LINGUIST List 23.1803

Mon Apr 09 2012

Review: Semantics, Syntax, Typology: Malchukov and Siewierska (2011)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <>

Date: 09-Apr-2012
From: Peter Arkadiev <>
Subject: Impersonal Constructions
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EDITORS: Andrej Malchukov, Anna SiewierskaTITLE: Impersonal ConstructionsSUBTITLE: A Cross-Linguistic PerspectiveSERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 124PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2011

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


Impersonal constructions have only recently become an important topic incross-linguistic studies (cf. Lehmann et al. 2000, Creissels 2007, Siewierskaed. 2008), especially in a European perspective (cf. Lambert 1998, CabredoHofherr 2006). The volume "Impersonal Constructions: A Cross-LinguisticPerspective" edited by Anna Siewierska (1955-2011) and Andrej Malchukov is thefirst large-scale collection of papers on impersonal constructions assuming atypological perspective and aiming at widest possible coverage of languages ofdifferent genetic and areal provenance and structural type. In addition to sucha broad data-base, the book under review is comprehensive in a no less importantrespect, representing a variety of approaches to impersonal constructions (bothfunctional-typological and generative) and different problems pertaining to thisfield, such as the lexical-semantic fields and discourse-pragmatic circumstancesfavouring the occurrence of impersonal constructions, the functional-semantictypology of impersonal constructions, their structural types and relation tosuch independently occurring properties of languages as case-marking ofnominals, verbal cross-reference, passive and anticausative, classification ofintransitive verbs into unaccusative and unergative, zero and overt anaphora,grammatical encoding of animacy etc.

In the Introduction (p. 1-15) Andrej Malchukov and Anna Siewierska give asuccinct and useful general discussion of the conceptual, terminological andcross-linguistic problems of impersonal constructions and provide a detailedoverview of the structure of the volume and of individual contributions.

The main portion of the book consists of three major part comprising is sumtwenty articles. Part 1 "Typological and theoretical aspects" contains fourpapers addressing problems of different degree of generality arising in thecross-linguistic and theoretical study of impersonal constructions. AndrejMalchukov and Akio Ogawa in "Towards a typology of impersonal constructions. Asemantic map approach" (pp. 19-56) propose a general functional typology ofimpersonal constructions viewing them as encoding certain deviations from theuniversal subject prototype (Keenan 1976). Three functional-semantic types ofimpersonal constructions are postulated: R-impersonals with non-referential orindefinite subjects, T-impersonals with non-topical (rhematic) subjects andA-impersonals with non-agentive (non-volitional, inanimate) subjects. Malchukovand Ogawa show that different functional types of impersonal constructions showpropensity towards different kinds of morphosyntactic encoding: R-impersonalsoften lack a subject argument altogether or use some sort of expletive subject,or a specialized pronoun with generic reference like German "man"; T-impersonals(such as presentational constructions) often involve word order inversion andlack of subject-verb agreement; A-impersonals often display non-canonicalencoding of subject by means of case marking, verbal agreement or both. Asemantic map of "non-prototypical subjecthood" is drawn on p. 42, showing howdifferent encoding strategies are distributed over inanimate, non-referential,non-topical etc. subjects. "Transimpersonal" constructions (Malchukov 2008) withan experiencer object and an indefinite/dummy subject are also discussed atlength, and it is argued that such construction constitute a diachronic linkbetween R-impersonals and A-impersonals.

In "Overlap and complementarity in reference impersonals. Man-constructions vs.third person plural-impersonals in the languages of Europe" (pp. 57-89) AnnaSiewierska discusses the areal patterning of two major types of referentialimpersonal constructions in the European languages: those involving thespecialized impersonal pronoun like German "man" or French "on", and those usinga third person plural pronoun or verbal affix. As Siewierska shows,man-impersonals constitute a trait of the "Standard-Average European" area,being mostly characteristic of French, German, Dutch, Frisian and MainlandScandinavian languages, while third person-plural impersonals mostly occuroutside this area. However, Siewierska shows that "all man-imp languages alsodisplay 3pl-imps" (p. 73), so that in such languages as French and Dutch the twokinds of impersonal constructions are often in competition. Another typologicalissue discussed is the putative correlation of the type of impersonal with thepro-drop parameter (Holmberg 2005); Siewierska shows that though in Europe thecorrelation mostly holds, the theory linking the presence of specific impersonalpronouns to the requirement of overt subject can account neither for the exactdistribution of man-impersonals nor for the very existence of 3pl-impersonals.Instead, Siewierska shows that "there is a correlation between pro-dropproperties and the range of uses the different types of non-referential subjectsdisplay" (p. 79): in non-pro-drop languages man-impersonals occur not only ingeneric but also in episodic contexts with both non-specific and specificreference, while in pro-drop languages man-impersonals are usually confined togeneric contexts. 3pl-impersonals show the opposite behaviour.

