LINGUIST List 23.1215

Sat Mar 10 2012

Review: Historical Linguistics: Pfenninger (2009)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 10-Mar-2012
From: Florian Haas <>
Subject: Grammaticalization Paths of English and High German Existential Constructions
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AUTHOR: Simone E. PfenningerTITLE: Grammaticalization Paths of English and High German Existential ConstructionsSUBTITLE: A Corpus-Based StudySERIES TITLE: Europäische Hochschulschriften. Series 21: Linguistics: Volume 345PUBLISHER: Peter LangYEAR: 2009

Florian Haas, Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik,Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena


Whereas existential construction in Present-day English and certain types ofexistential constructions in Modern German have been the subject of numerousstudies, a detailed contrastive examination of this clause type has not beenpublished so far. Simone Pfenninger provides a diachronic investigation ofexistential constructions in the two languages, led by the question of why HighGerman does not have a prototypical existential construction that issyntactically, semantically and pragmatically equivalent to the English‘there’-construction. Her observations are based on a large amount of naturallanguage data, and her accurate discussion of examples from older stages ofGerman and the way she relates these to what is known about Modern High Germanand English are especially out of the ordinary and impressive. The fact that shecombines synchronic and diachronic, and language-specific and contrastiveobservations makes the book a rewarding read for German and English historicallinguists (especially if they are working on impersonal constructions), and forthose interested in contrastive linguistics as well as grammaticalizationtheorists. Readers should have a good knowledge of German in order to follow thedata, many of which are not translated.

The book has twenty chapters, which are distributed over five Parts. In whatfollows I will first summarize the five parts of the book and then turn to acritical evaluation.


Part OnePart One introduces the terminology used in the remainder of the book anddescribes the sources from which the historical and contemporary data are taken.In a short introductory section, Pfenninger draws the reader’s attention to thefact that an English existential sentence of the type ‘There is no more time’has no less than ten possible translations in German. The remainder of the bookis basically an account of the asymmetry between a well-established existentialconstruction in English, on the one hand, and the variability between severaloptions of expressing the same state of affairs in German, on the other. Thehistorical development of existential constructions in the two languages isexplained in the context of grammaticalization.

The historical corpus, as described in Chapter 3, consists of a selection of OldHigh German, Middle High German and early Modern High German texts. Beingfamiliar with general methodological issues of (German) historical linguistics,Pfenninger argues convincingly for the choice of texts that she made. The ModernHigh German and Modern English corpora (no terminological distinction betweenModern English and Present-day English is made) contain the first 100existential ‘there’-constructions from each of a list of ten twentieth centuryBritish and American novels, as well as their Modern High German translations.In addition, nine English ‘there’-sentences in a questionnaire were translatedby 100 (German-speaking) Swiss subjects, in order to achieve a more completepicture of the German existential constructions that translate English‘there’-sentences. Part One ends with a summary of previous research and anoutline of the remainder of the book.

Part TwoPart Two, labeled “THE BEGINNINGS -- towards a historical explanation of thedifference between English and High German existential constructions”, beginswith a survey of word order changes and the evolution of the indefinite articlein Old and Middle English (Chapter 5). In Chapter 6 (“The derivation of theEnglish ETC [existential ‘there’-construction]”), Pfenninger turns to thequestion of how Old English locative deictic ‘þær’ developed into the unstressedexpletive ‘there’. The change is described in terms of ‘desemanticization’,taken to be a component of grammaticalization in much of the relevantliterature. When it comes to tackling the notorious question of whether ‘there’has retained some of its original locative meaning, Pfenninger agrees with thosewho claim that “expletive ‘there’ is not altogether meaningless but should beregarded as an extension of the locative ‘there’, having never fully abandonedits original locative roots.” (53) Section 6.1.3 subdivides Old Englishexistential constructions involving ‘þær’ according to the type of verb(transitive vs. intransitive) and the syntactic status of what follows the NPthat is introduced, while section 6.1.4 traces the semantic changes of the verb‘be’ that interacted with ‘there’ becoming obligatory. In section 6.2 onexistential ‘there’-constructions in Middle English the author discusses indetail different types of changes undergone by the emerging existentialconstruction, focusing on the development of the expression ‘there’. In thediscussion of phonetic reduction it remains unclear why general changes in theEnglish spelling system are treated as instances of phonetic reduction. Theapplication of well-known principles of grammaticalization to the changes atissue is generally convincing, yet in some cases there is no evidence. Theclaims on frequency changes on p. 73, for instance, are not supported by actualfrequency counts.

