LINGUIST List 14.1486

Thu May 22 2003

Review: Generative/Historical Linguistics: Trips (2002)

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  • Brady Zack Clark, From OV to VO in Early Middle English

    Message 1: From OV to VO in Early Middle English

    Date: Thu, 22 May 2003 09:36:30 +0000
    From: Brady Zack Clark <>
    Subject: From OV to VO in Early Middle English

    Trips, Carola (2002) From OV to VO in Early Middle English. John Benjamins Publishing Company, hardback ISBN 1-58811-311-6, xiv+359pp, $120.00.

    Announced at

    Brady Zack Clark, Department of Linguistics, Stanford University.

    In ''From OV to VO in Early Middle English'', Carola Trips marshals a range of evidence to support the hypothesis that the shift from object-verb (OV) order to verb-object (VO) order in Early English was a consequence of contact with Scandinavian. This book has the potential to contribute in two important ways to the literature on English historical syntax. First, Trips provides a case study of aspects of the syntax of the Ormulum (a text written in the 12th century by Orm, an author of Danish origins), arguing that this text supports her central hypothesis that contact with Scandinavian caused the OV to VO shift. Second, Trips summarizes a good deal of recent literature on variation and change in the relative order of the object and verb in Early English. The rich potential of the book is marred, though, by insufficient defense of the central hypothesis, unclear reasoning at certain points, and a large number of editorial oversights.


    The first three chapters of the book set the stage for the four empirical chapters that follow.

    Chapter 1, the introduction, lays out the goal of the book: to account for the OV to VO shift in Early English. The empirical focus of the book is restricted to Early Middle English; in particular, Trips analyzes the Ormulum, while drawing on other work, such as Kroch and Taylor (2000), to cover other Early Middle English texts. The main claim of the book is presented here: contact with Scandinavian caused the OV to VO shift.

    The first part of Chapter 2 provides a quick overview of the transition from Old English to Middle English, in addition to a short history of Scandinavian influence in Early English. The final two sections of this chapter give a helpful introduction to the Parsed Penn-Helsinki Corpus of Middle English, Second Edition (PPCME2; URL: including (i) information about the texts that make up the PPCME2, grouped regionally, and (ii) a tutorial on CorpusSearch, the search tool associated with the PPCME2. The latter tutorial would make a valuable supplement to a course on historical syntax.

    Chapter 3 provides a synopsis of possible explanations for how and why syntactic change takes place. The chapter begins with an overview of internal and external mechanisms of syntactic change. For internal mechanisms, Trips summarizes Harris and Campbell (1995). For external mechanisms, Trips focuses her attention on language contact, in particular the discussion in Kroch (2001). The final three sections are devoted to syntactic change and first-language acquisition, syntactic change and language contact, and the spread of syntactic change, respectively. Overall the chapter provides a nice synoptic discussion of some current approaches to explanation in historical syntax. The chapter would have delivered more expository value, however, if it had included more discussion of other work on the mechanisms of syntactic change (e.g., Kiparsky's 1996 mixed model of the OV to VO shift) and sociolinguistic work on the interaction of language contact and syntactic change (Thomason and Kaufman 1988, Mougeon and Beniak 1991, Silva-Corvalan 1994).

    Chapter 4 focuses on the OV to VO shift in Early Middle English, the first of four empirical chapters that form the core of the book. The first part of the chapter is a summary of Roberts's (1997) and Pintzuk's (1991) accounts of the relative order of the verb and object in Old English and the subsequent shift from OV to VO in Early Middle English. Following Kayne (1994), Roberts assumes that Old English is underlyingly VO and derives OV orders via leftward movement. In contrast, Pintzuk argues that there is synchronic variation in the VP in Early English; i.e., coexisting OV and VO orders in texts correspond to synchronic competing grammars for individual writers/speakers. Trips argues in favor of Pintzuk's competing grammars account on the basis that Pintzuk's makes fewer assumptions, posits simpler structures, and is embedded in a formal framework that allows one to model the spread of syntactic change using quantitative methods.

    In the last part of Chapter 4, Trips turns to a discussion of OV and VO orders in Early Middle English. The author shows that there is a higher frequency of VO orders in those texts from areas densely settled with Scandinavians than those texts associated with areas outside the influence of Scandinavian. Trips concludes with a brief account of how parametric OV to VO change may have occurred as interference effects from Scandinavian in second language acquisition by native English speakers.

    Chapter 5 is a discussion of object movement in Early English. The first part of the chapter covers object shift. The second part of the chapter focuses on scrambling. In the first part, Trips gives an overview of theories of object shift, arguing in favor of Holmberg's (1999) account. In Holmberg's theory object shift is PF-movement, blocked by any intervening phonological material in the VP. Trips observes that there is no evidence for object shift in the Ormulum. Pointing out that object shift was similarly absent in early stages of Scandinavian, Trips argues (confusingly, see the critical evaluation below) that the absence of object shift in the Ormulum further supports the main claim of the book that contact with Scandinavian caused the OV to VO shift (pg. 160). In the second part of the chapter, Trips discusses properties and theories of scrambling and concludes that in Early Middle English scrambling and object pronoun fronting are found: in Early Middle English, object pronouns moved very frequently and full object DPs could move, but did so only at a low frequency. Both types of DPs (quantified and non-quantified) could undergo scrambling, although quantified DPs moved more frequently than non-quantified objects.

