LINGUIST List 21.2716

Fri Jun 25 2010

Review: Historical Linguistics; Linguistic Theories: Norde (2009)

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        1.    Peter Arkadiev, Degrammaticalization

Message 1: Degrammaticalization
Date: 25-Jun-2010
From: Peter Arkadiev <>
Subject: Degrammaticalization
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AUTHOR: Muriel Norde TITLE: Degrammaticalization PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2009

Peter M. Arkadiev, Institute of Slavic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow


The book under review treats the phenomenon of degrammaticalization, 'the ugly duckling of grammaticalization studies', as the author puts it on p. 1. Degrammaticalization, the process whereby a linguistic unit becomes less grammatical, runs counter to the common assumption that grammaticalization is unidirectional, i.e. that 'there is only left-to-right movement' along the following cline (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 7):

content item > grammatical word > clitic > inflectional affix

Unfortunately, this assumption has sometimes become a dogma rather than a hypothesis subject to empirical testing. Hence the status of degrammaticalization has been rather controversial in the discourse of historical linguistics of the last several decades: some scholars, like Christian Lehmann (1995 [1982]: 16-19), have expressly denied its existence altogether; others have dismissed it as statistically insignificant (Heine & Kuteva 2002: 11); still others have used extant examples of degrammaticalization as a strong argument against unidirectionality in general (Newmeyer 1998: 263). The aim of Muriel Norde's book is thus twofold. One the one hand, it attempts to define degrammaticalization in a meaningful way and to classify attested examples under the proposed definition. On the other hand, this book provides a critical and informative overview of the major methodological and conceptual problems faced by contemporary grammaticalization studies, providing a better understanding of the phenomenon of grammaticalization.


The book consists of seven chapters (including Introduction and Conclusions), references and indices. The longish Introduction (pp. 1-47), after briefly presenting the notion of degrammaticalization and problems associated with it, gives a useful overview of terminology of grammaticalization studies and the various meanings of the term 'grammaticalization'. In addition, Norde discusses the notion of 'lexicalization' with its different senses, and its relation with grammaticalization, especially in the domain of historical development of derivational morphology. The three notions important for the discussion of grammatical change, i.e. gradualness, reanalysis and analogy, are also defined and discussed. A subsection is devoted to less clear types of grammaticalization, i.e. the so called 'secondary grammaticalization' (when an already grammatical item becomes more grammatical), 'pragmaticalization' (development of discourse markers out of content words or grammatical markers) and clause combining. Norde also briefly discusses the role of context in grammatical change and the 'constructional' approach to grammaticalization.

A large part of the chapter is devoted to the discussion of various methodological issues. Norde acknowledges the status of grammaticalization as a linguistic process in its own right, and not as a mere epiphenomenon of a number of independent primitive changes such as semantic extension, phonetic reduction and syntactic reanalysis (for the advocates of this view, see Newmeyer 1998, Fischer 2000, and Joseph 2001). Though grammaticalization is a process irreducible to independent changes, the following important caveats are made by Norde: First, as a process, grammaticalization is not a 'driving force' of change (p. 31); second, 'there is nothing deterministic about grammaticalization' (ibid.); third, 'saying that grammaticalization is a process does not imply that there are universal pathways of grammaticalization' (p. 32), which means that it is not legitimate to infer the diachronic process whereby a grammatical item could have developed from a 'superficial comparison of initial and final states' (p. 33). Norde continues with a discussion of whether there is a 'grammaticalization theory' and concludes that grammaticalization is rather a descriptive framework. She also surveys the interrelated issues concerning, on the one hand, the distinction between diachronic change and correspondence between the two separate synchronic stages, and the validity of reconstruction as evidence in grammaticalization studies. In connection to the latter, Norde discusses several 'false friends in grammar', which have been misanalysed in the literature, and urges the linguists to be cautious when inferring, e.g., earlier syntactic constituent order from contemporary morpheme order. Finally, a detailed case-study of one of the paradigm examples of grammaticalization, i.e. the development of the Romance adverbial '-mente', is presented on pp. 41-46 to highlight and exemplify the methodological problems and pitfalls laid out in the previous sections.

