LINGUIST List 17.2981

Thu Oct 12 2006

Review: Historical Linguistics; Phonology: Schlüter (2005)

Editor for this issue: Laura Welcher <>

Directory         1.    Mark Campana, Rhythmic Grammar

Message 1: Rhythmic Grammar
Date: 12-Oct-2006
From: Mark Campana <>
Subject: Rhythmic Grammar

Announced at AUTHOR: Julia SchlüterTITLE: Rhythmic GrammarSUBTITLE: The influence of rhythm on grammatical variation andchanges in EnglishSERIES: Topics in English LinguisticsPUBLISHER: Mouton de GruyterYEAR: 2005

Mark Campana, Department of English, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies


This book presents a corpus-based test of a simple idea, that Englishfavors an alternating pattern of stressed/non-stressed syllables in wordand phrase structure. The Principle of Rhythmic Alternation can bediscerned in texts dating from the 16th century to the present, and has(the author argues) influenced the development of the language in subtleways. It begins by examining the distribution of competing forms, e.g.'worse' and 'worser'. Although 'worse' has always been the suppleted formof 'bad', most other comparatives had an –er ending (e.g. 'richer'), sothere was considerable pressure to fill out the paradigm. These two formscompeted with each other from late medieval times, but 'worser' persistedlonger than it should have in prenominal position before eventually dyingout. The reason is that 'worser' contains an extra (weak) syllable, whichthe rhythmic grammar favors as a buffer between the stressed syllable ofthe adjective itself and the typically stressed first syllable of the nounit modifies. 'Worser' gave way to 'worse' much sooner in other syntacticenvironments where the specter of a stress clash did not arise. In otherwords, the preference for rhythmic alternation tipped the scales in favorof one syntactic variant over another.

This book represents an expansion of ideas originating in previous andongoing work, in particular the author's dissertation. Chapter one laysout the major issues and offers an outline of the book. Chapter twopresents some background information on the Principle of RhythmicAlternation (PRA), with discussion of some other phonological concepts andtheir instantiation in natural language. Never is theory far below thesurface though, and right from the beginning the reader is reminded of thekind of consequences that lie ahead: How can we ignore the impact ofsound-based phenomena on word and sentence-structure, as well as meaning?Sooner or later, any theory must address this question, and the argumentleans towards functionalist accounts motivated by general forces ofcognition. In this regard, the PRA is considered as a prime candidate.

Chapter three is an outline of the methodology taken, and a description ofthe texts used for the survey. These are all machine-readable andrepresent various stages of British English from 1150 to the present. Thesearch for rhythmic patterns entails the exclusion of verse, so only proseforms are considered: fictional and non-fictional, dramatic andnon-dramatic, written-to-be-spoken and even spoken (modern English only).In total, the database contains many millions of words, statisticallysufficient for detecting the subtle effects of stress-timing on word andsentence structure. To balance the results, special care is taken toaccommodate the idiosyncrasies of each text, including the social contextin which it was written.

Chapter four is the first of two chapters dealing with the results of thesurvey, and evaluating them against the major predictions (i.e. given twoor more variants--lexical or syntactic--the rhythmically grammatical onewill win out). The story of 'worse'/'worser' typifies the situation innoun phrases, along with other pairs of variants: so-called 'a-adjectives'('ashamed', 'asleep'); the participles 'drunk'/'drunken', 'broke'/'broken','struck'/'stricken' 'knit'/'knitted' and 'lit'/'lighted'. The choicebetween 'a quite' vs. 'quite a' is syntactic (the latter one persists), asare combinations of color terms (e.g. 'red & yellow' vs. 'yellow & red').In each case, the evidence shows a marked preference for the 'rhythmicallycorrect' alternant in attributive (pre-nominal) position, where stressclashes are likely to occur. The same variants in post-copular positionshow a more even (and predictable) distribution. In each case, the resultsof the corpus-based survey are presented graphically through charts andtables and explained in detail.

Chapter five extends the study of rhythmic effects on variation andhistorical change to items within the verb phrase: multi-word S-adverbs('not so unexpectedly'), monosyllabic V-adverbs ('scarce/scarcely'), and-ing forms prefixed by an a-affix ('set a-going'). A similar scenariounfolds in the case of 'marked' infinitival (to) complements of the verb'make' vs. unmarked (bare) ones: if the infinitive verb has initial stress,a potential stress clash ensues. In this environment, 'to' will functionas a rhythmic buffer. As before, the evidence gleaned from the surveyshows that 'to' was retained much longer than expected in the history ofEnglish, before completely disappearing from the active construction ('makehim go'). Its retention in the passive ('made to go') has more to do withsyntactic stabilizing factors than with rhythm, according to the author.Throughout this chapter, syntactic and prosodic environments are closelycontrolled, owing to the ease with which stress clashes can be avoided byother means. Semantic factors in particular obscure the PRA as the solearbiter of distribution. The sheer size of the database reveals someplainly significant trends, which appear to have no reasonable explanationbeyond a rhythmic basis: potential stress clashes are avoided when anextra-syllabic variant is available.