Werner Abraham in "Verbs of motion. Impersonal passivization betweenunaccusativity and unergativity" (p. 91-125) discusses a variety of issueshaving to do with the dual classification of verbs of motion in such Europeanlanguages as Italian, German and Dutch, where they show properties of bothunaccusative and unergative predicates. Abraham proposes to resolve this paradoxby assuming that verbs of motion, being agentive, are unergative in theirimperfective uses giving rise to impersonal passives, but are unaccusative inthe passive (resultative) participles occurring in perfect constructions.Another claim by Abraham, now of a more empirical than theoretical nature, isthat impersonal passives occur in languages having several different strategiesfor encoding of the passive, e.g. "sein"-passive vs. "bleiben"-passive in Germanor synthetic vs. periphrastic passive in Scandinavian languages. However, thisclaim is refuted by Lithuanian, which arguably has just one passive strategy andsimultaneously is the language with the widest and most productive use ofimpersonal passives (e.g. Timberlake 1982; Wiemer 2006).

Volker Gast and Holger Diessel in "On the distribution of subject properties informulaic presentationals of Germanic and Romance. A diachronic-typologicalapproach" (pp. 127-166) propose a detailed structural typology of presentationalimpersonal constructions in Romance and Germanic. The typology is based on threemain parameters: (i) type of existential predicate (one-place vs. copular vs.transitive); (ii) type of expletive (no expletive vs. weak pronominal expletivevs. locative expletive) and (iii) whether the language allows verb-initial orderin thetic sentences. Gast and Diessel focus on the synchronic distribution anddiachronic evolution of subject properties (case marking, agreement, raising) inthese constructions, i.e. on the question how these properties are distributedbetween the expletive and the referential noun phrase introducing the newdiscourse participant. They show that (i) languages where thetic sentences allowverb-initial order (Romanian, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan) either do not haveexpletives in impersonal presentational constructions or such expletives do notshow subject properties, and (ii) that in languages with an obligatory preverbalconstituent (French, English, Norwegian) expletives have acquired subjectproperties via the reanalysis of an original transitive predicate denotingpossession as an existential predicate.

Part II "Diachronic studies" contains three articles dealing with the history ofimpersonal constructions in Indo-European languages. Michela Cennamo in"Impersonal constructions and accusative subjects in Late Latin" (pp. 169-188)shows how the loss of voice contrasts in Latin has led to an emergence of ratherpeculiar patterns of case marking with accusative case appearing first onsemantic patients of passives, then on the patientive subjects of unaccusativeverbs, and then on the agentive subjects of unergative and even transitiveverbs. Anna Giacalone Ramat and Andrea Sansò in "From passive to impersonal. Acase study from Italian and its implications" (pp. 189-228) present a detailedcorpus-based study of the development of the reflexive-based si-passive to asi-impersonal from late Mediaeval to Modern Italian. They pin down the contextswhich could lead to the reanalysis of a passive construction with a genericagent into an impersonal construction and document the gradual spread ofsi-impersonals to different types of predicates and contexts. Giacalone-Ramatand Sansò also discuss the emergence of the so-called inclusive si-impersonalconstruction where the generic/indefinite subject necessarily includes thespeaker. They conclude (p. 226) that "a reanalysis of the passive marker as amarker of generic human agency is a necessary precondition motivating itsextension to intransitive verbs" and the subsequent emergence of the impersonalconstruction. Leonid Kulikov in "Passive to anticausative throughimpersonalization. The case of Vedic and Indo-European" (pp. 227-254) discussesa rare pathway of change leading from passive to anticausative on the basis ofthe Vedic Sanskrit data and shows that impersonal passives have served as anintermediate stage in the reanalysis of the passives of such verbs as "see","hear", "know", and "say" into one-place anticausatives.

