LINGUIST List 21.3431

Thu Aug 26 2010

Review: Historical Linguistics; Morphology: Barðdal and Chelliah (2009)

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        1.    Danniel Carvalho, The Role of Semantic, Pragmatic, and Discourse Factors in the Development of Case

Message 1: The Role of Semantic, Pragmatic, and Discourse Factors in the Development of Case
Date: 26-Aug-2010
From: Danniel Carvalho <>
Subject: The Role of Semantic, Pragmatic, and Discourse Factors in the Development of Case
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EDITORS: Barðdal, Jóhanna and Shobhanna L. Chelliah TITLE: The Role of Semantic, Pragmatic, and Discourse Factors in the Development of Case SERIES: Studies in Language Companion Series 108 PUBLISHER: John Benjamins YEAR: 2009

Danniel da Silva Carvalho, Department of Linguistics, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil


Great efforts have been made to describe case systems throughout languages (Anderson, 1971, 1977; Agud, 1980; Blake, 1994; Butt, 2006, Corbett and Noonan, 2008, among many others). Contributions to this discussion usually focus on different aspects of case, such as case shape, semantics, or pragmatics, and they come from various theoretical perspectives. Jóhanna Barðdal and Shobhanna L. Chelliah's volume, built from papers presented at the 17th International Conference of Historical Linguistics (Madison, Wisconsin, 31 July to 5 August 2005), gathers some of those perspectives on case in an attempt to discuss the development of case systems from different angles. The various topics are almost exclusively presented from the historical perspective, but some articles also focus on contemporary data.The book starts with a comprehensive introduction by the editors, in which they present the structure of the volume and provide a summary of the papers. The volume consists of fifteen papers written by researchers from different areas of specialization. The papers are divided into five thematic sections: (a) semantically and aspectually motivated synchronic case variation, (b) discourse motivated subject marking, (c) reduction or expansion of case marker distribution, (d) case syncretism motivated by syntax, semantics, or language contact, and (e) case split motivated by pragmatics, metonymy, and subjectification.

The opening paper of part I, Tonya Kim Dewey and Yasmin Syed's "Case variation in Gothic absolute construction," examines the emergence of absolute constructions in Gothic comparatively with Greek. The authors argue that this type of construction is native to Gothic and not the result of the translation from Greek. The paper also shows that Gothic syntax should be regarded as a resource for the study of case systems. Quantitatively, it is shown that there are over three times more absolute constructions from the Greek New Testament translation than from Skeireins, a commentary on the Gospel of John (the authors set aside the discussion of whether or not this is also a translation of the Greek original). In the second paper of part I, "Some semantic and pragmatic aspects of object alternation in Early Vedic," Eystein Dahl offers a rich synchronic overview of the alternation of object case variation in Early Vedic, the earliest attested stage of Indo-Aryan. Using a semantic prototype approach, the author examines three object alternation patterns in this language and attests that these patterns have a broad semantic and pragmatic correspondence, e.g. they "express a definiteness distinction at the noun phrase level and a telicity distinction at the verbal phrase level" (p. 53).

Part II deals with discursive motivations for changes in case marking. In the first paper of this part, "The case of shifty ergative marker: A pragmatic shift in the ergative marker of one Australian mixed language," Felicity Meakins discusses ergative marking in Gurindji Kriol, a language found in Australia and derived from Gurindji, a Pama-Nyungan language, and Kriol, an English-lexifier creole spoken in northern Australia. Based on word order data, the author shows that the function of ergative case in Gunridji Kriol, which marks discourse prominence (agentivity), differs from the ones this language is derived from. The second paper in this section, "How useful is case morphology? The loss of the Old French two-case system within a theory of Preferred Argument Structure," by Ulrich Detges, argues that case morphology cannot be connected with word order flexibility. Discarding some theoretical attempts to explain the loss of the Old French two-case system (Phonological Erosion, Natural Morphology, Markedness Theory, and Functional Approach), the author applies Du Bois's Preferred Argument Structure Theory - a set of universal constraints concerning the distribution of arguments in discourse - to diachronic data. The author finishes the paper with a brief discussion of the relevance of morphological case, advocating against the necessity of morphological case for the interpretation of arguments. These conclusions are also reached by some studies that deal with contemporary data, such as Bayer et al. (2001) and McFadden (2004).

The first paper of part III, "The development of case in Germanic," by Jóhanna Barðdal, also discusses approaches that deal with the loss of morphological case (such as the theory of Phonological Erosion), but rejects them in favour of the Usage-Based Constructional Approach, which takes into account frequency and interpretation. One argument against the theory of Phonological Erosion is that it seems to be very selective, i.e. in the examples shown it affects only nominal endings, but not verbal ones. The following article, "A usage-based approach to change: Old Russian possessive constructions," by Hanne Martine Eckhoff, also looks at case changes from a frequency-based perspective. Eckhoff discusses a specific syntactic phenomenon (change in possessive constructions) and focuses on the way class shape is represented. Sturla Berg-Olsen, in a paper called "Lacking in Latvian: Case variation from a cognitive and construction perspective," also applies usage-based constructional approach in her study on case interpretation (genitive and nominative) of the verb 'pietrukt' ('lack') in Modern Latvian. Also in the third part, Jóhanes Gísli Jónsson presents an article on "Verb classes and dative objects in Insular Scandinavian." The paper is a description of several contexts where dative objects appear, and discusses where these arguments have been eroded. The following paper, "Transitive adjectives in Japanese," by Daniela Caluianu, offers a description of the alternation between the nominative particles '-ga' and the accusative particle '-wo' in adjectives in contemporary Japanese. The author argues that the rise of the accusative particle is motivated by syntactic and semantic factors, such as animacy.