The second chapter, 'Unidirectionality' (pp. 48-105), discusses this notion in detail along with various related issues. Norde begins with an overview of different conceptions of unidirectionality, in particular distinguishing between it being treated as a principle or constraint on grammatical change, on the one hand, and as a hypothesis about more vs. less characteristic (and cross-linguistically frequent) kinds of change, on the other. Turning to counterevidence to unidirectionality, Norde asserts that though a small number of disparate counterexamples 'would have no bearing on unidirectionality' (p. 52), the growing body of firmly established instances of degrammaticalization calls for the 'downgrading' of unidirectionality to the status of a statistical tendency. The most important consequence is that once the existence and significance of counterdirectional change is recognized, linguists can no longer use the hypothesis of unidirectionality as a 'handy reconstructional tool' (p. 51).

Among the important issues discussed in this chapter I would single out first the distinction between directional and non-directional linguistic change. The latter contains so-called 'lateral shifts' not affecting the position of a linguistic element on the 'cline' of grammatical status, exemplified, inter alia, by English noun-to-verb conversion. Second is the recognition of the fact that all primitive changes comprising grammaticalization are in fact not irreversible. On pp. 66-89, Norde discusses in turn changes on the semantic level (bleaching or desemanticization as well as resemanticization, whereby linguistic units gain in semantic content), on the category level (decategorialization and recategorialization, i.e. transfer from a minor to a major lexical class), univerbation of two former separate words, phonological attrition vs. strengthening, subjectification vs. objectification. In particular with respect to the latter, Norde concludes that objectification, i.e. loss of speaker-oriented meaning, can co-occur both with grammaticalization (in particular, with secondary grammaticalization) and degrammaticalization, hence neither subjectification nor objectification can be used as reliable diagnostics of either type of change. In general, it is shown that though the primitive processes of change are 'overwhelmingly unidirectional' (p. 89), they are all not unexceptionally so, and, importantly, different types of change are irreversible to different degrees. The overall preferred unidirectionality of grammaticalization results from the cumulative effect of the directional preferences of the primitive changes comprising it. The last section of this chapter is devoted to the explanations of unidirectionality proposed in the literature, among which Norde singles out Rosenbach and Jäger's (2008) experimental psycholinguistic approach.

In chapter 3, ''Defining degrammaticalization'' (pp. 106-134), Norde addresses the issue of delineating degrammaticalization in a meaningful way, first giving a useful historical sketch of the research in this field and terminology used. The following general definition of degrammaticalization is proposed (p. 120):

'Degrammaticalization is a composite change whereby a gram in a specific context gains in autonomy or substance on more than one linguistic level (semantics, morphology, syntax, or phonology).'

Notably, the following (sometimes only theoretically) possible changes are excluded from the notion of degrammaticalization:

(i) Loss of grammatical meaning by a morpheme (e.g. the transition from the Latin inchoative suffix '-sc-' to the French stem formative '-ss-' marking certain cells in the paradigm of some conjugation types).

(ii) 'Mirror image reversal' with 'grams stepwise moving up the cline' (p. 111), a phenomenon concrete examples of which seem most implausible to be discovered, which means that 'degrammaticalization is not the mirror image of grammaticalization in the sense that it cannot be the complete reverse of a grammaticalization chain' (p. 112).

(iii) Lexicalization of function words and affixes, such as English 'isms', 'ups' and 'downs'. This point is especially important because perhaps the majority of the grammaticalization skeptics have adduced such instances as the most obvious counterexamples to unidirectionality. However, since grammaticalization involves not isolated words or morphemes, but whole constructions, whose identity is generally preserved in the course of the change, lexicalizations of the 'ism'-kind, where items are taken out of their context, are not degrammaticalizations proper.

(iv) Replacement of a morpheme by another synchronically co-existing morpheme under (partial) homonymy, as well as exaptation, i.e. 'the use of relatively marginal grammatical material as more productive morphology with a different function' (Traugott 2004). Both these changes may interfere with grammaticalization and degrammaticalization, but are essentially different from them.

Norde evaluates instances of degrammaticalization against Lehmann's (1995/1982) six 'parameters of grammaticalization' and Andersen's (2008) four 'levels of observation'. After discussing both taxonomies in some detail, in particular focusing on the rather controversial parameter of structural scope, Norde distinguishes the three major types of degrammaticalization (p. 133):

--Degrammation: shift from grammatical content to lexical content (resemanticization). --Deinflectionalization: 'movement out of a paradigm accompanied by a change in grammatical content'. --Debonding: shift from a bound morpheme to a free morpheme.

