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Thu Sep 18 2003

Review: Morphology/Syntax: Plank, ed. (2003)

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  • Yura Lander, Noun Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe

    Message 1: Noun Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe

    Date: Thu, 18 Sep 2003 12:43:25 +0000
    From: Yura Lander <>
    Subject: Noun Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe

    Plank, Frans, ed. (2003) Noun Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe, Mouton de Gruyter, xxi + 845 p., hardback ISBN 3-11-015748-9, Empirical Approaches to Language Typology / Eurotyp 20-7.

    Announced at

    Yury A. Lander, Institute of Oriental studies, Moscow

    This volume presents results obtained by a group of typologists working under the EUROTYP project on noun phrase. Therefore, it may be taken as sequential of other EUROTYP volumes published by Mouton de Gruyter during the last decade and as a continuation of the well-known collection Plank (ed.) 1995, with which the present volume considerably overlaps as regards the set of contributors.

    The scope of ''Noun Phrase Structure...'' is very broad including, in particular, the issues of nominal morphological categories as well as certain general problems of formal marking. On the other hand, such subjects as word order and the syntactic structure of noun phrases are touched only briefly (for these see, e.g., Rijkhoff 2002, the work of another member of the EUROTYP project). Also the topics of adjectival and relative clause modification, which certainly constitute very important aspects of noun phrases, have been largely left outside. This, of course, does not decrease the value of the volume (see below).


    The collection is divided into four parts, among which three are dedicated to particular aspects of noun phrases. In addition, the volume contains indexes of subjects, languages and authors, as well as two tables of contents (the second is detailed) and a list of contributors.

    The introductory part includes one paper only, and not so surprisingly, it is written by the editor. In ''Noun phrase structure: AN UND FUER SICH, in time, and in space'' (pp. 3- 33), Frans Plank provides background for the EUROTYP research acquainting the reader with the typological aims and methodology assumed by the authors of the volume. A useful appendix to the introduction includes the contents of the works published by the EUROTYP noun phrase group.

    Part II ''On inflection'' consists of papers covering morphological categories related to noun phrases.

    Aleksandr E. Kibrik's ''Nominal inflection galore: Daghestanian, with side glances at Europe and the world'' (pp. 37-112) introduces data from various Daghestanian languages, which are remarkable in their highly developed case system, with the rich category of localization being in its heart. However paradigmatically transparent and syntagmatically compositional at first sight, the Daghestanian inflection is asserted to reveal features that do not easily fit traditional conceptions of case and the inflection/derivation opposition.

    Edith Moravcsik in her ''Inflectional morphology in the Hungarian noun phrase: A typological assessment'' (pp. 113- 252) gives a comprehensive description of such aspects of the Hungarian inflection as syncretism, allomorphy, cumulation, zero exponence etc. against a background of general characteristics of Hungarian (such as vowel harmony and presumable agglutination) and both typological universals and ''euroversals'' (i.e. statements beginning with something like ''In all languages, if they are European ...'', p. 114).

    ''The selective elaboration of nominal or pronominal inflection'' (pp. 253-287) by Frans Plank contrasts with the other papers in that it does not discuss any concrete language material. The conclusions of this chapter come from statistical data based on a large sample of languages of the world. Plank's main findings are that (i) cross- linguistically the degrees of complexity of the categories of number, pronominal distance and person correlate with each other, and (ii) there are languages whose nominal inflection is elaborated more than the pronominal one (contrary to familiar typological generalizations). The latter fact is suggested to be related to the word order parameter. Curiously, it turns out that Europe itself cannot provide evidence for either of these observations.

    The most part of Greville G. Corbett's ''Types of typology, illustrated from gender systems'' (pp. 289-334) is devoted to the typology of gender resolution (rules determining agreement in conflict situations, where different gender features can be assigned to a target) and the typology of bases for gender systems (''gender assignment''). Though on the first view the two typologies are autonomous, it is argued that the rules of gender resolution (partly) depend on the type of gender assignment.

    Part III ''On (over-)determination'' is concerned with diverse effects that can be related to the referentiality categories.

    ''Double articulation'' (pp. 337-395), another paper by Frans Plank, examines the phenomenon of marking (in)definiteness and (non-)specificity (at least) twice in a single constituent. The data (this time mainly from European languages) is rich. The exposition starts with multiple occurrences of articles in conjunctive noun phrases and ends with definiteness marking on nouns that already contain a historical trace of (in)definiteness exponents, but also includes manifold cases where double articulation cannot be explained by simple considerations. At the end of the paper, Plank touches upon possible motivations of the phenomenon.

