LINGUIST List 24.1460

Sat Mar 30 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Syntax: Meurman-Solin et al. (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 18-Feb-2013
From: Aroldo de Andrade <>
Subject: Information Structure and Syntactic Change in the History of English
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Anneli Meurman-SolinAUTHOR: María José López-CousoAUTHOR: Bettelou LosTITLE: Information Structure and Syntactic Change in the History of EnglishPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Aroldo Leal de Andrade, Universidade Estadual de Campinas

INTRODUCTIONThis volume grew from papers presented at the Workshop on InformationStructure and Syntactic Change at the 15th International Conference on EnglishHistorical Linguistics held in Munich, August 2008, supplemented by articlesfrom invited contributors.

SUMMARYThe book has thirteen chapters, grouped into four parts, plus an editors’introduction. Part one focuses on the change from Verb-Second and Object-Verborders to Subject-Verb-Object (chapters 2-5). Part two gathers papers on thedevelopment of a grammar of prose after 1500 (chapters 6-8). Part threeincludes two chapters (9 and 10) on nonfinite clauses. Finally, part fourdevelops on the internal structure of the English noun phrase (chapters11-13).

Chapter 1, ‘On the Interplay of Syntax and Information Structure: Synchronicand Diachronic Considerations’ by Bettelou Los, María José López-Couso, andAnneli Meurman-Solin, presents an introduction to information structure, theway it relates to syntax, and an overview of the themes discussed in the book.In addition to defining some crucial terms, they consider both syntax andinformation structure to be constrained by language-particular templateswhereby some linguistic level can override a requirement set up by anotherone. The type of historical linguistics involving these interactions is seenas a kind of touchstone to linguistic theories, once the researcher has tomodel the variation at hand, find plausible scenarios for the change of onestage into the next and, if possible, propose an explanation for it. Theautonomy of syntax vis-à-vis information structure is clearly adopted, as aconsequence of modeling scenarios of linguistic change.

In chapter 2, ‘The Loss of Verb-Second and the Switch from Bounded toUnbounded Systems’, Bettelou Los argues that the loss of Verb-Second (V2)affected English syntax and information structure in a pervasive way, in thesense that it affected the speakers' conceptualization of events. A V2 systemexpresses a bounded language, in which the speaker follows the event fromwithin, and may locally anchor the event to a specific place and time(following Carroll & Lambert 2003), thanks to a multifunctional firstposition. With a typological switch to an unbounded system, syntacticinnovations emerge, such as prepositional passives of the type ‘The doctor wassent for’, passive Exceptional Case-Marking constructions with to-infinitives(e.g. ‘John was said to be lying’) and stressed-focus clefts such as ‘Onlyafter that did I realize that everyone was staring at me’). Evidence for thisis the loss of adverbials referring back to the immediately precedingdiscourse and the tendency for the remaining first constituent topics to benew, contrastive in flavor. Los then analyzes ellipted subjects and topicshift strategies, claiming that Old English was a V2 system with localanchoring, similar to German, not only because of constituent movement tofirst position, but also due to an enriched system of pronominal adverbs andgendered demonstratives, which later became impoverished.

Chapter 3, ‘The Effect of Information Structure on Object Position in OldEnglish: A Pilot Study’, by Ann Taylor and Susan Pintzuk, correlates theinformation status of objects with their position in the sentence, i.e.given/new and preverbal/postverbal. After observing that object weightoverwhelms the effect of information status, their quantitative researchfocuses on light objects in subordinate clauses, where the object can be pre-or postverbal. As for syntactic change, the authors assume that both IP and VPmay project head-initial or head-final in Old English, where informationstatus plays a role in object position due to rightward movement; fixed VOorder emerges as a result of gradual increase of underlying VO. The increasingfixity in object position is associated with a decrease in the way informationstructure plays a role in object positioning.

In chapter 4, ‘Word Order, Information Structure, and Discourse Relations: AStudy in Old and Middle English Verb-Final Clauses’, Kristin Bech relatesinformational-structural properties of verb-final (SXV) clauses with thedistinction between coordinating and subordinating discourse relations (Asher& Vieu 2005). She observes that SXV clauses correlate with coordinatingdiscourse relations, i.e. those that move the narrative forward, instead ofelaborating or commenting on already presented actions. Corroboratinginformational evidence is the newness of the X element and the dynamic statusof the verb, which is in focus. Bech concludes, however, that once a typicalcorrelation is not found (coordinating discourse relations do not pattern witha specific order), it is not possible to say that rhetorical relations on thetext level determine word order, unlike the role of information value of thesyntactic constituents.

