus (1993, 1995, 1999).

Taeho Jang and Thomas E. Payne, in “Topic marking and the construction of narrative in Xibe”, present a corpus-based study on the functions of the topic marker ‘da’ in spoken Xibe (a language spoken in Northwestern China), identifying the instances where it occurs syntactically as ‘candidate positions’. They illustrate these syntactic environments, such as: following a clause-initial Noun Phrase; following a clause-initial adverb; following the sentence-initial conjunctives (‘tumake’ ‘and then’ and ‘dam’ ‘however’); and between clauses, following one of three converb endings or a perfective aspect ending. Structurally, these are the contexts in which ‘da’ may occur, but it is never obligatory. Discourse factors are also discussed in terms of the choice of the topic marker ‘da’: expressing temporal sequence or addition. The authors argue for the importance of this marker in building narrative discourse or characterizing a specific genre, register and style. They argue that the notion of limitation connects all its usages and identify the tendency among proficient speakers to use it in order to link clauses in temporal sequence forming ‘clause chains’.

Juha A. Janhunen, in “On the hierarchy of structural convergence in the Amdo Sprachbund”, offers a diachronic perspective on alignment systems. The author presents arguments in terms of the structural features of the languages of the Amdo Sprachbund belonging to four linguistic stocks: Turkic, Mongolic, Sinitic and Bodic, all being influenced by interactive adaptations and sharing many properties at all levels (phonological, morphological, syntactic and pragmatic). However, there is a distribution of these features according to some typological spheres, such as: the Altaic (Turko-Mongolic), the Sinitic (Chinese) and the Bodic (Tibetan). The author contrasts them to find out which makes up the general substratum and which is more restrictive in use, trying to establish the language boundaries. The paper also deals with a basic distinction that “has not crossed the language boundaries in Amdo Sprachbund” (p. 184), namely the difference between the accusative and ergative strategies of argument structure. The author notices that the structural markers in these languages have the tendency to be identical with the genitive markers in other languages. This genitive-ergative feature of Amdo Tibetan is also considered a ‘connective’ occurring both adnominally and adverbially. The author concludes that there are structural features which are more easily borrowed or lost, and other structures remaining as such (ergativity and nominal phrase word order).

Lars Johanson, in “Pyramids of spatial relators in Northeastern Turkic and its neighbors”, deals with basic topological relations at different stages (older/recent) of the languages spoken in Siberia and Mongolia. The author presents an overview of the classes which combine with the nominals and are added to predicates as spatial markers. He distinguishes between non-dynamic and dynamic situations for spatial relators expressing on the one hand, location (referring to a place: ‘in’, ‘at’, ‘on’) and translocation (‘along’, ‘through’ a situation), and on the other hand, adlocation (‘motion towards’) and ‘delocation’ (‘motion away from’). The stages of historical developments of these basic spatial relators are further presented as a pyramid-like figure, each changing or altering the preceding stage, with a slope from the general to the particular. At each level he includes the following items with exemplifications from the studied languages: (A) markerless constructions (nominals with intransitive verbs); (B) simple case suffixes (simple local case markers added as suffixes to nominals); (C) composite case suffixes; (D) simple postpositions (mostly converb forms added); (E) complex postpositions (nominal phrases with spatial meaning: ‘interior’, ‘back’, ‘side’, ‘bottom’, etc.). However, the author demonstrates that the diachronic relations between the levels do not offer a chronological development: items at a lower level may be older than others. The paper concludes that the older markers developed into more refined markers in terms of semantic content, spatial relators acquiring dynamic and non-dynamic interpretations according to the movement character of the predicate verb which can be inherited by a language.

Andrej A. Kibrik, in “What’s in the head of head-marking languages?”, focuses on phenomena that identify the semantic roles in a clause, claiming that the head-marking technique is functionally equivalent to nominal cases rather than to grammatical relations (subject, direct object, etc.). The author argues that head-marking languages combine the typology of locus of marking and the typology of argument type that considers personal affixes on the verb as possible pronominal arguments. He also identifies the semantic roles in the languages studied as marked by linear positions in the morphological structure of the verb in which pronominal elements are inserted. These positions represent functional correspondents of case affixes in dependent-marking languages, known and labeled as cases. He concludes that in head-marking languages grammatical relations and role marking tend to overlap due to the relative linear order of morphemes.

