LINGUIST List 21.3180

Thu Aug 05 2010

Review: Syntax; General Linguistics: Givón and Shibatani (2009)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <>

        1.    Paul Isambert, Syntactic Complexity: Diachrony, Acquisition, Neuro-Cognition, Evolution

Message 1: Syntactic Complexity: Diachrony, Acquisition, Neuro-Cognition, Evolution
Date: 03-Aug-2010
From: Paul Isambert <>
Subject: Syntactic Complexity: Diachrony, Acquisition, Neuro-Cognition, Evolution
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EDITORS: T. Givón; Masayoshi Shibatani TITLE: Syntactic Complexity SUBTITLE: Diachrony, Acquisition, Neuro-Cognition, Evolution SERIES: Typological Studies in Language 85 PUBLISHER: John Benjamins YEAR: 2009

Paul Isambert, University of Paris 3 - Sorbonne Nouvelle, France


This volume, based on a 2008 conference, addresses the issue of syntactic complexity from a mostly functional perspective, with four main themes: the historical evolution of complexity (diachrony), its development in children (acquisition), its neural basis (neurology) and its manifestation in the human species (evolution). Syntactic complexity here is mostly understood as, or at least illustrated with, subordination. In many ways this volume is an overt response to Hauser et al.'s (2002) speculation about recursion as an exclusively human feature suddenly appearing out of the blue. T. Givón's introduction illustrates the concepts of complexity and recursion with relative and complement clauses. It is also argued that diachronic change and language acquisition may provide valid insights into language evolution.

PART I: DIACHRONY In ''From nominal to clausal morphosyntax: Complexity via expansion,'' Bernd Heine investigates the historical process by which full-fledged complement clauses evolve out of nominal complements through a gradual extension of verbal properties to nominal constituents, proposing a five-stage scenario, whose steps are illustrated by examples from African languages. Marianne Mithun's ''Re(e)volving complexity: Adding intonation'' stresses the importance of prosody in the study of syntax. Using data from Mohawk, she shows that a focus on syntactic and morphological form can't do justice to languages in some cases. Mohawk seems to lack subordination; however, if intonation is taken into account, prosodic continuity or the lack thereof is a marker of syntactic subordination or coordination. This kind of construction is a possible precursor to structures that are more overtly marked. T. Givón's ''Multiple routes to clause union: The diachrony of complex verb phrases'' is a study of how complex verb phrases (e.g. causative constructions) emerge either from two chained (conjoined) clauses or from a main clause and a nominalized object clause. In both cases the process may lead to lexicalization. Andrew Pawley's ''On the origins of serial verb constructions in Kalam'' is a study of Kalam's compact serial verb constructions, i.e. tightly integrated units equivalent to a complex predicate, and narrative serial verb constructions that depict familiar sequences of events by compressing VPs. The increase in complexity is not as paradoxical as it seems at first sight, since narrative serial verb constructions are formulaic. In ''A quantitative approach to the development of complex predicates: The case of Swedish Pseudo-Coordination with 'sitta,''' Martin Hilpert and Christian Koops show how the Swedish verb 'sitta' ('to sit') has evolved over five centuries to become a light verb that may be coordinated with another verb to denote progressive aspect. They use corpora to quantitatively assess the evolution of several features that are indicators of this grammaticalization. In ''Elements of complex structure, where recursion isn't: The case of relativization,'' Masayoshi Shibatani argues against the widespread idea that embedded clauses are sentences and shows that in many instances relative clause are just nominalized constituents creating referring expressions that do not assert anything. Guy Deutscher takes a similar stance in ''Nominalization and the origin of subordination,'' where he argues that Heine's model (in the same volume) misses the main point, which is to determine when and how verbs turn into nominalized constituents. It is argued that back-formation, where a noun is understood by speakers as deriving from a verb (although it actually derives from another noun), is one possible answer. It is also shown that relative clauses in Akkadian derived from genitive constructions. In ''The co-evolution of syntactic and pragmatic complexity: Diachronic and cross-linguistic aspects of pseudoclefts,'' Christian Koops and Martin Hilpert use corpora to investigate the rise of pseudocleft constructions in English, German, and Swedish. They show that despite the idea that these structures seem to be readily available in a language's grammar (by combining a copular clause and a relative clause), they actually evolved gradually through time, extending their presuppositional structure to less easily accomodable propositions. Östen Dahl, in ''Two pathways of grammatical evolution,'' observes that, given Givón's three-stage grammaticalization path (discourse>syntax>lexicon), inflectional morphology seems mostly restricted to the syntax stage, since the formation of complex words suppresses inflections. Dahl argues that the tightening into a grammatical construction and the tightening into complex word are probably better viewed as distinct processes, and not as a continuation.