The third and largest part of the book ("Cross-linguistic variation inImpersonal constructions: case studies") comprises thirteen papers devoted toimpersonal constructions in individual languages and language families from allover the world. Two papers deal specifically with meteorological predicates.Amina Mettouchi and Mauro Tosco in "Impersonal configurations and theticity: Thecase of meteorological predications in Afroasiatic" (pp. 307-322) develop atypology of meteorological expressions based on the notion of partial vs. totalbackgrounding of processes or entities resulting in different morphosyntacticpatterns with the atmospheric event expressed either as a verb or as a noun orboth, and make a strong argument for the recognition of theticity as a primaryfactor determining grammatical properties of this type of sentences. Merja Saloin "Meteorological verbs in Uralic languages - are there any impersonalstructures to be found" (pp. 395-438) shows on the basis of the data from 14languages that though many meteorological expressions in Uralic contain somesort of (not necessarily agentive) subject argument and thus are notstructurally impersonal, they are close to impersonal constructionsfunctionally. Unfortunately, these two papers do not refer to each other.

Two more papers dealing not with a single language but with a group of relatedlanguages are devoted to the languages of Oceania. Claire Moise-Faurie in"Impersonal constructions in some Oceanic languages" (pp. 581-606) discusses thedata of Polynesian and Kanak (New Caledonia) languages, where the followingstrategies of encoding impersonal constructions occur: subjectless clauses withavalent predicates (mostly for natural events), dummy pronouns (for some modalpredicates), agentless use of otherwise transitive verbs, encoding of thenotional agent as a possessor or an obliquely marked adjunct, zero anaphora,and, rarely, specialized impersonal pronouns. An important distinction is drawnbetween impersonal verbs which are not able to occur in syntactic structuresimplying a referential subject or agent, and impersonal uses of otherwiseregular transitive and intransitive verbs. Jean-Christophe Verstraete in"Impersonal constructions in Umpithamu and Lamalamic languages" (pp. 607-625)describes a non-trivial kind of subjectless construction attested in severalPama-Nyungan languages of northeastern Australia. In these languages,experiencer predicates denoting "sudden, involuntary physical processes" (p.613) are encoded as transitive verbs with an absolutive noun phrase expressingthe body-part and an accusative or oblique personal enclitic referring to theexperiencer. These structures are shown to be impersonal even in the presence ofan inanimate ergative noun phrase, since they do not admit a nominative personalenclitic, which is otherwise able to cross-reference an ergative subject.Verstraete draws functional parallels between such impersonal constructions andvoice, showing that they mostly occur when "an inanimate agent-like elementaffects a human undergoer-like element" (p. 622).

Several papers discuss in detail just one particular construction. Doris L.Payne in "The Maa (Eastern Nilotic) Impersonal constructions" adducesmorphosyntactic evidence showing that the "passive" construction in thislanguage does not contain a subject argument. Payne's argumentation largelyrepeats that of Mel'čuk's (1997) discussion of the same construction. A largepart of this paper is devoted to a detailed corpus-based account of thesemantic-pragmatic functions of the Maa impersonal. Anna Kibort in "The elephantin the room: The impersonal -ne/-te construction in Polish" (pp. 357-393)provides a detailed description of a little studied construction, whose mainpeculiarity is its underspecification with respect to the exact syntacticstructure it instantiates (verbal passive or non-passive adverbial). AnnaBugaeva in "A diachronic study of the impersonal passive in Ainu" (pp. 517-546)presents an account of morphological and syntactic properties of a peculiarimpersonal passive construction showing non-trivial dialectal variation, andproposes a grammaticalization scenario for its development. Synchronically, theimpersonal in the Ishikari dialect is interesting in that it employs twodifferent impersonal markers for transitive verbs with 1st person vs. non-1stperson objects. From a historical perspective, Bugaeva shows that the mostproductive impersonal marker in Ainu goes back to an existential verb attachingto a nominalized predicate.