Hee-Soo Kim, in “Transitives, causatives and passives in Korean and Japanese”, analyzes the structures enumerated in the title in terms of ‘event control’ (EC) and ‘root event’ (RE), as well as the status of noun phrases in root events. After mentioning the interest in the similarities and dissimilarities between these concepts by different linguists (Dowty 1979, Jackendoff 1972, Grimshaw 1990, etc.), the author draws attention to the parallelism between transitive, causative and passive structures, based on Korean and Japanese. The author deals with semantic roles in terms of event/root control which come either from the subject, from both the subject and object/non-subject or just from the object/non-subject. Different types of causatives and the similarities or differences between causative and transitive/passive are provided, however noting some ambiguity for Korean and Japanese. Furthermore, the semantic roles of the noun phrases involved in a sentence are identified as agent/patient (in transitive structures), causer/causee (in causative structures) and patient/non-argument and agent (in passive structures) and compared with some English structures. The author demonstrates that all semantic roles depend more on event control than on root control.

Marianne Mithun, in “Core argument patterns and deep genetic relations: Hierarchical systems in Northern California”, argues that core argument marking is directly connected to deep genetic relationships and strongly resistant to areal influence. The author offers a comparison of the hierarchical systems in four California languages as evidence for borrowing. However, the author suggests that these languages differ in the strategies used to avoid low ranking arguments and lower potential ambiguity. The author identifies differences in the bases of the systems (agent/patient versus subject/object), in the manners for maintaining them (passivization, omission of arguments, alternative pronominal shapes) and in their degree of penetration into grammars. Thus, she suggests the structural features of these languages are not descendants of a fully formed hierarchy system, but they have been stimulated by language contact.

Anna Siewierska and Dik Bakker, in “Three takes on grammatical relations: A view from the languages of Europe and North and Central Asia”, discuss different approaches to grammatical relations (GRs), found in Functional Grammar, Relational Typology and Role and Reference Grammar, all being labeled as functional-typological. The authors suggest that GRs are not universal, based on the common considerations of these approaches. The paper also presents different typologies within these approaches: directly related to GRs and related to various languages in terms of the presence, nature and strength of GRs. All these typologies are applied to languages in Europe, Northern and Central Asia. However, all of the languages considered (in Europe and Northern and Central Asia) share nominative/accusative subjects, in spite of the fact that subjects are variable (in Europe) or not (in Northern and Central Asia). The result is that these typologies distinguish languages in Europe from Northern and Central Asia, and the presence of these GRs is considered a norm in Europe but an exception in North and Central Asia.

Pirkko Suihkonen, in “On aspect, aspectual domain and quantification in Finnish and Udmurt”, offers a case study on quantification and aspectual domain. Providing examples from Finnish and Udmurt, the author claims that the choice of aspect depends on argument structure, which is, in its turn, related to event structures. On the one hand, argument structure adds information to the structure-building elements; on the other hand, event structure involves structure-building operations such as passivization or nominalization. According to the author, lexical predicates, different derivational suffixes and quantifying adverbs are mutually influential in terms of the aspectual domain of sentences, the derivation of verbs being used to bind a sentence in a context. The verbal semantic changes influence quantification and aspect. The author also embraces Dowty’s approach (1979, 1989) to semantic structures of predicates and sentence types, which suggests a method of formalizing the semantics based on Montague Grammar. Finally, the author concludes that there are no clear boundaries between lexical and grammatical means used to mark aspect and quantification.


The papers in this volume interrelate in terms of scientific content on the topic of argument structure and grammatical relations. All the papers are consistent in volume and supported by a wide range of bibliographical references, using genuine exemplifications for the theoretical issues discussed. The theoretical framework of each composition offers clear explanations for understanding their applied studies on language.

This book addresses linguists with experience in the areas of argument structure and grammatical relations, and introduces details on languages more or less familiar to its readers. The research on argument structure complements that on grammatical relations. This volume is to be appreciated for providing application of the main theoretical issues, presented throughout the entire volume, which makes its chapters cohere. This shows that it is possible to have a common theoretical pattern for argument structure applied to all languages, but still with some geographically-related linguistic dissimilarities.