    The second paper of Edith Moravcsik ''Non-compositional definiteness marking in Hungarian noun phrases'' (pp. 397- 466) takes up the topic of multiple expression of the same category attempting to enter it into the general typology of non-transparent formation of phrases. Such a typology includes undermarking (the absence of overt exponents in spite of the obvious presence of the corresponding property), overmarking (a case of redundancy) and contradictory marking (manifesting contrasting properties within the same phrase). All these types are thought over in details in relation to the distribution of (in) definiteness marking in Hungarian.

    David Gil (''English goes Asian: Number and (in)definiteness in the Singlish noun phrase''; pp. 467-514) concentrates on the description of certain aspects of the noun phrase in Singlish, a colloquial variety (or descendant) of English spoken in Singapore. The author focuses on the syntactic issues related to (what could be called) determiners, and on their impact on the number interpretation of the whole phrase. Naturally, many of the effects discussed in this chapter turn out to be areal features that are shared by Singlish and other South-East Asian languages.

    The last paper of this part is ''A WOMAN OF SIN, A MAN OF DUTY, and A HELL OF A MESS: Non-determiner genitives in Swedish'' (pp. 515-558) by Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm. The topic of this article is various semantic and syntactic properties of a group of non-prototypical possessives, whose representative translations are given in the title. It is demonstrated that these constructions do not form a homogeneous class but occupy different places in the continuum between adjectives and prototypical genitive phrases (which in Swedish directly affect the definiteness of a nominal).

    Part IV ''On amplification'' is devoted to complex noun phrases.

    ''The interaction between numerals and nouns'' (pp. 561-620) by James R. Hurford is a survey of constructions with cardinal numerals in European languages. The parameters Hurford gives a more or less comprehensive description include in particular word order, formation of complex numerals, morphological characteristics of components of numeral constructions.

    Another detailed survey is Maria Koptjevskaja- Tamm's ''Possessive noun phrases in the languages of Europe'' (pp. 621-722). This paper elaborates on Europe-internal tendencies and distinctions in the marking of possessives with non-pronominal specific possessors. A special attention is given to the geographic distribution of different marking types of possessive constructions.

    ''Action nominal constructions in the languages of Europe'' (pp. 723-759) by the same author may look like a supplementation of the preceding chapter. Still it is not only a survey. Actually, in this paper Koptjevskaja-Tamm forwards a number of remarkable universals concerning the form of action nominal constructions although she also highlights that the patterns under discussion show a high degree of variation, e.g., as to how close they are to the sentential prototype.

    The final paper of the collection, ''Noun phrase conjunction: The coordinative and the comitative strategy'' (pp. 761-817) written by Leon Stassen, illustrates the application of typological techniques to the domain of conjuctive phrases. The focus of this chapter lies on the distinction of the two strategies of conjunction, which roughly can be named the AND-strategy and the WITH- strategy. Besides the general description of these strategies, a large part of the paper deals with their distribution (both areal and structural) among the languages of the world.


    The first impression of this volume is that it contains an enormous amount of non-trivial information. I will firstly touch upon the data and the method of its presentation, and then briefly discuss the authors' conclusions.

    In my opinion, it is certainly a positive feature of the volume that its contributors are more often governed by language facts than govern the data (as often happens in ''theory-oriented'' works). Actually, unlike some recent collections reflecting the growing interest in noun phrases (see, e.g., Coene & D'hulst (eds.) 2003), the authors of ''Noun Phrase Structure...'' do not focus on any formal and interpretative analysis but in many respects choose the atheoretical position.

    One of the goals of the volume was to represent the European data in a typological perspective. Hence a number of contributors had to attract the data from wide samples of languages, and in several papers the study of such samples has occupied the central place (Plank's paper on (pro)nominal inflection, Stassen). Further, the need to characterize certain languages according to various typological parameters has led to the rummaging and rethinking of relatively familiar matter (see especially Moravcsik's articles). On the other hand, a few chapters focus on the facts that are often left in a periphery, even though their importance is hardly to be denied: some examples are double articulation (Plank), ''non-determiner'' genitives (Koptjevskaja-Tamm), the interdependence between the number interpretation and determination (Gil). Importantly, many papers show a great descriptive strength. In this respect I should mention at least the papers by Kibrik and by Gil, both introducing splendid and tremendous data.

    Thus, one could conclude by formulating two merits of the collection . the interest to the details and the representation that is oriented on the data rather than on the support of deductive hypotheses. This is not all, however, and it is interesting to look at how the contributors managed with problems that almost necessarily accompany inquiries based on cross-linguistic comparison.

