LINGUIST List 24.4963

Thu Dec 05 2013

Review: Morphology; Syntax; Typology: Brown et al. (2013)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 01-Sep-2013
From: Daniel Hieber <>
Subject: Canonical Morphology and Syntax
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Dunstan BrownEDITOR: Marina ChumakinaEDITOR: Greville G. CorbettTITLE: Canonical Morphology and SyntaxPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Daniel William Hieber, University of California, Santa Barbara

INTRODUCTIONThis edited collection is the first book-length work on Canonical Typology(henceforth CT), a methodology for typological research presented in Corbett(2005) and since applied by various typologists (Baerman, Brown & Corbett2005; Comrie 2003; Evans 2003; Polinsky 2003; Spencer 2005; Corbett 2006 isalso written entirely in the CT framework, though CT is not its focus). Whilehalf the contributions come from the Surrey Morphology Group where CT has itsorigins, the remainder come from worldwide, attesting to CT’s growingreputation. Also included in this collection is a posthumous chapter by AnnaSiewierska in conjunction with Dik Bakker. This volume is xiv + 312 pages (261without the back matter), with Oxford University Press’s dependablyhigh-quality construction and formatting.

Canonical Typology is a novel methodology in that it does not seek toestablish the essential or defining features of a linguistic phenomenon.Instead, CT examines clusters of properties (‘criteria’) that converge on acanonical point and strongly co-vary, and yet are logically independent ofeach other. The typologist then maps out the ‘theoretical space ofpossibilities’ (or ‘base’) by examining all the ways a phenomenon mightdeviate from its canonical core along these dimensions. This method is usefulfor presenting multidimensional typologies, or shifting the focus from anepiphenomenal category to the components that interact to give that categoryshape. The papers in this volume apply this methodology to the exploration ofa variety of disparate grammatical phenomena.

SUMMARYDunstan Brown and Marina Chumakina begin with ‘What there is and what theremight be’, where they present CT as a methodology designed to address theCorrespondence Problem, i.e. “the issue of correspondence between similarlynamed features in different languages” (1). CT handles this problem byshifting the emphasis from definitions to the criteria that constitute thosedefinitions. Whenever a construction shares some, but not all, of theproperties of the canonical instance, CT forces the typologist to describeprecisely which features are present or absent in crosslinguistically viableterms. After outlining CT’s basic terms and concepts, Brown & Chumakinaprovide examples of CT in practice (e.g. the IPA vowel chart), and establishhistorical precedents for CT, such as Sasse’s (2001) notion of ‘cardinalpoints’ of reference in describing ‘category squish’.

In 'A base for canonical negation', Oliver Bond questions how typologistsshould delimit the theoretical space (which he calls the ‘base’) for a givenlinguistic phenomenon. What’s the scope of investigation, and how does onedetermine what should be included in the typology? When typologists begin byselecting or arguing for the ‘best’ definition for a construction of interest,what makes these definitions the ‘best’? Bond suggests that instead ofendlessly debating the necessary and sufficient criteria for thesedefinitions, the base should include both the canonical and all thenon-canonical, borderline cases from the literature as well -- all thevariation known to exist for the phenomenon. Bond then applies this procedurein outlining a base for negation. This chapter is interesting in that it laysthe framework for the crosslinguistic study of negation, but does notundertake such a study itself. It instead establishes the canonical points ofreference that future studies of negation can calibrate to.

Greville Corbett’s chapter, ‘Canonical morphosyntactic features’, describesthe interaction of morphosyntactic features (e.g. number, case) and parts ofspeech (Corbett’s preferred term, rather than ‘lexical category’ or ‘wordclass’). The problem motivating this chapter is that perfectly canonicalmorphosyntactic features would create parts of speech that areindistinguishable from one another -- every feature would be represented inevery part of speech. This problem cannot be resolved by appeal to semantics,since often the morphosyntactic encoding of a certain feature value will alsoencode non-canonical meanings (e.g. the use of the second person pluralmorpheme to encode politeness in French). Corbett notes that when one group oflexemes lacks a certain morphosyntactic feature, or feature value, that set oflexemes constitutes a distinct part of speech. This chapter neatly shows howcertain combinations of deviations from the canonical give rise tocommonly-known morphosyntactic phenomena or word classes, such as gender(where certain lexemes may take only one feature value, depending on theirgender) or pronouns (a small set of lexemes that are the only ones to exhibitthe person feature). The chapter could however use more examples to illustratethe abstract ideas involved. And it is not until later in the chapter thatCorbett mentions that one of his criteria for morphosyntactic features MUST bemet, and therefore is part of the definition / base, leaving one to wonder whyit wasn’t described as part of the base in the first place. Overall, though,this chapter is an exciting addition to the literature on parts of speech,suggesting that parts of speech are epiphenomenal in nature.

