LINGUIST List 17.3168

Mon Oct 30 2006

Review: Linguistic Theories; Syntax: Beedham (2005)

Editor for this issue: Laura Welcher <>

Directory         1.    Amy Gregory, Language and Meaning

Message 1: Language and Meaning
Date: 30-Oct-2006
From: Amy Gregory <>
Subject: Language and Meaning

Announced at AUTHOR: Beedham, ChristopherTITLE: Language and MeaningSUBTITLE: The structural creation of realitySERIES: Studies in Structural and Functional Linguistics 55PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2005

Amy E. Gregory, Department of Modern Foreign Languages, University of Tennessee

This book explores controversial areas such as 'langue' versus 'parole' asthe proper object of linguistic investigation, formal versus semanticanalysis, what constitutes formal analysis, and the question of whetherreality creates language or the other way around. In the introduction, theauthor states, ''language is the most human of all human attributes. Morethan just a means of communication it is our vehicle of thought.'' Hepurports to answer the questions, ''What is the relationship betweenlanguage and thought/perception? How does language influencethought/perception? Does language come first and then thought andperception, or do thought and perception come first, and then language?''Throughout the book, Beedham contends that 'langue' should be thefundamental object of linguistic analysis, that formal rather than semanticanalyses (but not in the Chomskyan sense) are the essence of Saussureanstructuralism, and that language creates reality. As evidence of hisarguments, the author offers a re-interpretation of the passiveconstruction in English and the irregular past tense verbs. He illustrateshis position throughout with English examples complemented by examples fromhis work in German and Russian. This book is intended for a diverseaudience: from the layperson to the linguistic researcher.


Chapter 1 reviews key points of Saussurean structuralism. Based onSaussure's premise that language is a system whose units are determined bytheir place in the system, Beedham contends that form rather than meaningshould be the point of departure in linguistic analysis and that thereshould be no exceptions to accurate rules. If there are exceptions todescriptive rules, it can only mean that the rules are not valid. Beedham'sform-to-meaning approach equates 'langue' with sentence grammar, whichequates with formal linguistics. He contends that the study of 'langue,' asSaussure intended, is in decline, which he attributes to three majorhistorical events: (1) the division of structuralism into European andAmerican structuralism; (2) the advent of generative grammar and Chomsky'scompetence-performance distinction; and (3) a disinterest in descriptivelinguistics as generative grammar became the state-of-the-art of formallinguistics.

Additionally in Chapter 1, Beedham begins to make the case for languagecreating reality by evoking abstract concepts such as 'love', 'hate', etc.,function words such as 'the', 'and', 'of', etc., the nominative case, andthe suffix '–tion' that supposedly do not correspond to reality. Althoughhaving previously stated that there are two simultaneous processes(language influences reality while reality influences language), hecontends that even concrete entities are constructs of language and thehuman perceptual apparatus, ''...there is no such thing as objective,non-linguistic, pre-linguistic reality anyway (because reality only takesshape under the influence of language.)''

Aspect is the general topic of Chapter 2, in which the author examines howaspect may be expressed either by 1) auxiliary + participle; 2) lexically;or 3) compositionally (as manifested by combined elements of a sentence).He notes that, in spite of the widely accepted voice analysis thatmaintains the passive voice is derived from and a paraphrase of the activevoice (provided that the active construction contains a transitive verb tobe passivized), there are non-passivizable transitives; thus, he concludesthat the voice analysis needs re-examining. The conclusion arrived at basedon a re-analysis is that the lexical aspect of those non-passivizabletransitives makes them incompatible with the passive. Sections on lexicalaspect of both Russian and German support the author's aspect analysis.

