LINGUIST List 23.1781

Fri Apr 06 2012

Review: Linguistic Theories; Syntax: Tallerman (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 06-Apr-2012
From: Sabina Halupka-Resetar <>
Subject: Understanding Syntax
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AUTHOR: Maggie TallermanTITLE: Understanding SyntaxSERIES TITLE: Understanding Language SeriesPUBLISHER: Hodder EducationYEAR: 2011

Sabina Halupka-Rešetar, Department of English, University of Novi Sad, Serbia

SUMMARYTallerman's "Understanding Syntax", now in its third, revised, expanded andimproved edition, is a textbook aimed at students with no background in languagestudies. It is a very accessible, step-by-step introduction to the scientificstudy of syntax, which not only presents the major concepts and categoriesassociated with this branch of linguistics but also addresses some more advancedissues.

Each of the nine chapters is organized into sections, which makes it easy forreaders to find specific material. Exercises are provided both within the bodyof the text (separated from it by rows of arrows) and at the end of eachchapter. While answers to the first type of problems are discussed in the textitself, so that it is easy for the readers to check their progress through andunderstanding of the section, the exercises at the end of chapters are morechallenging. The extensive examples in the book come from a wide variety oflanguages, (including English) and serve the purpose of providing the studentwith a meaningful comparative understanding of syntax.

The textbook also features a glossary of the most important terms and conceptsintroduced along the way with their brief definitions, often followed byexamples from English, as well as a language index, the aim of which is to givegenetic information about the languages used in the examples and where they arespoken.

The first chapter sets out to explain the basics of syntax as a science. Datafrom various languages are used to acquaint readers with the concept ofknowledge of language and show how unrelated languages share many commonproperties and constructions, suggesting that humans have an innate languagefaculty. The reasoning behind using examples from different, often unrelatedlanguages is also explained, followed by a section on the layout of examples andthe types of information contained in them. The chapter closes with anillustration of the typical syntactic constructions found in languages,demonstrating that languages really do have syntactic structure.

Chapter 2 focuses on the major lexical word classes occurringcross-linguistically, i.e. verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions,along with their distribution, function and morphosyntactic properties, as wellas the typical set of grammatical categories they express. The author clearlystates that there are languages that do not distinguish all these word classesand also languages in which not all of these parts of speech form an open class(e.g. Jarawara of southern Amazonia with a closed class of only 14 adjectives orthe Yimas language of New Guinea with only three clear examples of words thatare unambiguously adjectives) but that all languages distinguish a class ofverbs from a class of nouns. This is a somewhat controversial claim. Haspelmath(2001: 16543) points out that "[f]or a few languages, it has been claimed thatthere is no (or only a very slight) distinction between nouns and verbs, forinstance for several North American languages of the Wakashan, Salishan, andIroquoian families, as well as for a number of Polynesian languages. Forinstance, in Samoan (a Polynesian language), full words referring to events andthings show intriguingly similar behavior. Both thing (or person) words andevent words seem to occur in the same predication structures and in argumentpositions". In a similar vein, Croft (1991) notes that it is not possible todefine cross-linguistically applicable notions of noun, adjective, and verb onthe basis of semantic and/or formal criteria alone, but it is possible to definenouns, adjectives, and verbs as cross-linguistic prototypes on the basis of theuniversal markedness patterns, e.g. universally, object words are unmarked whenfunctioning as referring arguments, property words are unmarked when functioningas nominal modifiers, and action words are unmarked when functioning as predicates.

Sentences and their internal structure are first tackled in Chapter 3, where adistinction is made between simple sentences and complex sentences, root andsubordinate clauses and some of the main cross-linguistic variations in clausetypes are examined, including coordination (e.g. in Kambera), nominalization (innumerous South American and Austronesian languages) and serialization (e.g.Chinese, many African languages, etc.).

The following chapter discusses heads and the role they play in determining theproperties of their dependents within a phrase and introduces the differencebetween arguments and adjuncts. It then presents the two-way system ofclassifying languages into head-initial or head-final, based on the position ofthe head in relation to its complements, followed by the typological distinctioninto head-marking and dependent-marking languages. Tallerman points out thatthere are languages which rarely mark the syntactic relationships between headand dependent at all (e.g. Chinese, English) but that among those that do markthese relationships some languages exhibit both head- and dependent-markingconstructions (e.g. German).

Chapter 5 uses ambiguous phrases and sentences to demonstrate the existence ofsyntactic structure and proceeds to show that strings of words can be tested forconstituency by applying some syntactic tests, such as the sentence fragmenttest, the echo question test, the cleft test or the displacement (movement)test. Although these are just some of the commonly used tests, they do show howthe intuitions of the native speakers can be captured. Next, the authorintroduces the idea of representing the structure of sentences using treediagrams or bracketing and presents some key terms for describing therelationships holding between nodes in a tree.

The three major ways in which grammatical relations may be representedcross-linguistically, namely constituent order (basic and marked), case(nominative/accusative vs. ergative/absolutive systems and split systems) andagreement and cross-referencing are dealt with in Chapter 6, which investigatesthe relationships between verbs and their noun phrase arguments within theclause. The core relations of subject and object are also examined in an attemptto determine whether there are any grammatical relations that could beconsidered universal.