In chapter 5, ‘Syntax and Information Structure: Verb-Second Variation inMiddle English’, Ans van Kemenade and Marit Westergaard investigateVerb-Second (V2) variation in declaratives in Middle English against thebackdrop of similar variation in wh-questions in Present-Day Norwegiandialects. The authors recognize language acquisition as the driving force inchange, noting the sensitivity of children to pragmatic information from theirearly years. At the same time, children would adopt a conservative strategytoward language acquisition, where they make finer syntactic distinctions thanadults. In this sense, V2 word order in different contexts is the result ofeither informational-structural or syntactic factors (or both), which callsfor a model of micro-cues. For instance, they identify two sources ofpotential variation in V2: verb movement and inversion of nominal subjects.Three developments are identified in the data: the syntacticization of thesubject position, the generalization of V2 with pronominal and nominalsubjects with auxiliaries and unaccusative verbs, and the loss of V2 indeclaratives at the end of Middle English. Each shift is attributed tosyntactic or informational-structural factors, or even both.

Opening Part II, Chapter 6, ‘Discourse Status and Syntax in the History ofEnglish: Some Explorations in Topicalization, Left-Dislocation andThere-Construction’, by Javier Pérez-Guerra, presents the results of aresearch on informationally-marked constructions in Early Modern and thebeginning of Late Modern English, on different genres, according to whichtopicalization and there-sentences, whenever they include anaphoric elements,present local discourse domains. He observes that the there-construction isstable across time and genre. Besides, topicalization cases would hold to the“given before new” principle in the unmarked cases, whereas left-dislocationwould not present any clear informative characterization, which the authorsuggests to be a consequence of the left-dislocated phrase not fulfilling anysyntactic function in the sentence.

In chapter 7, ‘Givenness and Word Order: A Study of Long Passives from EarlyModern English to Present-Day English’, Elena Seoane compares twomethodologies of measuring givenness: the one proposed by Prince (1981) whichincludes linguistic and extralinguistic factors, and the other proposed byGivón (1983, among others) which takes only textual criteria into account. Byexamining long passives, she argues that Prince’s approach is capable ofexplaining more data than Givón’s, based on cases where the analyses arewholly different with respect to the relative degree of givenness of subjectand by-phrase. She concludes that one needs to consider a combination offactors to accurately measure givenness, including some knowledge of thespecific topic being talked about and cultural references alluded to in thediscourse.

Anneli Meurman-Solin presents a study on utterance linking strategies inchapter 8, ‘The Connectives And, For, But, and Only as Clause and DiscourseType Indicators in 16th- and 17th-Century Epistolary Prose.’ By usingdiplomatically edited letters from two tagged corpora, she bases her study onhow connectives mark the beginning of utterances by disregarding theintervention of modern editors on texts with punctuation and capitalization.The evolution of four connectives regarding their co-occurrence withparticular discourse types is presented and discussed. Among these, ‘and’ isthe most frequent, and shows a downward s-curve; ‘for’ and ‘but’ usuallyintroduce a first-person stance use; and ‘only’ is the less frequent of all.The general conclusion is that a “grammar of prose” would develop, among otherthings, through the transition from a looser to a semantically more explicitutterance linking. In this sense, Meurman-Solin argues that connectives suchas ‘for’ and ‘only’ at some time point to a dialogic reading between writerand the addressee, and dismisses the analysis that assumes some connectors tobe especially frequent in spoken mode.

An van Linden and Kristin Davidse’s contribution, ‘The Role of theAccessibility of the Subject in the Development of Adjectival Complementationfrom Old English to Present-Day English’ (chapter 9) opens Part III, onNonfinite Clauses. It focuses on the role of accessibility of subjects in thedevelopment of extraposed complements depending on deontic adjectives, such as‘it is important to honor those who have done honour to us’. The authorsobserve an informational shift according to which to-complements came to befavored over that-complements together with an increase in general and moreaccessible subjects inside the embedded domain, which took place in MiddleEnglish. A reversal of this general trend is observed in the Modern period,mainly due to the greater frequency of the complex transitive construction(for + NP + to-infinitive). At the same time, an extension of the use of lessaccessible subjects is observed even in contexts that do not usually providethe identity of the subject in a non-marked fashion. They give specificmotivations for this change, such as stylistic factors and certain registerbias, usually related to mandative constructions, which go beyond the tendencytoward optimization of informational factors