In Chapter 3, Beedham elaborates on the advantages of the aspect analysisover the voice analysis and notes that the voice analysis, in addition tothe exceptions of the non-passivizable transitives, spawns many unansweredquestions such as: if 'actives' and 'passives' are formally/structurally sodifferent, how is it there is no semantic difference between the two?Furthermore, if four-fifths of passive sentences appear without the'BY-phrase,' as sustained by corpus analyses, can it make sense thatpassives might be derived from active constructions? The author dispenseswith all the above shortcomings with the 'aspect analysis': be + V-edrepresents an aspect of the verb that signifies a resultant state of anaction performed on the subject functioning as patient. The lexical aspectof the verb and the compositional aspect of each sentence determine whichverbs form passives. Verbs and sentences that do not potentially contain anend-point cannot passivize. The by-phrase is an optional prepositionalphrase in which 'by' indicates agency or instrumentality. Accepting theaspect theory of the passive would implicate a change in the 'auxiliary +participle' paradigm of English leaving us with:

be + V-ing (progressive)have + V-ed (perfect)be + V-ed (passive/ action + state)

Thus, Beedham declares that the structuralist tenet of ''form determinesmeaning'' is born out by the similarity in form and meaning of the perfectand passive. As before, the author supplies data from German and Russian tosupport his argument.

The concept ''form determines meaning'' has methodological implications,according to Beedham, in that it applies to the researcher's perceptions;i.e., the formal-grammatical analysis that one is committed to creates themeaning that one sees. ''The same principle applies to our perception of theuniverse generally. The things and actions, houses and trees, love andhate, beauty and ugliness that we see in the universe are not objectivelythere, they are created by the perceptual apparatus that we bring to bearin seeing them: by mind, language, the five senses, plus other biologicaland physical properties which humans happen to possess'' (57).

Chapter four is devoted, in part, to generative grammar due to thepassive's role in the development of generative grammar, and given thedomination of generative grammar in theoretical linguistics. According toBeedham, understanding the shortcomings of generative grammar will helpmake a case for descriptive grammar. As opposed to generative grammar,descriptive grammar provides analyses, theories, and explanations inaddition to description. Chapter four summarizes Chomsky's current versionof generative grammar, Minimalism, as well as derivatives of generativegrammar (Joan Bresnan's Lexical-Functional Grammar, Pollard and Sag'sHead-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, and Formal Semantics). The authorcontends that all are inadequate given their reliance on formal notationinstead formal analysis. Connectionism (Parallel Distributed Processing) isalso considered since it claims to compete with generative grammar. Afterdeconstructing connectionism, however, Beedham concludes that''connectionism's double misinterpretation of the already misguidedgenerative grammar'' makes irrelevant any claim to compete with generativegrammar. The inclusion of connectionism seems to be motivated by itscontribution regarding patterning of vowels and consonants in irregularpast tense verbs in English since that is the topic of the next chapter.Chapter four concludes with a discussion of how Steven Pinker is reallymore of a descriptivist than a Chomskyan and how the mathematical,model-building approach employed in generative grammar can becounterproductive to conducting real science.

Chapter five, Tense and irregular verbs, deals with contradictions andanomalies in the verbal system of English. Beedham notes the mismatchbetween the names for tenses and the time reference their names imply.Subsequently, he delves into the area of his own research: finding themeaning behind the forms of the strong or irregular past tense verbs. Againciting Saussurean structuralism, Beedham insists that no linguistic formcan be without a relation to the rest of the relevant linguistic system. Heexplains his methodology and his findings to date, reporting that strongverbs and monosyllabic function words share to a certain degree the samevowel-consonant patterns. He conducted the same experiments for German andRussian and reports having obtained the same results. However, the questionof meaning is left unresolved.

In Chapter six, Beedham discusses 'parole' versus 'langue,' alleging thattext-grammar is different from sentence grammar (not superior or inferior)and that the types of meaning conveyed in texts are different to thoseconveyed in sentences (different but not more or less important). The areasof speech acts / communicative functions, what he refers to as'theme-rheme' analysis, styles and registers, and corpus studies are givenas examples of approaches to text-grammar. He suggests thatsentence-grammar and text-grammar are interdependent or complementary andrefers to how he used the corpus linguistic approach in support of hisaspect analysis of the passive construction. Having said all that, Beedhamconcludes the chapter with a defense of sentence-grammar and criticism ofthose who say that only text grammar is valid:

The sentence-grammarian analyses words and forms by deliberatelyabstracting away from their specific contexts in order to arrive atgeneralizations. This is the essence of science. If one did not abstractaway from specific instances generalizations would be impossible. Suchancient, familiar, and incontrovertible concepts of sentence-grammar asword, clause, noun, and subject are generalizations of this kind. Theyexist on the sentence, not on the text (152).