In ‘Some problems in the typology of quotation: A canonical approach’,Nicholas Evans takes CT beyond its traditional domain of morphology into therealm of discourse, and in doing so illustrates the usefulness of positingcanonical ideals that may be completely unrealized in actual languages. Mosttypologies divide the phenomenon of quotation into direct speech, indirectspeech, and other, which overlooks the diversity of the in-between cases.Variations include shifting person but not tense to reflect the originalspeaker’s speech (Russian), or coding some deictic spatial terms to theoriginal speaker and others to the current speaker (Nez Perce). Previously,the coding perspective was treated as a binary choice between the originalspeaker versus the reporting speaker. Evans asks whether it is possible for alanguage to simultaneously represent the perspectives of both. Evans’inspiration for this appears to have been “trirelational kin terms”, whichsimultaneously calculate kin relationships from two perspectives at once (90).While no known case of quotation is truly ‘biperspectival’, logophoricpronouns do approximate this, where the third person subject in reportedspeech is coreferential with the current speaker. The traditional direct vs.indirect speech dichotomy fails to capture the unique nature of logophoricity,demonstrating the usefulness of positing biperspectival speech as an onlypartially-realized canonical point.

Irina Nikolaeva debunks a similar false dichotomy in ‘Unpacking finiteness’,showing that finiteness is not a scalar notion from greater to lessersyntactic independence, as is usually proposed. Finiteness instead requires amultidimensional, canonical approach to capture its range and dimensions ofvariation. If canonical finite clauses are independent clauses, thenfiniteness is necessarily a language-specific concept, because differentcriteria must be used to determine syntactic independence for each language.Taking finiteness to be a property of clauses rather than verbs, Nikolaevaexamines the assorted criteria, separating them into morphology, syntax, andsemantics. Morphologically, (canonical) non-finite clauses show a reduction inthe realization of features or feature values; syntactically, they aredependent on the main clause, and may be limited in licensing subjects; andsemantically, they do not show independent temporal anchoring or makeassertions. Nikolaeva shows that canonical non-finite clauses are those whichexhibit all or most of these features, and that non-canonical finite clausescan be non-canonical in a variety of ways, depending on which criteria arebeing violated. The result is a robust typology of the properties that make upfiniteness.

Andrew Spencer and Ana Luís present a typology of ‘The canonical clitic’.Clitics are unusual in the history of typology in that they have long beenrecognized to possess a mixture of the properties of affixes and functionwords -- a clear intersection of criteria amenable to description in CT.Spencer & Luís therefore define both canonical affixes and canonical functionwords, and then show how clitics are an amalgamation of the non-canonicalproperties from each. No study has yet successfully defined clitics as asimple combination of properties of affixes and function words, i.e. a pointbetween affix and word. Spencer & Luís suggest that this is because the twopoints do not lie on a single continuum, but are orthogonal to each other. Putdifferently, a non-canonical affix is not necessarily a canonical functionword, and vice versa. Clitics may simply be non-canonical along bothdimensions at once. This chapter, like the previous two, again illustrates thesuccess of CT in breaking down false dichotomies in typology, in this casethrough the use of ‘negative’ definitions. A small criticism of this chapter,however, is that some of the criteria put forth seem arbitrary and unsupportedby the literature (whereas prior empirical research is an important part ofdefining the canonical base, as pointed out by Bond). An example is theproposition that the canonical affix is placed to the right of a word. Thismay be true, but no literature is cited to support the claim, and noexplanation is given as to why this realization of suffixation should beviewed as more canonical than others.