    One of such problems concerns the reliability of data, - and here most authors tried to do their best. Two papers of the collection (Kibrik and Gil) are based on apparently thorough fieldwork, Moravcsik's papers reflect a native speaker's intuition (although to a great extent her own idiolect only), and almost all other contributors have worked extensively with informants. This is not to say, of course, that the collection misses shortcomings in this respect. Indeed, I have found a few examples that raise doubts either in spelling or in interpretation. Yet most data seems to be perfect, and this (together with other factors) makes the authors' conclusions convincing.

    Another problem that is unavoidable in all data-oriented investigations is that even this kind of work needs a conceptual system to control the data. Apart from one exception (namely, David Gil's attempt to discuss the Singlish noun phrase in purely intuitive notions), the authors just commit themselves to the terminology that is more or less conventional. The use of commonly adopted terms makes the papers easily readable and understandable, the more so that (almost) all secondary notions are related to accepted linguistic notions in some or other way.

    Nevertheless, this practice of using traditional conceptual system is not without its flaws. Thus, if one takes the labels as already assigned to concrete phenomena, they may simplify the real situation. Let me give just two examples.

    Moravcsik's treatment of referential devices in the Hungarian noun phrase is based on a conceptual system that does not distinguish between genericity and non-specificity (the two features that are by no means identical; cf. Givon 1979 and a number of formal semantic works dealing with ''kind-referring'' phrases, see e.g. Carlson & Pelletier (eds.) 1995). Moreover, in respect to some phenomena (e.g., AZ, the definite or specific article, and EGY, the indefinite article or perhaps a numeral 'one'; see Szabolcsi 1994 for some discussion), the applicability of such notions as definiteness and indefiniteness remained untested - although these terms did receive a more or less strong commentary in the beginning of the paper. It seems to me that in some cases this could lead Moravcsik to certain misinterpretations.

    To continue with a rather general example, there is a tacit agreement among the authors to represent noun phrases in traditional way, with a noun being the head of the constituent (see Zwicky 1985, Corbett et al. (eds.) 1993 for why this is not necessarily the case). Of course, nobody may require of anybody to follow the DP hypothesis (Abney 1987), according to which it is the determiner that heads the nominal constituent (though the absence of even mentioning of Abney's name in the volume looks surprising, given his profound effect on many current theories of nominals). Still, the matter is debatable, and from this point of view, some phenomena touched upon in the volume may be less odd than they are shown. Take one of the most interesting facts reported by Hurford, the behavior of Finnish plural numerals, which (usually) mean 'n groups of' - unlike what happens with ''singular'' numerals; cf. the following minimal pair (Hurford's (46)):

    (1) ostin kolme autoa bought:1SG 3:ACC:SG car:PARTIT:SG 'I bought three cars' (2) ostin kolmet autot bought:1SG 3:ACC:PL car:ACC:PL 'I bought three sets of cars'

    Hurford (pp. 584-589) analyzes the phenomenon of Finnish plural numerals under the rubric ''Meaning of whole noun phrase determines number of numeral and noun'', thus assigning the crucial role to the construction. However, the examples given above show that while in the ''normal'' construction (1) the numeral governs the noun, in the construction with a plural numeral (2) the most likely head is the noun, and presumably the plural marking on the numeral is an instance of agreement similar to those discussed by Hurford under another rubric, ''Number assigned to numeral by sister noun''. (Possibly, the situation is more complex, since in plural the accusative form of Finnish nouns coincides with the unmarked nominative form.) Presumably it is certain peculiarities of the Finnish category of number (which is not studied by Hurford) . rather than the construction . that are responsible for special semantic effects. Thus, it seems that the disregard of dependency issues (in fact, overtly declared by the author on p. 563) led to some inconsistency here . although the data presented by Hurford does not decrease in value, of course.

    The motivation of such shortcomings is most likely the inherent complexity of many purportedly simple notions. Hence it is indicative that when the authors take some of such notions more deeply they meet difficulties. The discussions of the problem of the application of the concept of case in respect of Daghestanian languages (Kibrik), of the notion of determiner in respect to Swedish genitives (Koptjevskaja-Tamm) and on the concept of agglutination for Hungarian (Moravcsik) may serve as illustrations. But the most intriguing is the fact that the very palpability of the noun phrase category turns out not to be apparent.