Finally, Chapter seven highlights what Beedham calls ''The method of lexicalexceptions;'' i.e., the methodology he used in his research on the passiveconstruction and the phonological shape of the strong verbs. In pursuingthis method, one identifies an area of grammar in which there are manyunexplained exceptions to a general rule (an indication of faultyanalysis), considers the commonly accepted explanation, analyzes thecontradictions or exceptions, and offers a new analysis that eliminates thecontradictions. He claims that the method of lexical exceptions allows thesentence-grammarian to carry out research as defined by the naturalsciences. ''It is the methodological corollary that linguistics is a searchfor meanings, whereby the meanings that we are looking for are determinedby the form of language'' (161).

Following Chapter seven, there are a few pages of conclusions in whichBeedham summarizes the main points of the preceding chapters andanticipates possible devil's advocate-type questions. He restates what heclaims to have been his main thesis: ''...that the reality which we perceiveis not merely INFLUENCED by language and other facets of the humanperceptual apparatus – mind, biochemical make-up, general attributes, thefive senses – it is created by them. That is to say the world without anobserver is not there'' (165).


This book contains many good aspects as well as problematic areas. Let mefirst address its positive aspects: 1) the innovative analysis of thepassive construction; 2) the systematic critique of generative grammar; and3) its readability.

In support of the aspect analysis of the passive, I offer the contributionsof Hispanic linguistics. Spanish does not recur to the equivalent of theEnglish passive construction unless there is a specific need to identifythe agent; instead it uses the impersonal/ passive 'pronoun' SE topassivize a construction while emphasizing the process rather than thestate. For example:

(1) *Aquí es hablado el español. Spanish is spoken here. (direct translation from English)

The proposition in (1) is expressed in Spanish as:

(2) Aquí se habla español. Spanish is spoken here./ One speaks Spanish here.

The passive rather than the impersonal interpretation is implicated whenthe verb is plural:

(3) Se venden guitarras aquí. Guitars are sold here.

In short, the impersonal/ passive SE in Spanish, which emphasizes theaction rather than the resultant state, is more frequent than theequivalent of the English BE + V-ed construction.

In order the fully comprehend the significance of the Spanish SEconstruction, we must first consider the two verbs in Spanish that mean TOBE: SER and ESTAR. The fundamental difference between the two is aspectual(see Gili Gaya, 1970). SER + ADJECTIVE expresses identity/ inherentcharacteristics and thus has durative aspect while ESTAR + ADJECTIVEexpresses the resultant state of an action/ process and has perfectiveaspect. The following examples are limited to singular third-person formsIn (4) and (5) below, one can see the basic distinction: identity/ inherentcharacteristic vs. resultant state.

(4) Es aburrido. He is boring. (durative)

(5) Está aburrido. He is bored. (perfective)

In (6) – (9), we see the different de-transitive options available to theSpanish speaker. The preference for the passive/impersonal SE (6) forde-transitivizing situations in which the agent is inconsequential isinherent in the use of SE to change the lexical aspect of certain verbs inSpanish; e.g., DORMIR (to sleep)/ DORMIRSE (to fall asleep), ALEGRAR (tomake happy)/ ALEGRARSE (to become happy), etc. In (7) and (8), as noted byBeedham, we see the similarity of form in the attribute of the 'SERpassive' and the perfect participle. In the perfect construction, theparticiple is an extension of the verb and does not need to morphologicallyindicate gender/ number agreement with the subject noun. Example (9)illustrates ESTAR with the same subject (LA CASA/ the house) and the sameprocess (CONSTRUIR/ to build) to show resultant state. Spanish onlyslightly differs from Beedham's aspect analysis in that it uses the lexicalaspect of its TO BE verbs as a distinguishing factor, further delineatingBeedham's aspectual distinction: BE + V-ed = action + resultant state.Consequently, Spanish renders an outcome similar to what Beedham proposesaligned with 'auxiliary + participle' aspect paradigm: SER + PASTPARTICIPLE = action and ESTAR + PAST PARTICIPLE = resultant state.

(6) La casa se construyó en Los Altos de San Isidro. (passive/impersonal SE) 'The house was built in the Los Altos de San Isidro.'

(7) La casa fue construida por los mismos habitantes. ('true passive' with SER – durative aspect - process in focus) 'The house was built by the inhabitants themselves.'