Part IV of the book begins with Michael Noonan's article "Patterns of development, patterns of syncretism of relational morphology in the Bodic languages.'' The paper is an exhaustive description of 76 Tibeto-Burman languages, focusing on similarities in their morphology. The work is a documentation of syncretism in the evolution of this language family. The paper also includes a rich appendix with a visual representation of this evolution. The second paper is "The evolution of local cases and their grammatical equivalent in Greek and Latin," by Silvia Luraghi. The author describes the development of spatial cases (e.g. locative) in both languages and concludes that Ancient Greek preserved more characteristics from the Indo-European case system than Latin, although both languages developed syncretism of some case forms. Michela Cennamo's paper, "Argument structure and alignment variations and changes in Late Latin," discusses the so-called extended accusative, which is the use of the accusative forms in subject function, and its consequence for voice distinction. The author concludes that this phenomenon is motivated by semantic and syntactic factors, such as the thematic role of the subject argument and the degree of syntactic cohesion between this argument and its predicate. The last article of this section is "Case loss in Texas German: The influence of semantic and pragmatic factors," by Hans C. Boas. The author shows the decay of dative case in Texas German within a generation. The syncretism of this case form (that is, the rise of accusative form in dative contexts) has increased since Gilbert's (1972) Linguistic Atlas of Texas German, which can be explained, according to Boas, by "internal factors" to the language, i.e. similarity in phonological form, movement towards unmarked forms and similarity in semantic contexts, instead of language contact, as assumed by others.

The last section of the volume consists of two articles that deal with the relationship of case and discourse. In "Semantic role to new information in Meithei," Shobhana L. Chelliah discusses some thematic roles of homophonous case marking in Meithei, a Tibeto-Birman language. The author shows that some semantic (case) markers developed into pragmatic markers, for example marking new information. Chelliah argues that the distribution of these homophonous markers depends on the speaker's background. The author explains that "states and activities involving one participant usually constitute background information" (p. 389). The second paper of this section, "From less personal to more personal: Subjectification of 'ni-'marked NPs in Japanese discourse," by Misuni Sadler, gives a description of the meaning and use of the postposition particle 'ni' in pre-modern and modern texts in Japanese. The author defends a semantic-pragmatic approach to account for the gradually wider usage of the particle, which is traditionally assumed as marking first person subject only. These two articles suggest metonymic extension as a pragmatic resource to explain the phenomena that are discussed.


The overall impression of the book is certainly positive. The book is a good source of (in some cases, extensive) historical description of case behaviour throughout different language families. The analyses presented are significant. Some papers, such as Noonan's, deserve particular attention, since they make important contributions to the general picture of case development on a wider perspective. Another example is Boas's paper, a valuable contribution to the study of syncretism, since it shows that the evolution of the phenomenon can be captured in a short period of time (it can even be attested even synchronically, see Carvalho, 2008). Case change, however, involves more than the change of case shape. It also includes some other relationships within the clause. In all analyses of part III of the volume, for instance, case variation and change are not just considered changes of case shapes, as merely a morphological phenomenon, but also of semantically different forms. A usage-based account, i.e. an account which "takes the frequency of constructions to be central to their status in the language system" (cf. Barðdal's paper, p. 138), sounds like a mere stipulation since it is based purely on description and has no sound explanatory basis. Considering the general scope of the volume, the inclusion of even more languages should have been contemplated. In fact, the volume propounds only a diachronic description of some case roles, but the ''discussions of the consequences to changes in case systems and the mechanism whereby such changes are obtained'' (Introduction, p. ix) demands a greater base. Thus, a more comprehensive description should bring along a more robust explanatory mechanism, which is missing in some analyses (e.g., the whole part 3 of the volume). In sum, however, this collection of papers is a very valuable contribution to the empirical study of the development of case across languages.


Agud, A. (1980). Historia y teoría de los casos. Madrid: Gredos.

Anderson, J. M. (1971) The grammar of case: Towards a localistic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Anderson, J. M (1977). On case grammar. London: Croom Helm.

Bayer, J., M. Bader & M. Meng. (2001). Morphological underspecification meets oblique case: Syntactic and processing effects in German. Lingua 111, 465-514.

Blake, B. J. (1994). Case. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butt, M. (2006). Theories of case. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carvalho, D. S. (2008). A estrutura interna dos pronomes pessoais em Português Brasileiro. PhD. Dissertation, Universidade Federal de Alagoas.

Corbett, G.G. & Michael Noonan, eds. (2008). Case and grammatical relations: Studies in honor of Bernard Comrie. Typological Studies in Language 81. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Gilbert, G. (1972). Linguistic Atlas of Texas German. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

McFadden, T. (2004). The position of morphological case in the derivation: A study on the syntax-morphology interface. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.


Danniel Carvalho is a professor of linguistics at the Federal University of Bahia (Bahia, Brazil). His research interests include syntax and morphology of Romance and Germanic languages.

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