Chapter 10, ‘Latin Absolute Constructions and Their Old English Equivalents:Interfaces between Form and Information Structure’ by Olga Timofeeva, examineshow Latin absolute participial constructions are translated into Old English,by establishing relationships between the semantics of absolute constructions,their functional/thematic role in communication, the order of clauses in asentence, and text cohesion. Her main conclusion is that translatorsdistinguish the importance of text items depending on construction meaning: ifdiscourse-old, they can be omitted; if discourse-new, they can be expressed inindependent coordinate clauses, or even be incorporated into the structure ofthe superordinate clause as second predicates, if there is a thematic subjectsomehow bound to the main subject.

Beginning Part IV is Cynthia L. Allen’s contribution: ‘Why a Determiner? ThePossessive + Determiner + Adjective Construction in Old English (chapter 11).She discusses possible explanations for a correlation found in Old English: apostnominal adjective must necessarily appear whenever a possessive precedes adeterminer in the same noun phrase. For instance, Allen considers an “addedinformation” hypothesis according to which the determiner would appear (morefrequently) whenever it adds information on grammatical features, and ahypothesis according to which the nature of the adjective would affect thechoice for this construction. She concludes in favor of the latter, andspeculates on specific correlations to this end, as well as on a relatedproblem, i.e. the disappearance of this construction, which may be the resultof no clear function having been crystallized around the determiner.

Chapter 12, ‘Functional Shifts and the Development of English Determiners’, byTine Breban, presents a proposal whereby the semantic and contextualgeneralization the articles ‘the’ and ‘a(n)’ are usually said to have wentthrough would be the reflections of underlying functional shifts. Forinstance, Old English ‘an’ has lost the expression of features ‘new to thediscourse and in focus’, ‘specific’ and ‘persistent’, which characterized itas a presentative marker, whereas ‘se’ lost its referential, deictic use,observed in terms of ‘topic shift’, ‘persistence’ and ‘boundary marker’,keeping only the expression of identifiability. With the change, thesespecialized functions were compensated for and expressed by more contentfuldeterminers such as demonstratives and quantifiers which became formallydistinct from the articles (‘the’ versus ‘that’; ‘a(n)’ versus ‘one’) or bythe development of complex determiners formed by an article and a pre- orpost-determiner (‘the same’, ‘a certain’). Breban then relates thesedevelopments to the creation of a complex hierarchical organization of thedeterminer zone, which has shifted with larger changes affecting the languagesystem.

In chapter 13, ‘The Proximal and Distal Perspectives in Relation to thePosition of Directional Modifiers in the English Noun Phrase’, Turo Vartiainenargues that if a directional modifier, such as a participle (e.g. ‘following’)or an adverb (e.g. ‘above’) may occur either in the prenominal or postnominalposition, then this variation follows a general cognitive pattern wherebyconceptualized proximity is expressed in the premodifying position, whereasconceptualized distance is usually expressed in the postmodifier position. Hecouches this correlation in terms of Givón’s (2001) proximity principle, thatthe closer two entities are notionally, the closer they will be structurally.Vartiainen describes of the synchronic behavior of five directional modifiers(‘coming’, ‘past’, ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘following’) together with a diachronicstudy of ‘following’, where semantic change has advanced from a mere spatialmeaning to become used in either temporal or textual functions morefrequently.

EVALUATIONThis book presents valuable studies that pave the way for a deeperunderstanding of the interface between syntax and information structure on thediachronic axis. The guiding principles shared across different contributionsmake up a research agenda where syntax and pragmatics preserve theirindependence, but have some “communication paths,” similar to other linguisticlevels which information structure interacts with. The necessity of presentingmotivated scenarios of linguistic change would be the driving reason toconsider these interfaces.

This being so, the chapters cohere fundamentally, with minor differencesrelated to the extent functional explanations figure in the individualcontributions. The thematic progression goes from general aspects of syntax,such as word order and marked constructions, to smaller domains, such asnonfinite clauses and noun phrases. In this sense, the title of Part II ismisleading, since the respective chapters do not share the variation in genresand the development of a grammar of prose as their gist. Amplecross-referencing also gives the reader a better sense of integration betweenthe different themes within the book.