(8) La casa ha sido construido según sus especificaciones. (present perfect - terminative – process in focus) 'The house has been built according to your specifications.'

(9) La casa está construida de madera y ladrillo. (perfective – resultant state) 'The house is built of wood and brick.'

Example (7) alludes to the process while (9) can be said from the momentthe construction is finished. In summary, the Spanish data supports theclaims made based on English, Russian, and German data in this book.

In addition to being laudable for accurately describing the meaning of thepassive, the book is highly readable. Beedham mentions that the book stemsfrom a course he teaches; in fact, it is structured just as a course forundergraduates should be structured – with multiple repetitions of the mainpoints and various summaries along the way.

Now we turn to the problematic areas. The question of whether languagecreates reality has many more dimensions than this book acknowledges. If wereturn to the questions from the introduction, it is unclear whatrelationship there is between the hypotheses that ''language influencesthought/ perception'' and ''language creates reality.'' These are just notequivalent propositions; the former is the weak version of the hypothesisand the latter the strong version, but only if we equate 'thought/perception' with 'reality.' The strong version states that there is not anobjective physical reality without language; however, it is not clear if byLANGUAGE the author means 'langue' or the 'human cognitive capacity forlanguage.' This is a fundamental distinction made by Saussure (1987:24-25) and apparently overlooked by Beedham.

Although the author reminds us of Saussure's distinction between 'langue'(the linguistic system) and 'parole' (what the individual does with thatsystem), he does not distinguish between 'language faculty,' 'langue,' and'parole.' Conveniently, in Spanish there are three distinct words for thethree concepts. 'Lenguaje' is the human cognitive capacity for language, inshort, thought and reason; 'lengua' is a specific language as defined bythe collective consensus that uses it for communication; and 'habla' is theindividual's rendition of his or her community's linguistic system. Basedon this distinction, thought/ perception (language) influences thelinguistic system ('lengua' or 'langue') and inversely, the linguisticsystem influences thought and perception. In short, I understand Beedham'sstronger version of this hypothesis to mean the linguistic system (langue)creates reality (thought/ perception).

But what of the questions posed in the introduction: does language existbefore thought and perception or do thought and perception precedelanguage? How does language influence thought/ perception? It is true thatwords (the value we personally attach to them) can influence the way wethink about things? As Saussure says and Beedham recognizes, it is thepoint of view that creates the object. A case in point is the rhetoricspawned by the war in Iraq. How can anyone object to a 'war on terror'? Orthe rhetoric from the abortion debate where 'pro-life' equals'anti-abortion'? No one supports abortion rights because of beingpro-abortion or anti-life but that is the implication in the 'pro-life'rhetoric.

In effect, ''we see things not as they are but as we are'' (anonymous);'reality' is a function of perception and point of view. Differingconnotations for words are accounted for in Saussure's semiotic triangle(1987: 87-90) in which the sign is an amalgamation of (1) meaning (mentalobject); (2) referent (real-life entity); and (3) signifier (acousticimage, phonetic sequence forming a word). However, it does not follow thatif an individual's connotation of a word influences his or her perceptionof reality that language therefore creates physical reality. Saussure'striad supports the weak version of the hypothesis but nothing more.

Furthermore, language (langue) comprehends much more than the values ofwords; as a linguistic system, it also comprises grammatical morphemes andfunction words, i.e., syntax. Beedham cites as partial proof of the strongversion of the hypothesis that concepts such as the function words; e.g.,OF, THE, AN, etc., do not have a correlate in reality. I argue thatfunction words / grammatical morphemes do have a correlate in reality – thereality of relations between entities as perceived by human cognition. Justbecause the function words / abstract concepts do not represent concreteobjects does not mean they are not perceived to exist in some form by humancognition. What is the origin of syntax? This question is intrinsic in anydebate regarding whether thought / perception or the linguistic systemprecedes the other.