Chapter 7 turns to the history of German word order. The “grammaticalization” ofverb-second order in Middle High German made it sometimes necessary forunstressed adverbs and (later) dummy elements to occupy the sentence-initialposition. This also holds for the highly polysemous element ‘thô’, which in OldHigh German fulfilled the same expletive function of Middle High German ‘ez’(Modern High German ‘es’). Pfenninger points out that the deictic ‘thâr’(meaning “there”) is also often preposed in this way. The development of ‘thâr’into an existential element comparable to English ‘there’ is discussed inchapter 8, where the author then asks “whether the demise of the High Germanexistential ‘thâr’-construction and the prevalence of the English‘þær’-construction are related to major changes that occurred in the history ofthese two languages.” (p. 107) It is argued that Modern German ‘da’ (“there”)derives from both ‘thâr’ and ‘thô’, the two expressions -- supported by phoneticreduction and similarity in meaning -- having been reanalyzed as a single wordat some point. Pfenninger concludes (section 8.3) that the expressions ‘there’and ‘da’ have undergone a very similar path of grammaticalization, at least to acertain degree, which again raises the question of why an existentialconstruction involving ‘da’ in German has not achieved the generality of itsEnglish counterpart containing ‘there’. It seems that resulting from aninterplay of factors, ‘da’ has never reached the stage at which it could be usedas a default strategy for existential statements. Different types of existentialconstructions in Old High German are then discussed in great detail. Pfenningeralso considers the pragmatic conditions under which the respective constructionsare used.

One of the reasons why High German has not developed an existential constructioninvolving the deictic ‘da’ that is as generally used as the English‘there’-construction seems to be the competing ‘es’-construction. Since thesyntactic structures in which German ‘es’ (“it”) occurs are varied, theseconstructions are distinguished and their history is described in Chapter 9(titled “‘Creatus sum, ergo sum’: MHG constructions with ‘geben’”), alsorelating the relevant changes to other changes in German syntax. Furtherstrategies of making existential statements in Middle High German are presentedin the same chapter.

In Chapter 10 (“Summary of Changes”), the changes leading to the asymmetrybetween the Modern English and the Modern High German systems of existentialconstructions are summarized and again related to more general changes in theword order constraints of English and German. The chapter also contains adiscussion of Haiman’s (1974) account in which he makes a bipartite distinctionbetween two types of languages relating to the behaviour of their expletives.

Part ThreeThe third part of the book deals with “ETCs [existential ‘there’-constructions]in Modern English. It contains a chapter on “Syntactic Classification” (Chapter11), one on “Semantic Classification” (Chapter 12) and a chapter on pragmaticaspects (Chapter 12, “Pragmatic Approach”). The combinatory properties of theexpletive ‘there’ are addressed in great detail, especially the issue of whichverbs occur in ‘there’-existentials. Pfenninger then distinguishes between“existential” and “non-existential” ‘there’-constructions according to the kindsof assertion that the relevant sentences make (p. 238). Since the term‘existential’ is used in a wider sense throughout the book, it might have beenbetter at this point to use a different term for the narrow conception ofexistentials under discussion. Non-existential ‘there’-constructions, in thisview, include clauses that contain another verb instead of ‘be’, such as “Thereseemed little left of the body…” (p. 239), but also so-called ‘locative ETCs’like the one in “He will straddle the line, aware up to the point of knowing heis getting the worst of both worlds, but never stopping to wonder why thereshould ever have been a line…” (p. 241)

Part FourThe fourth part of the book (“The Modern High German Counterparts”) again takesa contrastive perspective and compares the English ‘there’-construction to itsModern High German counterparts. It consists of four chapters: Chapter 15 (“TheStatus of ‘es’ in ModHG”), Chapter 16 (“Syntactic Approach to the High GermanCounterparts”), Chapter 17 (“Semantic and Pragmatic Approaches to the ModHGCounterparts”) and a short summary in Chapter 18. The data are mainly responsesto a translation task carried out by (Swiss) native speakers of German, on theone hand, and translations of English novels, on the other. These chapters alsohighlight the various syntactic and semantic/pragmatic constraints on using thedifferent German existential constructions. Following Chapter 19 (“Finalremarks”), there are appendices. Appendices 1-17 contain tables which list thefrequencies of the various structures under consideration as they appear in theprimary sources. Appendix 18 displays additional examples of the constructionsinvolving the verb ‘vinden’ as discussed in section 9.6.


The book under discussion is a comprehensive investigation into a notoriouslytricky area of grammar. The analysis of Present-day English existentialsentences has given rise to many studies, including several monographs, and yetsome of the most important questions are unresolved (e.g. the issue of whetherthe expletive ‘there’ has retained something of its originally locative meaningor the question of how presentational clauses involving ‘there’ aresynchronically and diachronically related to so-called ‘locative inversion’).Pfenninger shows that she is familiar with this research and critically reviewsit, but at the same time she approaches existentials from two points of viewthat have hitherto been neglected: historical development and English-Germancontrasts. The latter perspective is combined with the historical one in such away as to tackle the very interesting question of why German has not developedan all-purpose existential construction comparable to the English‘there’-construction. Even though there are some weaknesses and inconsistenciesin the specific arguments she advocates (see below), the overall scenarioPfenninger proposes appears plausible and demonstrates how tracing thecompetition of different constructions over the history of a language can leadto a better understanding of a synchronic situation that would otherwise remainmysterious. It would have been interesting to see how far the insights stemmingfrom the historical approach taken in this book are compatible with thegeneralizations presented in Hartmann (2008), a comparative study of English andGerman existentials carried out in a generative framework. Presumably, thelatter study had not yet been available to Pfenninger at the time of writing.