The next chapter shows that the grammatical relations between the verb and itsarguments are not static and presents the best-known processes of changing thevalency of a verb by promoting objects to become subjects or by demotingsubjects to an oblique phrase or even deleting them. Thus, the passiveconstruction and its ergative-system counterpart, the antipassive, involve adecrease in the number of core arguments of the verb, while the applicative andthe causative are processes which result in an increase in the number of corearguments.

Chapter 8 focuses on operations which do not cause any change in the grammaticalfunction of the elements they affect, namely the possibility of moving phrasesaround within a clause. Two such instances of movement are dealt with,wh-questions (where languages differ with respect to whether they front thewh-element(s) or not) and relative clauses (which may also take on differentforms and use various strategies cross-linguistically). The chapter closes witha section on focus movement and scrambling, generally regarded as being relatedto wh-constructions.

The book ends with the intentionally ambiguously titled chapter "Askingquestions about syntax", which not only outlines the kinds of questions oneneeds to ask in attempting to construct a basic syntactic description of alanguage and gives an illustration of how these questions could be answered (byproviding a short case study of Welsh), but it also informs the reader of theissues and questions currently widely debated in linguistics and points topossible further directions of syntactic study.

EVALUATIONOn the whole, the textbook is self-explanatory, user-friendly and covers themajor topics in syntax, usually providing illustrative examples from a widerange of languages. However, this truly comparative approach sometimesunnecessarily complicates things (e.g. on p. 129, in the discussion of doublegenitive marking, a Latin or German example would probably have been closer tothe readership than the Ayacucho construction cited). Also, the author does notcommit herself to a particular theoretical framework, which might be consideredadvantageous for an introductory textbook. But it also runs the risk of givingno more than a very broad and general overview and as such, making it mostappropriate for an undergraduate level general linguistics programme, or perhapsas a supplementary reading for an introductory course in comparative syntax.Related to this point is also the fact that Tallerman employs pre-GB-typerepresentation of sentence structure with the S label on top, suggesting thatsentences are exocentric (p. 149 and later). Also, ignoring X-bar theory failsto stress the fact that all phrases appear to be structured in the same way(although X-bar theory is referred to briefly and indirectly in Section 4.1.8).On p. 118 the author acknowledges the view that a determiner is really the headof the 'noun phrase' but she continues "to refer to a phrase like 'this box ofdates' as a 'noun phrase' without taking a stance on the DP hypothesis", despitethe fact that the DP-hypothesis has generally been accepted (if questioned forsome article-less languages, see Bošković 2008, Corver 1992, Chierchia 1998,Cheng and Sybesma 1999, Lyons 1999, Baker 2003, among others) since the late1980s. Similarly, Tallerman claims (p. 165) that there is no VP in Hungarian butthe standard claim is that there is (see Kiefer 1992, É. Kiss 2002, among others).

On the other hand, the questions about syntax raised in the last chapter whichactually give the reader guidelines for constructing a basic syntacticdescription of a language (as the author does for Welsh) are extremely helpfuland enlightening; no less exciting are the issues tackled in section 9.3. Thereis a Further Reading section at the end of each chapter, which helps the keenreader build on the knowledge gained through the text. Also, hints are oftenprovided for solving the exercises at the end of the chapters. The textbook hasa lengthy list of up-to-date references as is technically next to perfect (thereare virtually no typos except some inconsistencies in the References section).

As the author points out in the concluding section, "[h]aving completed thisintroduction, you are now ready to further your study of syntax" (p. 285), whichshe suggests might take various (overlapping) paths, one of which is by lookingat syntactic theory in order to explain the syntactic differences andsimilarities between languages. It is exactly this path I had in mind when Ichose Understanding Syntax as required reading for a course in ComparativeSyntax and it has lived up to my expectations.

REFERENCESBaker, Mark. 2003. Lexical categories: Verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Bošković, Željko. 2008. What will you have, DP or NP? Proceedings of NELS 37.101-114.

Cheng, Lisa L.-S., Sybesma, Rint. 1999. Bare and not-so-bare nouns and thestructure of NP. Linguistic Inquiry 30. 509-542.

Chierchia, Gennaro. 1998. Reference to kinds across languages. Natural LanguageSemantics 6. 339-405.

Corver, Norbert. 1992. Left branch extraction. Proceedings of the 22nd NorthEast Linguistic Society. 67-84. Amherst: GLSA, University of Massachusetts.

Croft, William. 1991. Syntactic Categories and Grammatical Relations: theCognitive Organization of Information. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

É. Kiss, Katalin. 2002. The syntax of Hungarian. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2001. Word classes and parts of speech. InternationalEncyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Amsterdam: Pergamon.16538-16545.

Kiefer, Ferenc (ed.). 1992. Strukturális magyar nyelvtan 1. kötet: Mondattan[Structural Grammar of Hungarian. Vol. 1: Syntax]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.

Lyons, Christopher. 1999. Definiteness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERSabina Halupka-Rešetar is an Assistant Professor of English language andlinguistics at the Department of English, University of Novi Sad, Serbia.Her research interests include syntax and theoretical linguistics, and hercurrent projects center around wh-elements and focusing at thesyntax-discourse interface.

Page Updated: 06-Apr-2012