PART II: CHILD LANGUAGE In ''On the role of frequency and similarity in the acquisition of subject and non-subject relative clauses,'' Holger Diessel presents an experiment run with Michael Tomasello (see Diessel and Tomasello, 2005), which showed that subject relative clauses are acquired by children before any other type of relative clause. It is argued that subject relative clauses are easier for children to learn since they have the same word order as simple sentences. Examining data from the CHILDES database, Diessel then shows that subject relative clauses display various verb types; on the other hand, while non-subject relatives are harder to learn because of their structural dissimilarity to ordinary SVO clauses, their acquisition is facilitated by the fact that they occur mostly with prototypical transitive structures.. Cecilia Rojas-Nieto's '''Starting small' effects in the acquisition of early relative constructions in Spanish'' shows that children have individual patterns in the development of relatives, which indicates a non-linear, exemplar-based acquisition. She argues that relative clauses start as non-embedded constituents depending on dialogical interactions, not as full-fledged subordinate structures. In ''The ontogeny of complex verb phrases: How children learn to negotiate fact and desire,'' T. Givón investigates the CHILDES database to show that complex verb phrases are first spread over conversational turns with adults and then turn into a syntactic unit with subordination proper. This goes against Diessel and Tomasello's (2005) idea that those constructions are holistically acquired and then reanalyzed.

PART III: COGNITION AND NEUROLOGY Marjorie Barker and Eric Perderson's ''Syntactic complexity versus concatenation in a verbal production task'' sets up an experiment that measures differences in verbal behavior when subjects are asked 'what' or 'why' questions about a narrative. Subordination was not affected, but 'what' questions elicited more coordinations, suggesting that events are not chunked in the same way. Brian MacWhinney's ''The emergence of linguistic complexity'' describes six subsystems (not modules) as part of linguistic analysis in the brain, from audition to mental models. Words are recognized, then activate item-based constructions whose open slots are instantiated by what follows (possibly temporarily stored), and finally a mental representation is constructed. It is from the interplay of those six subsystems that complexity emerges, thus precluding the possibility of a sudden, spontaneous emergence in human evolution. In ''Cognitive and neural underpinnings of syntactic complexity,'' Diego Fernandez-Duque reviews the differences in processing of object relative clauses and subject relative clauses and argues that the greater processing difficulty of the former is not due to any additional syntactic processing but to increased demands on general cognitive resources, since the comprehension of object relative clauses displays patterns of activation that are similar to those found in other non-verbal tasks. In ''Neural mechanisms of recursive processing in cognitive and linguistic complexity,'' Don M. Tucker, Phan Luu, and Catherine Poulsen investigate the neural architecture of language processing, emphasizing the role of recursion and inhibition, and grounding language use in sensorimotor operations. Angela D. Friederici and Jens Brauer's ''Syntactic complexity in the brain'' shows that syntactic processes rely on two separate networks in the brain, depending on whether local phrase structure or complex hierarchical structures are built. It is suggested that these networks are late developments both phylogenetically and ontogenetically.

PART IV: BIOLOGY AND EVOLUTION In ''Neural plasticity: The driving force underlying the complexity of the brain,'' Nathan Tublitz presents the concept of plasticity in molecules, cells, systems, and finally in the brain, each time to perform a complex new function (voluntary and involuntary laughter in the latter case), thus presenting a major pathway for evolution. Derek Bickerton's ''Recursion: Core of complexity or artifact of analysis?'' takes a position contrary to Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) by arguing that syntax is no more than a lexicon plus Merge (as defined by the Minimalist Program), the latter in turn being not a recursive process but an iterative one: Strings of words are incrementally built into larger constituents. From an evolutionary point of view, this entails that symbols appeared first and then the ability to concatenate them.


