LINGUIST List 14.2771

Tue Oct 14 2003

Review: Discourse Analysis/Syntax: Englebretson (2003)

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  • Catherine Fortin, Searching for Structure

    Message 1: Searching for Structure

    Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2003 14:06:36 +0000
    From: Catherine Fortin <>
    Subject: Searching for Structure

    Englebretson, Robert (2003) Searching for Structure: The Problem of Complementation in Colloquial Indonesian Conversation, John Benjamins, Studies in Discourse and Grammar 13.

    Announced at

    Catherine Fortin, University of Michigan.


    In this book, Englebretson argues against the existence of complementation as a grammatical structure in Indonesian, based on an analysis of a corpus of spontaneous, conversational colloquial Indonesian data. He does this through an analysis of three grammatical structures in Indonesian which have typically been analyzed as complementation: juxtaposed clauses, material introduced by the discourse marker bahwa, and serial verbs. He also considers 'complementation strategies' (as defined by Dixon 1995), that Indonesian uses in lieu of a grammatical structure of complementation per se; the strategy he analyzes in detail herein is epistemic expressions with the suffix -nya. He concludes that none of these constructions offer any concrete evidence for complementation as a syntactic structure in colloquial Indonesian; however, he also shows that, semantically, these structures are similar to complementation structures cross-linguistically. Overall, he argues convincingly that in colloquial Indonesian, 'although traces of complementation are indeed observable in the data, complementation per se is not a robust category for Indonesian language-users' (90).

    The author, working within a discourse-functional perspective, maintains several theoretical and ideological beliefs which set his work apart from that of many others who work within a more formalist framework. Namely, he holds that grammar must be understood as emerging from frequency and use; that the existence of grammatical structures must be proven, not a priori assumed in an analysis; that pragmatic factors are of critical importance; and that linguistic structure is language- particular and diverse. He also firmly holds that grammar is best analyzed in chunks larger than a single clause or sentence, as it naturally and spontaneously occurs in discourse (as Englebretson puts it, 'the actual language produced by real native-speakers in natural interactional context' (12)), rather than from elicited statements and grammaticality judgments. In particular, he points out that grammaticality judgments with respect to a colloquial variety of language are often incorrect, as language attitudes among educated speakers tend to be highly prescriptive, so that they are paradoxically often hesitant to accept structures that they view as 'incorrect' albeit that they have produced themselves.


    Chapter 1: Preliminaries

    In this section, Englebretson presents an overview of his methodology, the corpus used for this study, and a brief sketch of Indonesian grammar.

    It is important to note that Englebretson maintains a strictly syntactic definition of complementation, i.e. 'the grammatical situation of one clause serving as the subject or object of another' (29). Consequently, the central aim of this study is to determine whether Indonesian makes use of a morphosyntactically-defined category of complementation, as defined above, or whether it instead uses alternate strategies to express the range of concepts that are cross-linguistically represented as grammatically defined structures, following Dixon's (1995) view that 'all languages have to express roughly the same, universal, range of semantic concepts, and the observation that not all languages do this by means of the same grammatical resources' (24). Instead of beginning his analysis with the 'null' hypothesis that complementation exists in colloquial Indonesian, and then setting out to disprove it, he takes an alternate route: he hypothesizes that complementation does not exist in colloquial Indonesian, and looks for evidence that it does.

    It is also important to note that, following the author's discourse-functional perspective, the basic unit of spoken language is not taken to be the clause, but instead the Intonation Unit (IU), which is largely defined by acoustic cues. Generally speaking, an IU is taken to be 'a stretch of speech uttered under a single coherent intonation contour' (Du Bois et al. 1993: 47).

    Chapter 2: Juxtaposed clauses

    Juxtaposed clauses are defined here as 'a series of clauses which can stand on their own as main clauses'(38) and which are not linked by any overt connective material. The author argues that 'interclausal relations for these constructions are simply inferential, based on semantic and pragmatic factors' (35). These may be divided into two main types: framed instantiations (which represent a certain semantic relationship between two clauses) and non-framing (which may encode conditional, causal, adversative, concessive or temporal relationships). He investigates the role of prosody in framed instantiations, determining that they occur with three basic types of prosody; interestingly, he claims that the degree of conceptual integration between the juxtaposed clauses is reflected by the prosody.

    Englebretson follows many avenues in his quest for evidence for complementation as a grammatical structure. It is worth spending a little time reviewing his methodology with respect to a single structure (in this case, framed instantiations) as a general illustration of his analysis. For one, he argues that the prosodic break between the clauses within a framed instantiation is telling, with respect to ruling out complementation as a grammatical structure: 'since predicates and core arguments are typically conceived of as a single unit, an utterance which displays discontinuity and conceptual separation is not a good candidate for predicate plus core argument' (54), i.e., not complementation.