The remaining papers describe and discuss whole classes of impersonalconstructions in particular languages. Alain-Christian Bassène and DenisCreissels in "Impersonal constructions in Jóola-Banjal" (pp. 285-306) provide anoverview of the morphosyntactic and semantic properties of different kinds ofimpersonal constructions in an Atlantic language where such constructions can beeasily defined in structural terms as those lacking a subject cross-referencingprefix on the verb. Ruth A. Berman in "Revisiting impersonal constructions inModern Hebrew" (pp. 323-355) addresses several kinds of impersonal constructionsfrom a discourse-pragmatic and developmental perspective, discussing such issuesas the correlation between grammatical impersonality and expository genres ofdiscourse, speaker's age and education level, etc.

Three papers discuss impersonal constructions in polysynthetic languages withhighly complex verbal morphology. Edward Vajda, Andrey Nefedov and AndrejMalchukov in "Impersonal constructions in Ket" (pp. 439-458) show how several ofthe numerous intransitive conjugations in this endangered Yenisseyic languagewell-known for its idiosyncratic verbal morphology can be accounted for asinvolving impersonal (more precisely, transimpersonal) patterns using a frozen3pl inanimate agent marker da-. "Impersonal verbs in Central Alaskan Yupik(Eskimoan)" by Osahito Miyaoka (pp. 459-488) gives a comprehensive account ofhow two kinds of impersonal verbs (simplex and derived) interact with a complexsystem of valency changing derivations in Yupik. Simplex ("primary") impersonalsin Yupik include meteorological verbs as well as predicates denoting colors andqualities. The derived impersonal structure is created by the productivenecessitative suffix; interestingly, such complex predicates are undergoingreanalysis and losing their impersonal morphosyntax. Lynn Drapeau in"Impersonals in Innu" also draws a distinction between lexical and derivedimpersonals in this Algonquian language with direct-inverse marking and animportant role of animacy distinctions in morphosyntax and verbal morphology.The class of lexical impersonals in Innu, in addition to cross-linguisticallyrecurrent predicates denoting natural events, contains many lexemes whichcorrespond to nouns in the languages of Europe, e.g. expressing topographicnotions such as 'bay'. A clear link between morphosyntactic impersonality andpragmatic theticity as observed in Innu as well: "event-centered" statements notforming a topic-comment structure are often expressed via impersonal structures,and this is the main discourse function of the derived impersonals formed byaffixes, different for transitive and intransitive stems, suppressing the subject.

In contrast to many languages where impersonals are marked by special verbalmorphology, in Mandarin, as show Yi Yan and Anna Siewierska in "Referentialimpersonal constructions in Mandarin" (pp. 547-580), subject/agent backgroundingis manifested by use of various nominal strategies, such as special genericnouns and pronouns, including zero pronouns, or a cross-linguisticallynon-trivial construction involving an existential predicate and a generic noun.Interestingly, the typologically common strategy of forming referentialimpersonals with the help of 3Pl pronouns is uncommon in Mandarin. The papercontains a useful table (p. 578) comparing Mandarin and English impersonalconstructions.


The book is undoubtedly a welcome and useful contribution to language typology.Impersonal constructions have not been subject to a detailed and comprehensivecross-linguistic analysis before, and this volume successfully fills this gap.The editors can be praised for having been able to establish a good balancebetween descriptive and theoretical studies, as well as between synchronic anddiachronic perspectives. The cross-linguistic coverage of the volume is almostcomprehensive, with a slight bias towards Africa and Eurasia and a regrettablelack of Papuan and South and Meso American languages. Inclusion of severalpapers dealing with whole language families or areas instead of individuallanguages, thus addressing issues of intra-genetic and areal typology, is alsoan example to be followed.