A few critical remarks are in order. Potential readers should be aware that agood knowledge of German is required in order to follow the discussion of thedata. Only parts of the German examples are translated, and none are glossed. Inaddition there are several quotations from the German research literature whichare not translated into English. Thus, on the one hand the fact that a bookmostly concerned with the history of a German grammatical structure is writtenin English is to be very much appreciated, given that this makes it accessibleto the wider linguistic community. On the other hand, the lack of glossing andtranslations renders many details inaccessible to those readers for which itactually makes sense to publish the book in English rather than German.

Apart from the fact that the sequencing of chapters is not optimal, I found ithard at certain points to understand how a given argument fits into the overallline of argumentation. In addition, some generalizations are formulated withoutthe necessary precision. Concerning the expletive topic ‘es’, for instance, itis said: “I have repeatedly mentioned that the pragmatic function of the HighGerman ‘es’ is to emphasize the meaning of the verb.” This generalization ispresumably meant to concern the information structure of the respectivesentences. As it stands, however, it remains unclear what it exactly means to“emphasize the meaning of the verb”. Regarding the classification of syntacticstructures as existential constructions, it appears that the author assumes aquite unrestricted view of this class of constructions. On p. 177 she analyzesas “existential verbs” a group of German verbs such as ‘sehen’ (“see”) and‘hôrchen’ (“hear”) which imply the existence of a given participant withoutasserting its existence. Strictly speaking, such a definition would force us tocounter-intuitively consider any verb that combines with an argument referringto a new participant an existential verb (like the verb ‘see’ in “I saw aknight”). There are also contradictory statements. Discussing the German ‘esgibt’-construction, Pfenninger claims “that the impersonal ‘geben’ in ‘es gibt’cannot entirely shed its inherent ‘leads to’ sense, …” (p. 225). On the nextpage she states, however, that “the EGC [‘es gibt’-construction] coexisted andcompeted at one stage with the existential ‘be’-construction, then extended itsrange of meanings to include those of the latter and eventually replaced it.”(p. 226; see also p. 300) Since the existential ‘be’-construction clearly didnot exhibit the ‘leads to’ sense, it is contradictory to claim that, on the onehand, the EGC at some point included the meanings of the existential‘be’-construction and kept that special meaning component of leading tosomething, on the other. To be sure, there are uses of German ‘es gibt’ thathave preserved this meaning component (Pfenninger gives a number of examples inchapter 9), but to contend generally that the verb ‘geben’ in this construction“cannot entirely shed its inherent ‘leads to’ sense” is too strong a claim.

Unfortunately, the editing of the book is rather poor, which should of coursenot be blamed on the author, but rather on the publisher. One comes across asubstantial number of typos, typographical and other inaccuracies (e.g. on p.230 it is claimed “that over 78% of the ETCs investigated are complemented byextensions.” The corresponding table shows a total of 75.6%, however). There arealso sentences such as “Finally, it is important to make a distinction between adistinction should be made between ‘expletive subjects’ and ‘expletive topics’.”(p. 10). Example numbers mentioned in the text sometimes do not correspond tothe actual numbers of the examples (e.g. p. 216; the wrong numbers seem to beleftovers from an earlier draft). Pfenninger’s use of abbreviations is somewhattoo excessive, in my view. Although most of them are transparent and standard,for some it is at times difficult to trace what they stand for. A list ofabbreviations is missing.

As far as the structure of the book is concerned, I think that the twentychapters (excluding appendix and references), which were suitable to the formatof the PhD thesis on which the book is based, should have been restructured.More specifically, the book would be more readable if the number of chapters andsections were smaller and the sequencing of (sub)topics more transparent. Thereis no doubt that the structure of the book reflects different stages in theauthor’s research. From the reader’s perspective, however, a structure in whichthe data from Part Four, for instance, were integrated into the other chapterswould perhaps be more appropriate.

Despite these critical remarks it should be stressed again that in view of thewealth of data collected in this book, as well as the numerous analyses andconclusions, the monograph is worth reading. Indeed, given that no comparablecontrastive and historical study of existential constructions is available,linguists working on existential/presentational constructions should take intoaccount the book under review.


Haiman, John (1974) Targets and Syntactic Change. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.

Hartmann, Jutta (2008) Expletives in Existentials: English ‘there’ and German‘da’. Utrecht: LOT.


Florian Haas is a lecturer at the Department of English and American Studies, University of Jena. His main research interests are in typology, contrastive linguistics and the study of grammatical changes in English. He received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Free University of Berlin in 2008, with a dissertation on the expression of reciprocity.

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