    Englebretson also appeals to more traditional tests to determine whether a clause is syntactically treated as an argument of a preceding verb. There are two kinds of transitive clauses in Indonesian, described by Englebretson (following Wouk (1989) and Cumming (1991), inter alia): Agent Trigger (AT) and Patient Trigger (PT). The 'trigger' of the clause is its 'subject', and is the only argument which can be shared in clause combining (18). (In standard written Indonesian, the trigger is normally marked by verbal morphology and word order; this is not always the case in the colloquial variety.) As a diagnostic of the argumenthood of the second clause of a framed instantiation (i.e., its status as a syntactically-defined complement), Englebretson considers whether this clause can be promoted to 'subject' with the use of a PT form of the verb in the first clause: if the second clause in a framed instantiation is able to be promoted to subject with the use of a PT form of the verb in the preceding clause, he argues, this would indicate that this second clause is a true syntactic argument (i.e., a grammatical complement) of the verb in the first clause.

    He examines a variety of specific constructions in turn, and ultimately concludes that a small number of these (4.18% of the total set of framed instantiations in his corpus, to be exact) do seem to contain enough evidence of syntactic complementation to prohibit him from completely ruling out its existence in these cases. However, he argues convincingly that this evidence is limited and 'circumstantial' (88), and despite it, that 'Indonesian seems not to have grammaticized complementation as a robust category' and that 'complementation in the corpus is simply epiphenomenal, and not a grammatical category at all.' Throughout, however, he presents evidence that semantically, at least, these framed instantiations in Indonesian are very similar to complementation structures cross-linguistically.

    Chapter 3: Complementizers in context: An analysis of bahwa

    In this chapter, Englebretson considers clauses that are linked by overt connectives. He presents a detailed analysis of bahwa (a word with no lexical meaning that traditionally has been analyzed as a complementizer), illustrating its distribution and varying functions. Englebretson suggests that this word is best analyzed as a discourse marker and that its 'putative role as a complementizer is simply a reflection of... larger, discourse-level functions' (94). He also argues that bahwa functions as a sociolinguistic marker of formal speech (it is entirely limited to the two formal speech events in his corpus, where it occurs fairly frequently), and claims that it occurs only in speech events which are more closely modeled on standard written Indonesian than in the colloquial, interactive variety.

    In line with his general methodological perspective, he argues that what needs to be explained is the occurrence of bahwa, not its absence. In terms of further ruling out bahwa being a complementizer (i.e., being able to subordinate the following clause), he presents a variety of syntactic evidence: for example, he argues that bahwa is able to introduce entire stretches of discourse, not just a single clause, and that it may be separated from the clause it putatively introduces by other material. In sum, he concludes that he has not been able to present any evidence for analyzing bahwa as a complementizer, and that in many of the cases discussed, such an analysis is not even possible (123).

    Chapter 4: Verbs in series

    In this chapter, Englebretson considers verb serialization, which he defines as 'the occurrence of two (or more) adjacent verbs with no intervening material, which occur in the same IU, and which share at least one argument' (128). He thoroughly describes the different types of serial verb constructions, typologized according to which argument is being shared, which type of semantic relationship they encode, and whether the verbs are linked by an overt connector.

    Serial verbs in Indonesian have traditionally been analyzed as 'reduced complements', where the second verb is an argument of the first. However, Englebretson argues that there is no prosodic evidence to justify a biclausal analysis of juxtaposed verbs, and that these should instead be analyzed as monoclausal, yet containing a complex predicate (126). Toward this end, he presents evidence demonstrating that serial verb constructions are prosodically and syntactically similar to clauses containing a single verb. Finally, he concludes that for serialized verbs as well, 'there is little to no evidence that these forms in colloquial Indonesian actually are grammatical complements' (151).

    Chapter 5: Epistemic -nya constructions

    In this chapter, Englebretson analyzes the epistemic -nya construction as an example of a Dixonian complementation strategy. Unlike the other constructions he considers in this book, this construction has not previously been analyzed as complementation, but he argues that it fulfills a similar range of semantic and pragmatic functions as the others.

    He provides a preliminary analysis of the widely varying functions and use of -nya, along with a preliminary hypothesis as to how they are related. While he acknowledges that much work remains to be done in this area, this work nonetheless represents the first analysis of -nya, and as such is quite an important contribution.

    The author provides evidence that -nya has many apparently disparate functions, including its use as a possessive marker, an identifiability marker, a pronominal marker, and adverbial marker, as a framing device; and as a means of encoding evidentiality, the speaker's attitude towards a proposition, or the speaker's assessment of how it should be situated in the larger discourse. Again, this analysis is an extremely valuable contribution. However, the 'cline of grammaticalization... across these various functions' (171) which Englebretson hypothesizes to account for this morpheme's distribution is suffers slightly in comparison to the rest of his arguments in this book, which are generally extremely well-motivated.