Two related positive aspects are the search for grounded explanations and theoffer of independent evidence for claims made. For instance, some chapterspresent data from other Germanic languages, from psycholinguistic experimentsor even from languages typologically related to English. The use of corporaand statistical analyses seems consistent with the goals.

It is worth noting three theoretical problems that could have been bettertreated. The first is model compatibility with the study of thesyntax-information structure interface. Regarding this, the authors argue thata grounded explanation for change should not reduce to featureweakening/strengthening, as entailed in the cartographic approach proposed inRizzi (1997), where semantic and pragmatic information is encoded in the realmof the syntax. However, the problem here is more connected to how pragmaticinformation has been generally disregarded in the cartographic approach, wherethe labels ‘Topic’ and ‘Focus’ are used as referring to “syntactic objects,putting aside their precise pragmatic values” (cf. Benincà 2006, p. 54). Onthe other hand, if a pairing between syntactic positions and pragmatic valueis recognized, as in the typology of topics proposed by Frascarelli &Hinterhölzl (2007) and Bianchi & Frascarelli (2010), one can relate a meaningchange to different syntactic positions. In sum, a “communication path” isensured. Second, is the issue of motives for change. Quantitative reasons areinvariably invoked in various chapters, including opacity in the PrimaryLinguistic Data in the language acquisition process (2, 5), extension or lossof linguistic functions (8, 12, 13), or “drift” created by the very skewing ofdata frequencies (Westergaard 2010) (5). However, further theoreticalreflection is needed, as observed by van Linden and Davidse. A third problemwould be accounting both for stable principles guiding variation and for theimpact of distinct phenomena on another linguistic level in an integrated way.This would account for the creation, loss or just shift in information-basedvariation.

Some of the specific decisions throughout the book direct the reader to ad hocsolutions and unanswered questions that challenge those interested in thisarea. In spite of this, some contributions may be helpful for those startingresearch on the topic, since hints on data selection, classification andquantification are provided. For this reason, the book is useful not only forthose working on the history of English, but for any historical linguist.

REFERENCESAsher N. & Vieu, L. 2005. Subordinating and coordinating discourse relations.Lingua 115, 591-610.

Benincà, P. 2006. A Detailed Map of the Left Periphery of Medieval Romance. InZanuttini, R. et al. (eds.), Crosslinguistic research in syntax and semantics:Negation, tense, and clausal architecture, 53-86. Washington, DC: GeorgetownUniversity Press.

Bianchi, P. & Frascarelli, M. 2010. Is Topic a Root Phenomenon? Iberia 2,43-88.

Carroll, M. & Lambert, M. 2003. Information structure in narratives and therole of grammaticised knowledge: A study of adult French and German learnersof English. In Dimroth, C. & Starren, M. (eds.), Information Structure and theDynamics of Language Acquisition, 267-287. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Frascarelli, M. & Hinterhölzl, R. 2007. Types of Topics in German and Italian.In Winkler, S. & Schwabe, K. (eds.), On Information Structure, Meaning andForm, 87-116. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Givón, T. 1983. Topic continuity in discourse: An introduction. In Givón, T.(ed.), Topic Continuity in Discourse: A quantitative cross-language study,1-41. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Givón, T. 2001. Syntax: an introduction. 2 vols. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Prince, E.F. 1981. Toward a taxonomy of given-new information. In Cole, P.(ed.), Radical Pragmatics, 223-255. New York: Academic Press.

Rizzi, L. 1997. The fine structure of the left periphery. In Haegeman, L.(ed.), Elements of Grammar: Handbook of Generative Syntax, 281-337. Dordrecht:Kluwer.

Westergaard, M.R. 2010. Cue-based acquisition and information structure driftin diachronic language development. In Ferraresi, G. & Lühr, R. (eds.),Diachronic Studies on Information Structure: Language Acquisition and Change,87-116. Berlin: de Gruyter.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERAroldo Andrade is a postdoctoral fellow at the State University of Campinas.His research focus is the relation between morphosyntactic change andinformation structure in Portuguese. For his PhD he studied the change in therealization of clitic climbing in European Portuguese with comparison to otherRomance languages.

Page Updated: 30-Mar-2013