Chapter six considers the theoretical models that are necessary toaccommodate the observed effects of rhythm on nominal and verbalstructures. Generative (''syntactocentric'') theories are rejected, as theirmodularity does not allow phonological rules, etc. to affect higher levelsof representation. Optimality Theory (OT) is given a better chance, whererules with different functions can be ranked more-or-less as needed for anygiven dialect. Still, it is ill-equipped to handle variation, which bothreflects synchronic reality and feeds the process of historical change.Instead, the author opts for a spreading activation model based on languageprocessing. In it, rhythm can be traced to the behavior of neural clustersin their cycle of activation and inhibition (stressed and unstressed,respectively). These are represented by abstract nodes organized intolevels of increasing complexity: phonetic, phonemic, syllabic,morphological, and semantic. The deep-seated rhythmic layer consists ofjust two nodes, i.e. the stressed and unstressed. Information-sharingbetween nodes at different levels is bidirectional, so that choices made atone can be communicated up or down. Since processing involves stages ofboth planning and execution, an imminent stress clash can be avoided viafeedback and 'feedforward.' Various arguments are given in support of sucha model, the most persuasive being that it reflects (what are thought tobe) verifiable cognitive properties. Chapter seven is a summary andconclusion.

Following the conclusion, there is an appendix showing the typical stresspatterns of nouns, verbs and adjectives--useful information inunderstanding the potential for stress clashes. The searchable sources onwhich the survey was based are listed in a primary reference section; thebibliography contains secondary references from other such studies, as wellas from the literature of historical linguistics (history of English),neurolinguistics, psycholinguistics, language processing and more. The bookis indexed, which helps immensely in recalling the various principles thatperiodically interact with (sometimes obscure) the PRA.


Generally speaking, I found this book a fascinating read, if only becauseit draws together so many different strands of research. The PRA is notnew, but the emerging field of corpus studies offers a legitimate testingground for trends that might otherwise go undetected. Great care was takento eliminate any evidence that might prove inconclusive or obscure theeffect of the PRA. Caveats were plentiful, leaving little doubt as to thecorrectness of interpretation. The graphs and tables were well-presentedand explained. This is good science.

At the same time, the argumentation was usually convincing, even when thesurvey results were inconclusive. The author makes a good case for usingwritten texts as evidence for spoken forms—a hard sell, to say the least.Nor was the author reluctant to offer alternative views of variousphenomena. In many cases, potential support of the PRA is compromised bysemantic, prescriptivist, or paradigmatic forces, which the author did agood job of factoring out.

The style of writing is clear and well-organized, following the format of astandard doctoral thesis. The topic of each chapter is presented in thecontext of the big picture, and subsections are outlined in advance, latersummarized. There is some cross-referencing between subsections ofdifferent chapters, as some issues cannot be resolved all at once. Thelanguage is near-perfekt (!) and sometimes colorful, with a good balance oftechnical terms and idiomatic expressions. Undergraduate students willfind this book to difficult to navigate unless they have a solid backgroundin at least one of the areas of research; graduate students have a betterchance. For general linguists, the book offers rare insight into otherdisciplines, i.e. what other researchers are up to, and how to assimilatetheir results and methodologies with their own work.

There isn't really much to say that's negative about the book: it has aclear agenda and carries it out. The focus on rhythm may not seem terriblyexciting, but there are so many different subplots—from literature andprescriptivism to neurology and theory—that anyone with the patience tolearn will find something in it. The fact that results are sometimesdifficult to discern can be frustrating, as when the impact of the PRA iscountenanced by other factors. The effort to tease them apart is slow andmeticulous. The discussion of spreading activation models could have beenexpanded to anticipate counterarguments of, say, generativists—perhaps toohandily dismissed. At a deeper level, the synchronic (and possiblydiachronic) influence of rhythm on English must find its expression insyllable-timed (and other) languages. This would be a direction for futureresearchers, though.


Mark Campana is a professor of English and Linguistics at Kobe CityUniversity of Foreign Studies. He has written on the morphology and syntaxof polysynthetic and ergative languages (Amerind, Austronesian) in thegenerativist tradition. More recently, his interests lie in the field ofpragmatics, in particular intonation, discourse markers, and other audiblecues to intended meaning.