    Really, in several places of the volume one can find considerations that are based on that what is usually assumed to constitute a single noun phrase in reality does not form any well-established syntactic category. Such observations are justified in respect to languages that display non-configurational characteristics (see Heath 1986 and Plank (ed.) 1995 among others), but it is exciting to find remarks of this kind in case of European languages, many of which are often thought to be the standards of configurationality. Plank in his speculations on double articulation and Stassen show that even here the degree of cohesion within a presumable noun phrase may vary and some components of such a ''constituent'' may be more autonomous than others. After all that, Gil's arguments for that syntactically the category of noun phrase in Singlish is at times indistinguishable from that of sentence look quite natural.

    However, this collection would not be of great value if the denial of the accepted status of noun phrases was its main result. After all, giving up assumptions on the existence of a syntactic category cannot be fruitful until an alternative system is offered, and seemingly, it was not the authors' wish to work on new theoretical systems. It is a great number of other conclusions (which cannot be discussed in details here, unfortunately) that do credit to the collection. Their power varies broadly, however.

    To begin with, there are generalizations that cover only concrete areal or genetic formations and generalizations that attempt to be relevant for most (or even all) languages. The former type of generalizations is itself significant for areal and historical investigations. But it becomes of typological and theoretical interest only if compared with generalizations of the latter type. In fact, the picture given in the volume conforms to the intuition of many typologists that Europe cannot reflect the real diversity adequately and in some respects it even occupies a periphery. Hence a lot of beautiful conclusions cannot be made exclusively on the basis of European languages. On the other hand, the surveys of such phenomena as constructions with numerals (Hurford) and possessives and action nominals (Koptjevskaja-Tamm) show that a considerable structural variation can be observed even within Europe, so that what is sometimes thought to be most typical may be only ''one of many''.

    Interestingly, in spite of the ''global'' orientation of the volume, the statistical generalizations are at times preferred to universals. It is important to realize, however, that statistical generalizations are not identical to ''statistical universals'': tendencies may be greater or smaller, while statistical universals typically operate with the (seemingly) simple notion of ''the absolute majority of languages''. It could be then a target of criticism that sometimes the authors center on tendencies that are NOT true for most languages, and declare that these tendencies are typologically relevant. Yet it is important to draw attention to what is studied. As has been noticed by Dryer (1998), ''random variation and historical accident are considerably less plausible as explanations for differences in frequency that involve correlations between two linguistic parameters rather than a single parameter''. Now, most authors do not limit themselves to mere one-parameter classification but point a special attention to various co-variation phenomena (as a task of the general typology, this is particularly emphasized by Plank). Moreover, sometimes the direction of attention towards co-variation (which presupposes the cluster view on certain phenomena) helps to explain the existence of such probably unexpected phenomena as, e.g., the constructions that are intermediate between WITH- and AND-strategies (Stassen): as many other theoretically unique but in reality widespread patterns discussed by the authors, these constructions are the product of historical change, which leads to the gradual replacement of typically coexisting properties.

    Maybe, it is indeed the orientation to the study of co- variation that is responsible for non-triviality of what is presented in the volume. And it is apparently the feeling that the grammar should be harmonious (inspired by the very idea of co-variation) that guided the authors of ''Noun Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe'' and that allowed them to create a volume that will, I believe, stimulate research in different domains of grammar.


    Abney, S.P. 1987. The English Noun Phrase in Its Sentential Aspect. Ph.D. diss., MIT.

    Carlson, G.N. & F.J. Pelletier (eds.) 1995. The Generic Book. Chicago/London: The Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Coene, M. & Y. D'hulst (eds.) 2003. From NP to DP. 2 vols. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Corbett, G.G., N.M. Fraser, & S. McGlashan (eds.) 1993. Heads in Grammatical Theory. Cambridge etc.: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Dryer, M.S. 1998. Why statistical universals are better than absolute universals. Chicago Linguistic Society 33: The Panels, 123-145.

    Givon, T. 1978. Definiteness and referentiality. In J.H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of Human Language, vol. 4, Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 291-330.

    Heath, J. 1986. Syntactic and lexical aspects of nonconfigurationality in Nunggubuyu (Australia). Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 3 (3): 375-408.

    Plank, F. (ed.) 1995. Double Case: Agreement by Suffixaufnahme. N.Y. etc.: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Rijkhoff, J. 2002. The Noun Phrase. N.Y. etc.: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Szabolcsi, A. 1994. The noun phrase. In F. Kiefer & K. E. Kiss (eds.), The Syntactic Structure of Hungarian, Syntax & Semantics 27, N.Y. etc.: Academic Press.

    Zwicky, A. 1985. Heads. Journal of Linguistics 21: 1-29.


    Yury Lander is a research fellow in the Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow. His current interests include the morphosyntactic typology of noun phrases (possessives, quantification and relativization) and various configurationality issues.