The thematic hierarchy is also addressed because it allows for reference to arguments in terms of their relative ranking, e.g., the argument bearing the ‘highest’, ‘second highest’, or ‘lowest’ ranked semantic role, obviating the need to refer directly to arguments by semantic role.

In linguistic theory, thematic roles have traditionally been regarded as determinant in expressing generalizations about the syntactic realization of a predicate’s arguments. Most characterizations of thematic roles have been carried out in terms of primitive semantic properties of predicates. For example, Grimshaw (1990: 2-6) argues for “a theory where it is not the roles themselves that are important, but their place in a thematic hierarchy. A lexical entry consists of a list of arguments, with no thematic information; the thematic roles can be deduced from the lexical meaning of the head (via its lexical semantic structure). The labelling of roles does not, in fact, play a role at any stage; rather it is their place in the thematic role hierarchy which is important.” The hierarchical ordering of thematic roles is one part of what she calls argument structure, the other part being the aspectual structure which divides an event into parts, therefore showing a close connection between argument structure and grammatical relations.

The perspective this volume’s topic opens is towards a logical interpretation of argument structures and grammatical relations (see Ioan 1995, Montague’s collected papers in Thomason 1974). Case grammar and actantial grammar take logic closer to the structure and functionality of natural language. The formal analyses of the predicational and relational logic have their semantic and pragmatic origin in the distinctions of grammar that place syntax higher than morphology and guide interest in deep structures.


Blake, B.J. 1990. Relational Grammar [Croom Helm Linguistic Theory Guides]. London: Croom Helm.

Comrie, B. 1975. Polite plurals and predicate agreement. Language 51: 406-418.

Dowty, D. 1979. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar. The Semantics of Verbs and Times in Generative Semantics and in Montague’s PTQ [Synthese Language Library 7]. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Dowty, D. 1989. On the semantic content of the notion of ‘Thematic role’. In Properties, Types and Meaning II, Semantic Issues [Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy 39], G. Chierchia, B.H. Partee & R. Turner (eds.), 69-129. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Grimshaw, Jane. 1990. Argument Structure. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Hawkins, J.A. 2004. Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars. Oxford: OUP.

Ioan, Petru. 1995. Logical Horizons. Perspectives and meaning readjustments in the present universe of formalisms. (Romanian version). Bucharest: Didactic and Pedagogic Publishing House.

Jackendoff, Ray S. 1972. Semantic Interpretation in Generative Grammar. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Johnson, D.E. 1977. On relational constraints on grammars. In Syntax and Semantics 8: Grammatical relations, P. Cole & J.M. Sadock (eds.), 157-178. New York: Academic Press.

Keenan, E.L. & Comrie, B. 1977. Noun phrase accessibility and universal grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 8: 63-99.

Primus, B. 1993. Syntactic relations. In Syntax, Vol.1. J. Jacobs, A. von Stechow, W. Sternefeld & T. Vennemann (eds.), 686-705. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Primus B. 1995. Relational Typology. In Syntax, 2, J. Jacobs, A. von Stechow, W. Sternefeld & T. Vennemann (eds.), 1076-1109. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Primus B. 1999. Cases and Thematic Roles: Ergative, accusative and active. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Robblee, K.E. 1993. Individuation and Russian agreement. Slavic and East European Journal 37: 423-441.

Thomason, Richmond E. (ed.). 1974. Formal Philosophy. Selected Papers of Richard Montague. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Roxana-Iuliana Popescu works as an Assistant Lecturer for the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, at “Vasile Alecsandri” University of Bacău, Romania. She is also a Ph.D. Student in Logic at “Al. I. Cuza” University of Iasi, Romania. Her main research interests include Linguistics, Logic and English for Specific Purposes. She teaches practical courses in English (translations, grammar exercises, academic writing and communication activities), seminars in Contemporary English language and English for Specific Purposes (engineering, mathematics, medicine, biology, occupational therapy, kinesiotherapy, physical education and sport).