Of the problems addressed in the volume that concerning the very definition of"impersonal construction" is among the hardest to solve. From a eurocentricperspective, usually reproached in contemporary typological studies, animpersonal construction is one that lacks a "canonical" referential subject.However, since the notion of subject itself has been rejected as not applicableto all languages and not allowing for cross-linguistic identification (cf. e.g.Dryer 1997, Haspelmath 2010), the typological validity of the notion "impersonalconstruction" is subject to doubt, too. However, the editors and authors of thevolume have decided to assume this formal-syntactic definition of impersonalconstruction and to test its applicability to different languages. The resultsare very instructive, showing (i) that it is possible to identify constructionswith "defective" subjects or no subjects at all in typologically very differentlanguages and do so on a non-arbitrary basis, and (ii) that constructions soidentified show a striking degree of similarity across languages with respect tothe lexical-semantic types of predicates usually occurring in such constructions(e.g. meteorological verbs or experiencer predicates) and discourse-pragmaticfunctions associated with them (e.g. agent-defocusing and theticity). Thissuggests that appropriately defined syntactic structures and morphosyntacticpatterns may indeed serve as basis for cross-linguistic comparison.

What the editors, however, to my regret have not done is to make the volume morecoherent. There are almost no mutual cross-references among the individualcontributions, even when the authors address similar issues. It would have beenalso very useful if the volume contained an afterword summarizing the findingsof all the contributions and making typological generalizations about variousfeatures of impersonal constructions.

The other serious drawback of this otherwise excellent book is a huge number oftypos and typesetting lapses, both in the text and in the examples. To mentionjust one, ex. (5) on p. 58 (the only example from Lithuanian found in the wholebook) contains a typo ("mayt" instead of "matyt") and three (sic!) wrongglosses: "her" instead of "he:instrumental", "was" instead if "will be" and"complaining" instead of "complained". Sometimes it looks as if the articleshave not been proof-read by the authors or editors.


Cabredo Hofherr, Patricia. 2006. 'Arbitrary' pro and the theory of pro-drop. InArguments and Agreement, P. Ackema, P. Brandt, M. Schoorlemmer, and F. Weerman(eds.), 230-261. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Creissels, Denis. 2007. Impersonal and anti-impersonal constructions: Atypological approach. Ms., Université Lyon 2.

Dryer, Matthew. 1997. Are grammatical relations universal? In Essays on LanguageFunction and Language Type: Dedicated to Talmy Givón, J.L. Bybee, J. Haiman,S.A. Thompson (eds.), 115-143. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories incross-linguistic studies. Language 86 (3): 663-687.

Holmberg, Anders. 2005. Is there a little pro? Evidence from Finnish. LinguisticInquiry 36 (4): 533-564.

Keenan, Edward L. 1975. Towards a universal definition of subject. In Subjectand Topic, Ch. Li (ed.), 303-333. New York etc.: Academic Press.

Lambert, P.-Y. 1998. L'impersonnel. In Actance at valence dans les langues del'Europe, J. Feuillet (éd.), 295-347. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lehmann, Christian, Shin, Yong-Min, Verhoeven, Elisabeth. 2000. PersonProminence and Relation Prominence. On the Typology of Syntactic Relations withParticular Reference to Yucatec Maya. München, Newcastle: LINCOM Europa.

Malchukov, Andrej. 2008. Split intransitives, experiencer objects and'transimpersonal' constructions: (re‑)establishing the connection. In Typologyof Semantic Alignment, M. Donohue and S. Wichman (eds.), 76-101. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Mel'čuk, Igor. 1997. Grammatical cases, basic verbal construction, and voice inMaasai: Towards a better analysis of the concepts. In Advances in Morphology, W.Dressler, M. Prinzhorn & J. Rennison (eds.), 131-170. Berlin, New York: Moutonde Gruyter.

Siewierska, Anna (ed.). 2008. Impersonal Constructions in Grammatical Theory.Special Issue of Transactions of the Philological Society, 106 (2).

Timberlake, Alan. 1982. The impersonal passive in Lithuanian. In Proceedings ofthe 8th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: 508--524.

Wiemer, Björn. 2006. Relations between Actor-demoting devices in Lithuanian. InPassivization and Typology. Form and Function, W. Abraham, L. Leisiö (eds.),274-309. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Peter M. Arkadiev, PhD in linguistics (2006), is a senior research fellowin the Department of Typology and Comparative Linguistics of the Instituteof Slavic studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. His maininterests are linguistic typology with a focus on case marking and argumentstructure and its formal realization, and tense-aspect-modality. He worksmainly on Lithuanian and Adyghe.

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