    Chapter 6: Conclusion

    In the final chapter, the author addresses potential criticisms to the discourse-functional approach he has taken in this analysis. He further argues that with this analysis he has demonstrated the need for linguistic categories in general to be argued for and justified on a language-particular basis (188). This point is well taken, but it perhaps seems unnecessarily controversial (from a more formalist perspective) when he states that 'a realistic view of what grammar is [is that] linguistic structures need to be understood and treated as language- particular, not language-universal' (189). However, he quickly qualifies this, and tidily sums up his overarching viewpoint, by saying ''complementation' is a useful label to describe the relationship which exists in many languages between a semantic/pragmatic situation of such as framing and epistemicity, and the syntactic situation of one clause serving as argument of another... [on the other hand, there are] languages in which these relationships are not encoded grammatically', as he has convincingly shown to be the case for colloquial Indonesian.


    This book is carefully and clearly written, with obvious attention to detail. The empirical data chosen successfully illustrates the author's arguments. The chapters are logically structured and well summarized, making his line of argumentation easy to follow and evaluate. Regardless of an Indonesianist's theoretical orientation, this book provides a myriad of interesting arguments and empirical data, and as such should be of interest.

    Furthermore, this study makes several significant contributions to the literature available on Indonesian:

    First, colloquial Indonesian differs lexically, grammatically and phonologically from standard written Indonesian in many ways: affixless verbs, and the presence of certain verbal affixes, for example. However, much of previous work on Indonesian has focused on the standard written variety. This work represents one of the few studies on the colloquial variety.

    Second, this study also has potential cross-linguistic implications. Only a few other researchers have examined complementation in naturally-occurring conversational data in any language (Thompson and Mulac 1991, Thompson 2002). However, colloquial Indonesian is 'an especially good candidate for investigating the possibility of diversity of complementation, since it does not make use of any of the resources described in the literature to indicate that a clause is functioning as an argument of another clause' (4), such as grammatical subordination, finite/nonfinite verbs, and case marking on nominals. Englebretson therefore seeks to define the ways in which Indonesian expresses 'the semantic resources which tend to be encoded cross- linguistically by complementation' (4).

    Finally, this work is the first to propose a comprehensive description and characterization of the clitic -nya in colloquial Indonesian, with the intent of accounting for all of the morpheme's 'multiple and overlapping functions' (16), including uses as a marker of possession, identifiability, nominalization, pronominal arguments, and adverbs.

    A few criticisms can be suggested here, but are not intended to detract from the work as a whole. First, a methodological concern, which the author himself does address: in a purely corpus-based study, the lack of a given structure cannot be taken as an unequivocal demonstration that this structure is ungrammatical. Although the author supplements his corpus with elicited native speaker judgments where necessary for his arguments, these are not always entirely adequate (or even accurate), given the colloquial form of the language under study and the prescriptive attitudes of many speakers. It is not clear how this conundrum may be satisfactorily resolved.

    Second, in line with his assumption that grammar must be understood as emerging from frequency and use (142), Englebretson assigns a surprising amount of status to frequency of a given construction within his corpus in his argumentation.

    Finally, it is not clear which, if any, discourse- functional theoretical framework of grammar the author subscribes to. While this is not necessarily a criticism of the work on its own terms, its absence is keenly felt by the Indonesianist with an interest in theoretical syntax. The tantalizing question of how the phenomena he describes here might structurally be accounted for by a theory of grammar remains, and one hopes that it will be addressed in future research.


    Cumming, Susanna. 1991. Functional change: the case of Malay constituent order. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Dixon, Robert M.W. 1995. Complement clauses and complementation strategies. In Frank R. Palmer, ed. Grammar and meaning: essays in honour of Sir John Lyons. 175-220. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Du Bois, John W., Stephan Schuetze-Coburn, Danae Paolino and Susanna Cumming. 1993. Outline of discourse transcription. In Jane A. Edwards and Martin D. Lampert, eds. Talking data: transcription and coding methods for language research. 45-89. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Thompson, Sandra A. 2002. 'Object complements' and conversation: towards a realistic account. Studies in Language 26.1: 125-164.

    Thompson, Sandra A. and Anthony Mulac. 1991. The discourse conditions for the use of the complementizer that in conversational English. Journal of Pragmatics 15: 237-251.

    Wouk, Fay. 1989. The use of verb morphology in spoken Jakarta Indonesian. Ph.D. dissertation: UCLA.


    Catherine Fortin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include the morphosyntax of Indonesian and other Austronesian languages, particularly with respect to argument structure.