    Chapter 6 focuses on V2 and the cliticization of subject pronouns in Early English. The main contribution of the chapter is Trips's exploration of whether or not the Ormulum shows the Modern Germanic type of V2 (where both full DPs and pronouns invert in topicalization contexts) or the Old English type of V2 (full DP subjects, but not subject pronouns, invert in topicalization contexts), using the position of subject pronouns as a diagnostic. The chapter begins with a quick treatment of V2 in Modern Germanic languages and in Old English. For the latter, it would have good if the discussion was informed by a wider range of recent work on V2 and cliticization in Old English; e.g., recent work by Willem Koopman (1992, 1997, 1998). Trips then turns to a discussion of several analyses of Old English V2: Cardinaletti and Roberts (1991) (now published as Cardinaletti and Roberts 2002), Roberts (1996), and Kroch and Taylor (1997). Trips adopts Kroch and Taylor's account of V2 in Early Middle English. Kroch and Taylor showed that the southern dialects largely replicated the V2 (inverted subject DPs in topicalization contexts) and V3 (uninverted subject pronouns in topicalization contexts) pattern found in Old English, whereas the northern dialects displayed more of a modern Germanic type of V2 grammar. In particular, Trips shows that, in the Ormulum, in contexts with clause-initial non-subject topics, the finite verb is nearly categorically found in second position. Trips concludes that regional variation found in Early Middle English in V2 and cliticization of subject pronouns was due to Scandinavian influence.

    Chapter 7 is devoted to the phenomenon of stylistic fronting, a construction in which a head or phrase appears in subject position where there is a subject gap. Trips main conclusion is that the Ormulum exhibits stylistic fronting, whereas southern texts do not. This finding provides further evidence, argues Trips, that English was influenced by Scandinavian. In the first part of the chapter, the author reviews some of the properties of stylistic fronting and presents several theoretical accounts, arguing in favor of Holmberg's (1997, 2000) account. Trips also discusses stylistic fronting in Middle English, arguing that the fact that stylistic fronting occurs frequently in the Ormulum supports her claim that Scandinavian had a strong influence on the syntax of the northern dialects of English. In the final part of the chapter, Trips contends that stylistic fronting was used by Orm to save the regular (iambic) metrical pattern of the text.

    The last chapter of the book is a summary and conclusion.


    The primary goal of this book is to show that language contact plays a role in syntactic change. The author aims to reach this goal by providing evidence for a single hypothesis: the Scandinavian VO word order pattern came into the English language and drove out the Old English underlying OV order. If texts from areas where Scandinavian settlement was dense show syntactic Scandinavian characteristics, the assumption that language contact plays a role in syntactic change is supported.

    How successful is Trips at defending the central hypothesis of the book? As mentioned in the introduction, the originality of the book is two fold. First, Trips gathers together for the first time much of the recent literature on OV to VO shift in Early English. Second, Trips presents a case study of the Ormulum. The literature review provides a powerful reminder that there was significant regional variation in the syntax of Early Middle English. Trips's case study of the Ormulum should figure into any future study that attempts to explain the source of this regional variation.

    Trips stops short of successfully defending her central hypothesis, however. There is too little discussion of the syntactic structure of early Scandinavian languages. For example, Trips uncritically adopts the assumption that early Scandinavian was (predominantly) VO (pg. 102), thus obscuring the fact that there is little consensus on the internal structure of the VP in early Scandinavian; see Sundquist (2002: 343) and references cited therein for recent discussion. Further, Trips's reasoning is sometime unclear. For example, Trips claims that the fact that there is no object shift in the Ormulum supports the assumption that early Scandinavian had a strong influence on the syntax of the northern dialects of Early English. It is not clear how the absence of a construction in Early English provides evidence for or against the claim that contact with Scandinavian was a major force in the OV to VO shift.

    Other problems with the book are not related to the content, but are editorial. I will briefly discuss these problems, in order of increasing importance.

    First, the index is very impoverished: readers may not be able to find much of what they are looking for. For example, a good part of the book is dedicated to a discussion of Kroch and Taylor (2000), yet there is not an entry for either Kroch or Taylor in the index. It would have been nice to have an author index, a language index, and a subject index, rather than a single comprehensive index. An author index would have been especially valuable, given how much of the book is devoted to a review of the literature.

    Second, it would have be easier to understand some of the Early English examples if the glossed words were aligned with the corresponding Early English text and if the examples included dates (where possible).