The strong version of the hypothesis fails to take into account, amongother things, the debate regarding modularity of language (Is there asingular language faculty or is language a function of generalizedcognition?). Theories of language that take into account how thought andperception influence grammar such as Emergent Grammar (Hopper, 1998) andGrammaticalization (Bybee, 2003 ) are fundamental to this question. If onedevelops an argument based on the tenets of Saussure's structuralism andthe 'Cours de linguistique générale' recognizes that 'reality influenceslanguage,' it is incumbent on the researcher to include in the literaturereview theories in which reality influences grammar. Such theories includethose that recognize real-world experience as metaphor in the creation ofauxiliary verbs (Sweetser, 1990; Lakoff, 1987) and embodiment, metaphoricalextension, and the evolution of grammar (Lakoff, 1987), as well as the roleof language processing (Chafe, 1987; Givón, 1998). Langacker's CognitiveGrammar (1987, 1991) could also serve to represent the other side of theargument. These are just some of the many perspectives that could informthis discussion. In short, there is no space devoted to the concept of'reality influencing language' and as such, the book is very shallow in itstreatment of what the author himself recognizes as dual and complementaryprocesses.

An additional major flaw I encounter in this book is that it confounds'formal' and sentence-grammar. Contrary to the author's claim, it does notproceed from Saussure's definitions of 'langue' as the social aspect oflanguage and 'parole' as the individualistic usage of 'langue' that theformer deals exclusively with sentence-grammar while the latter is tied totext-grammar. There are some elements of grammar that do not come into playat the sentence level but that MUST belong to 'langue' as components of alinguistic system as a whole. Some of these elements from a more extensivelist in Givón (1998:54) are: (a) definiteness and reference, (b) anaphora,pronouns, and agreement, (c) tense, aspect, modality and negation, and (d)topicalization. The inconvenient reality in this case is that (a)-(d) areFORMAL grammatical elements manifested in discourse or text grammar. Givón(1987: 53-54) sums up the situation as follows:

Both linguists and cognitive psychologists often ignore the fact thatgrammar is the coding instrument for BOTH cognitive components that feedinto episodic memory: propositional semantics and discourse coherence....Grammar is not primarily about extracting the information of 'who didwhat to whom when and where and how.' Rather the functional scope ofgrammar is, predominantly though not absolutely, about the COHERENCERELATIONS of the information in the clause to its surrounding discourse.

Unfortunately, in spite of a half-hearted attempt to make a case fordiscourse approaches to grammar, the book ignores crucial facts aboutdiscourse--grammar. That these facts do not support the book's argumentsdoes not justify omitting them. The oversimplification of the premise that'language creates reality' in combination with lack of reference to theformal elements of discourse-grammar indicate lack of rigor in researchmethodology. In spite of the insightful treatment of the passiveconstruction, the organization and content of the book do not address thequestions stated in the introduction. The quasi-philosophical arguments, atbest superficial and at worst, a trivialization of the issues, do notadvance the kind of rigorous methodology the author purports to espouse. Inshort, a highly relevant body of research is ignored and consequently the'research questions' are not convincingly answered. I recommend this bookonly for its treatment of the passive and its explanation of what formallinguistics should be.


Bybee, Joan. 2003. 'Cognitive processes in grammaticalization.' InTomasello, Michael (Ed.), The new psychology of language: Cognitive andfunctional approaches to language structure, Vol. 2. Mahwah, New Jersey:Lawrence Erlbaum.

Chafe, Wallace. 1987. 'Cognitive constraints on information flow.' In R. S.Tomlin (Ed.), Coherence and grounding in discourse, 21-51. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Gili Gaya, Samuel. 1970. Curso superior de sintaxis española, 9a ed.Barcelona: Biblograf, S. A.

Hopper, Paul. 1998. 'Emergent grammar.' In Tomasello, Michael (Ed.), Thenew psychology of language: Cognitive and functional approaches to languagestructure. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire and dangerous things: What categoriesreveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1987-1991. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vols. Iand II. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1972 (1916). Cours de linguistique générale.Edition critique préparée par Tullio de Mauro. Paris: Payot.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1987 (1916, in French). Ferdinand de Saussure:Curso de lingüística general. Publicado por Charles Bally y Albert Sechehaycon la colaboración de Albert Riedlinger. Traducción, prólogo, y notas deAmado Alonso.

Sweetser, Eve. 1990. From etymology to pragmatics: Metaphorical andcultural aspects of semantic structure. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UniversityPress.


Amy E. Gregory is Assistant Professor of Hispanic linguistics at theUniversity of Tennessee. Her research interests include cognitive grammar,the interface between pragmatics and syntax in Spanish, languageacquisition, and knowledge about language in pre-service Spanish teachers.