Deinflectionalization and debonding are considered secondary degrammaticalization, while degrammation is taken to be primary degrammaticalization, by analogy with primary vs. secondary grammaticalization.

Chapters 4-6 (pp. 135-227) present a compendium of particular degrammaticalization changes, subdivided into types just noted. Each change, along with the relevant research history, is explicitly evaluated against the six parameters of degrammaticalization, the mirror-images of Lehmann's parameters of grammaticalization: resemanticization, phonological strengthening, recategorialization, deparadigmaticization, deobligatorification, scope expansion, severance (debonding) and flexibilization (increase in syntagmatic variability). In Chapter 5 on deinflectionalization, Norde also discusses the not unproblematic distinctions between inflection and derivation and between affixes and clitics, using Zwicky and Pullum's (1983) criteria to determine the status of the relevant morphemes at different stages of their history.

The examples presented in these three chapters come from a wide variety of languages (Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, Finno-Ugric, Kwaza, Hup, Japanese, Tura), with an obvious strong bias towards European languages with well-documented histories. To a reader preferring wide-scale cross-linguistic generalizations some of these case-studies may seem to be over-detailed, but I consider Norde's emphasis on particularities of each individual development to be not only well-justified but also conditio sine qua non of an empirically adequate study in diachronic typology. As Norde herself states several times, grammaticalization theorists have too often overlooked the minor historical facts in favour of broad and sometimes aprioristic conceptions of grammatical change, and this has led to an unfortunate propagation of misconceptions, e.g. concerning the development of the 'group genitive' in English and Mainland Scandinavian.

Among the numerous case studies presented in these three chapters, I would like to single out the peculiar development of the Dutch '-tig' / German '-zig', originally forming the numerals denoting tens ('twenty', 'thirty', etc.). In contemporary, especially colloquial, Dutch and German, these suffixes have first undergone debonding and resemanticization, turning into quantificational adverbials ('many'), and then have further grammaticalized into intensifiers ('very'). This seems to be the only known example of a gram which has first degrammaticalized and then (re)grammaticalized, albeit in a function having nothing to do with its original meaning.

In the concluding chapter (pp. 228-238) Norde summarizes the data presented in the preceding chapters and reviews the significance of Lehmann's parameters as diagnostics of various types of degrammaticalization. As expected, for different kinds of degrammaticalization different parameters are relevant, and in different ways. While resemanticization is a defining characteristic of degrammation whereby a former gram acquires a lexical meaning, it turns out that in most cases of deinflectionalization the new function is grammatical. Phonological change is not a necessary part of degrammaticalization, but where it occurs, 'it always comprises strengthening' (p. 228). Recategorialization is again relevant mostly for degrammation, but irrelevant for deinflectionalization, since here the grams remain bound. In debonding, recategorialization is attested only in a few cases, such as Irish 'muid' (1PL suffix > 'we'). Deobligatorification and deparadigmaticalization are of little relevance for debonding of derivational affixes and clitics. The parameter of structural scope, which has been shown to be controversial already for grammaticalization proper, is almost as problematic for degrammaticalization, clearly relevant only in debonding where scope expansion is generally observed. The parameter of bondedness applies only to secondary degrammaticalization, where it yields slightly different results for deinflectionalization (shift to a 'looser' morpheme boundary) and debonding (shift from a morpheme boundary to word boundary). Finally, the parameter of syntagmatic variability is irrelevant for deinflectionalization, again for the reason that in this change morphemes remain bound. In degrammation and debonding, syntagmatic variability usually increases, though it is not necessary, cf. Japanese connectives, 'which always occupy a specific syntactic slot, albeit different ones for enclitic and free connectives, respectively' (p. 231).