Sadly, the first impression given by this is book is that it needs editing. Among other things, references are erratic (as an example, four of the eight references given at the bottom of p. 11 in T. Givón's ''Introduction'' do not show up in the bibliography), and the index is unreliable (for instance, most -- but not all -- references to Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) are indexed under the ''Chomsky'' entry, but only two under ''Fitch'' and one under ''Hauser''). It looks like the individual papers, and the volume as a whole, never really underwent solid copy-editing. This carelessness in form finds some echo in the content. Indeed, the title of the volume is very promising and the range of topics indicated in the subtitle is very tempting. Unfortunately, I was mostly disappointed by what I found. In particular, the section on evolution is almost empty of content: While Nathan Tublitz offers a very interesting account of plasticity in itself, he has nothing to say about language, and Derek Bickerton engages in an almost ad hominem charge against Noam Chomsky and winds up speculating that a lexicon (whose origin is left uninvestigated) enhanced with Merge (taken for granted as far as syntax is concerned) suddenly gives you language: ''the process of linking words with one another successively is something that a primate brain, once equipped with a large lexicon, should be able to do with little change beyond some additional wiring'' (p. 535). The other sections of the book have more to offer, but they are also uneven. There are really good, solid papers: For instance, Diego Fernandez-Duque's review of neuroimaging literature addresses a core issue in linguistics (the processing of object-extracted relative clauses vs. subject-extracted relative clauses) and brings fresh insights: Resources required by object-extracted relatives are not syntax-specific and, in particular, have nothing to do with any long movement. Another example of what the book has to offer is Marianne Mithun's chapter, which investigates prosody and demonstrates that it is a major component of linguistic systems, although it is generally overlooked in syntactic studies. Her work is concerned with Mohawk but extends nicely to any language, including those that have already been investigated from countless theoretical stances: For instance, it can be argued that French also uses prosody to create relative clauses (e.g. 'J'ai acheté un livre il/qui est formidable', 'I've bought a book it/that is wonderful,' the 'il'-version not being a concatenation of independent clauses), not to mention English 'that'-less complement clauses. Still other papers stand out with convincing methodologies (for instance, Christian Koops and Martin Hilpert's quantitative studies or Cecilia Rojas-Nieto's developmental study, among others). On the other hand, several papers are far from what could be expected from such a book: Masayoshi Shibatani for instance puzzles the reader with an accumulation of examples from many different languages, thus obfuscating his argumentation; the author claims that relative clauses are not sentences but nominalized entities, but he defines nominalization as ''a functional (not a morphological or formal) notion referring to creation of a referring expression'' (p. 186 ), whereas ''whether or not a form in question has a finite verb form is to a large extent irrelevant'' (p. 187), thereby rejecting a widely spread misconception about subordinate clauses as sentences, and thus challenging the concept of recursion. This is a valuable objective, but it should not lead one to ignore data; as for the notion of nominalization, perhaps it is important not to forget some important points made by Croft (2001) about the generalization of linguistic categories. As another example, Guy Deutscher asks an interesting question and challenges Bernd Heine's theory (in the same volume and elsewhere) on the evolution of subordination, or rather refocuses it, claiming that what should be investigated is the leap from stage 0 (simple noun) to stage 1 (noun phrase with an embedded non-finite verb). Unfortunately, his defense of ''back-formation'' is sketchy and ''need[s] to be developed at much greater depth'' (p. 206); one is left to wonder how a book chapter hasn't required such depth. Indeed, that might be the book's greatest flaw: It is made out of a conference, and maybe it should not have been more than a proceedings volume (the conference papers are available at An interesting talk does not necessarily make an interesting chapter, as illustrated by Guy Deutscher's contribution or T. Givón's ''The ontogeny of complex verb phrases,'' where the author builds up a hasty corpus analysis that doesn't even support statistical investigation (a fact that is acknowledged in the paper). Those might have been excellent starting points for a discussion with an audience in a conference, but as chapters of a published book they won't remain as unforgettable efforts. I can't do justice to the book's full scope, from field research to neuroimaging; on the other hand, such a scope (and such claims on the book's sleeve) would have required a concerted volume - a planned book with a common goal and above all the strong hand of an editor. Perhaps it is no coincidence that T. Givón's ''Introduction'' does not try to introduce the chapters that follow and instead keeps referring the reader to the author's own recent publication (Givón, 2008). It affirms the impression that the papers assembled in this book were merely collected and not united.


Croft, W. (2001), Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Diessel, H. & M. Tomasello (2005), ''A new look at the acquisition of relative clauses'', Language 81, 1-25.

Givón, T. (2008), The Genesis of Syntactic Complexity, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hauser, M.D., N. Chomsky and W.T. Fitch (2002), ''The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?'', Science 298, 1569-79.


Paul Isambert is a PhD student at the University of Paris 3, France. He is currently working on grammaticalization and discourse structure, especially with regard to topic shifts and anaphora.

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