    Third, the majority of the book is given over to a presentation of previous literature. As I mentioned above, it is important to now have a review of work on the OV to VO shift in Early English in a single place. Such a review could be an important supplemental text for a course on English historical syntax, although I think Trips's book falls short of serving this purpose because of the number of typographical errors. Trips's aim to provide such a comprehensive review of the literature comes at the expense of missing the opportunity to bolster her central hypothesis. For example, Trips could have spent more time discussing the structure of Scandinavian, as it bears on the relative order of the object and verb.

    Fourth, the book has a large number of typographical errors While typos are to be expected in a book of the size, this book falls well below reasonable expectations. I counted 213 typos on a second read through the book. Many of these typos are trivial; e.g., spelling errors like ''proceded'' on (pg. 103). A significant number of them actually impede understanding, however; e.g., poorly formatted phrase structure trees (pg. 300).

    In sum, I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend the book as a supplement to a course on English historical syntax or as a resource for historical syntacticians. While some of the book will definitely have lasting value for English historical syntacticians (in particular, Trips's analysis of the Ormulum), the book is hobbled by bibliographic omissions, unclear reasoning at certain points, insufficient information about early Scandinavian, and inadequate copyediting.


    I am grateful to Elizabeth Traugott for her comments. All remaining errors are my own.


    Cardinaletti, Anna and Ian Roberts (1991) Clause Structure and X-Second. Ms., University of Venice and University of Geneva.

    Cardinaletti, Anna and Ian Roberts (2002) Clause Structure and X-Second. In Guglielmo Cinque (ed.), Functional Structure in DP and IP: The Cartography of Syntactic Structures, Volume 1, (pp. 123-166). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (reprint of Cardinaletti and Roberts 1991)

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

    Holmberg, Anders (1997) Scandinavian Stylistic Fronting: Movement of Phonological Features in the Syntax. Working Papers in Scandinavian Syntax. 60: 81-124.

    Holmberg, Anders (1999) Remarks on Holmberg's Generalization. Studia Linguistica. 53: 1-39.

    Holmberg, Anders (2000) Scandinavian Stylistic Fronting: How any category can become an expletive. Linguistic Inquiry. 31: 445-483.

    Kayne, Richard (1994) The Antisymmetry of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Kiparsky, Paul (1996) The Shift to Head-Initial VP in Germanic. In Hoeskulder Thrainsson and Samuel David Epstein and Steve Peter (eds.), Studies in Comparative Germanic Syntax II, (pp. 140-179). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    Koopman, Willem F. (1992) Old English clitic pronouns: some Remarks. In Fran Colman (ed.), Evidence for Old English: Material and Theoretical Bases for Reconstruction, (pp. 44-87). Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers.

    Koopman, Willem F. (1997) Another Look at Clitics in Old English. Transactions of the Philological Society. 95: 73-93.

    Koopman, Willem F. (1998) Inversion after single and multiple topics in Old English. In Jacek Fisiak and Marcin Krygier (eds.), Advances in English Historical Linguistics (1996), (pp. 135-150). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Kroch, Anthony S. (2001) Syntactic Change. In Mark Baltin and Chris Collins (eds.), The Handbook of Contemporary Syntactic Theory, (pp. 699-279). Oxford: Blackwell.

    Kroch, Anthony S. and Ann Taylor (1997) Verb movement in Old and Middle English: dialect variation and language contact. In Ans van Kemenade and Nigel Vincent (eds.), Parameters of Morphosyntactic Change, (pp. 297-325). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Kroch, Anthony S. and Ann Taylor (2000) Verb-Object Order in Early Middle English. In Susan Pintzuk, George Tsoulas, and Anthony Warner (eds.), Diachronic Syntax: Models and Mechanisms, (pp. 132-163). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Lightfoot, David W. (1991) How to Set Parameters: Arguments from Language Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Mougeon, Raymond and Edouard Beniak (1991) Linguistic consequences of language contact and restriction: the case of French in Ontario. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Pintzuk, Susan (1991) Phrase structures in competition: variation and change in Old English word order. Diss. Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania. Published in 1999 by Garland, New York and London (Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics).

    Roberts, Ian G. (1996) Language Change and Generative Grammar. In Ellen Brandner and Gisella Ferraresi (eds.), Linguistische Berichte, Sonderheft, 7: 154-168.

    Roberts, Ian G. (1997) Directionality and word order change in the history of English. In Ans van Kemenade and Nigel Vincent (eds.), Parameters of Morphosyntactic Change, (pp. 397-426). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Silva, Corvalan (1994) Language contact and change: Spanish in Los Angeles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Sundquist, John D. (2002) Object Shift and Holmberg's Generalization in the History of Norwegian. In David W. Lightfoot (eds.), Syntactic Effects of Morphological Change, (pp. 326-347). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Thomason, Sarah Grey and Terry Kaufman (1988) Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


    Brady Clark is a PhD student in linguistics at Stanford University, where he is involved in several research projects in historical linguistics, semantics, pragmatics, and tutorial dialogue systems. He received his BA in linguistics from the University of Washington in 1997.