Further, Norde discusses the defining characteristics of each type of degrammaticalization, again stressing that 'as a general requirement for all types of degrammaticalization, the change needed to be construction-internal' (p. 233). Summarizing the values of different parameters, she observes that 'there are virtually no negative scores' (e.g. putative instances where an item would acquire a lexical meaning and in the same time become more bound), which means that 'degrammaticalization is as consistent in the directionality of its primitive changes as is grammaticalization' (p. 233). A section of this chapter is devoted to mechanisms of degrammaticalization changes. In degrammation and deinflectionalization, reanalysis is the primary mechanism, while in some instances of debonding, analogy also plays an important role. Norde stresses that it is necessary not to confuse mechanisms of degrammaticalization with its motivating forces. The latter are rather obscure and always depend on the particular historical circumstances. In a number of the cases discussed in the book, deinflectionalization resulted from the more general process of the loss of former rich inflectional systems (especially relevant for the English and Scandinavian genitive), and in the case of the Old Estonian particles 'es' and 'ep', phonological factors must have played a role. The chapter concludes with a brief look at further research perspectives on degrammaticalization. Of particular interest, in my view, is the hypothesis (yet to be proven or falsified) that in polysynthetic languages, where affixes cover large arrays of diverse functions, it is probably 'easier for (some) suffixes ... to degrammaticalize, simply because they are more contentful' (p. 238).


Over the past decades, grammaticalization has become a popular subject and a topic of intensive discussions between adherents of different conceptions of language change. In these discussions, the controversial notion of unidirectionality has assumed a central role, and putative counterexamples to unidirectionality have been subject of much debate. Though the number of such examples assembled so far is already quite impressive, there has been no agreement even among the adherents of 'grammaticalization theory' as to how to treat these facts, which terms to apply to them, and how to classify and motivate them. Norde brings much awaited order into this domain, providing a clear and uncontroversial definition of degrammaticalization and a useful classification of types thereof. However, I believe that the impact of this book is not limited to the study of degrammaticalization. Once degrammaticalization is rigorously defined and classified, grammaticalization becomes better understood, too. Besides this, and perhaps most importantly, this book, in my opinion, settles the burning issue of unidirectionality, which, in the light of the unequivocal examples of changes 'up the cline', evaluated against the same parameters which are relevant for grammaticalization, can no longer be regarded as a universal constraint on grammatical change. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that this book makes a strong case for directionality of change: both grammaticalization and degrammaticalization are directional processes in that both involve cumulative effect of intercorrelated changes on different linguistic levels. The existence of degrammaticalization does not in anyway invalidate the notion of grammaticalization, neither does it cast doubt on the systematic nature of the latter in comparison to the exceptionality of the former.

Except for a few typos and editing shortcomings, as well as several references which could have been included (e.g. among the criteria of inflection vs. derivation distinction discussed on p. 153, Dressler's (1989) approach should have found its place) I have no critical remarks about this book.

Muriel Norde's ''Degrammaticalization'' is, in my opinion, among the most important contributions to the field of grammaticalization research published in the last few years, and an indispensable guide not only to the more 'exotic' phenomenon of degrammaticalization, but also a critical and well-informed review of all the major conceptual issues in the study of grammatical change, as well.


Andersen, Henning (2008). Grammaticalization in a speaker-oriented theory of change. In: Thórhallur Eythórsson (ed.), Grammatical Change and Linguistic Theory: The Rosendal Papers, 11-44. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Dressler, Wolfgang (1989). Prototypical differences between inflection and derivation. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 42:1, 3-10.

Fischer, Olga (2000). Grammaticalization: Unidirectional, non-reversable? The case of to before the infinitive in English. In Olga Fischer, Anette Rosenbach, and Dieter Stein (eds.), Pathways of Change: Grammaticalization in English, 149-69. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Heine, Bernd & Tania Kuteva (2002). World Lexicon of Grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopper, Paul J. & Elizabeth Closs Traugott (2003). Grammaticalization. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Joseph, Brian D. (2001). Is there such a thing as grammaticalization? Language Sciences 23:2-3, 163-86.

Lehmann, Christian (1995 [1982]). Thoughts on Grammaticalization. München, Newcastle: LINCOM Europa.

Newmeyer, Frederic J. (1998). Language Form and Language Function. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosenbach, Anette & Gerhard Jäger (2008). Priming and unidirectional language change. Theoretical Linguistics 34:2, 85-113.

Traugott, Elizabeth Closs (2004). Exaptation and grammaticalization.

Zwicky, Arnold M., Geoffrey K. Pullum (1983). Cliticization vs. inflection: English n't. Language 59:3, 502-51.


Peter M. Arkadiev, PhD in linguistics (2006), is a senior research fellow in the Department of Typology and Comparative Linguistics of the Institute of Slavic studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. His main interests are linguistic typology with a focus on event and argument structure and its formal realization, tense-aspect-modality and case marking. He works mainly on Lithuanian and Adyghe.

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