In 'Passive agents: prototypical vs. canonical passives’, Anna Siewierska andDik Bakker ask how we determine what is canonical and non-canonical for agiven criterion. They investigate whether the expression of overt agentsshould be considered canonical for passives. Frequency-based accounts suggestthat overt agents are not part of the canon, while exemplar-based accountsclaim that they are. The authors note that one principle for determiningcanonical properties is whether those properties help to distinguish one typeof canonical phenomenon from another. In the case of passives, overt agents dojust that; a canonical property of anticausatives is that they do not exhibitan overt agent. Therefore, the presence of an overt agent is a distinguishingfeature of the canonical passive. The authors also acknowledge that frequencycontributes to what we consider canonical, and so they conduct a survey of 279languages to determine the frequency and realization of overt agents inpassives. They conclude that the overt expression of agents does correlatewith many of the other canonical properties of passives, and so overt agentsshould be seen as part of the canonical passive. The chapter providesexcellent guidance for how to proceed when there isn’t yet enough data on aphenomenon to determine what is canonical and what is not, and illustrates thesuccess of CT in pointing the way in such an investigation.

Martin Everaert provides a canonical typology of reflexivization in ‘Thecriteria for reflexivization’. Like other chapters, the focus is onestablishing a framework for a descriptive analysis of reflexivization, ratherthan a detailed empirical study. A problem with reflexivization is thatlanguages, contrary to what is often assumed, frequently have more than onestrategy for encoding reflexives. How can we describe these other than tosimply call them all ‘reflexives’? Which strategies are more canonical?Everaert begins his answer by situating reflexivization as a type of anaphoricdependency (including deictic pronouns, logophoric elements, etc.). Thedistinguishing feature separating reflexives from other anaphors is theexistence of an identity relation between two co-arguments. With this as hisbase, Everaert describes three sets of criteria for reflexivization:properties of the ‘binder’, the morphosyntactic encoding of the identityrelationship, and the domain of the binder-bindee relation. He illustrates howthis multidimensional framework neatly captures the observed variation forreflexivization, addressing the problem of multiple coding strategies. Thechapter is straightforward, clearly written, and insightful.

In ‘Possession and modification -- a perspective from Canonical Typology’,Irina Nikolaeva and Andrew Spencer show how possession and modification,typically thought to constitute two ends of a continuum, actually emerge fromthe intersection of several semantic and morphosyntactic criteria.Interestingly, the non-canonical cases of possession and modification turn outto be other well-recognized phenomena, such as alienable possession ormodification-by-noun. While canonical possessees are semantically relationalnouns (kin terms, meronyms), and therefore constitute a type of inalienablepossession, non-relational possessees like ‘hat’ are less canonical, andconstitute alienable possession. Similarly, while canonical modifiers areadjectives, it is also possible for nouns to serve as non-canonical modifiers,creating modification-by-noun. Spencer and Nikolaeva’s is the first to relatethese four phenomena in a systematic way.

The book ends with 'An ontological approach to Canonical Typology: laying thefoundations for e-linguistics’ by Scott Farrar, advocating the use of theGeneral Ontology for Linguistic Description (GOLD) in describing linguisticdata, and pointing out parallels between CT and the principles for building anontology. Farrar provides suggestions for how CT might be implemented in anontology as part of a crosslinguistic database. An ontology-driven approachallows entities to be members of a canonical class, without assuming anidentity between members of that class. In other words, the ontology couldaddress the problem of crosslinguistic classification and comparison.Membership in a class is defeasible, so that the properties of that class areviolable. Canonicity could then be measured by determining how many propertiesare violated by the specific linguistic construction under consideration. Thischapter lays the groundwork for implementing a crosslinguistic databasecouched in canonical descriptions.

EVALUATIONMany of these papers expand and refine the canonical approach in useful ways.Bond’s chapter is the first to make explicit the method of establishing thecanonical base, while Evans’ illustrates the usefulness in describingtheoretically possible but empirically unattested phenomena as canonicalreference points for examining borderline or intermediate cases. The book doesnot aim to provide a discussion of theoretical or methodological issues,however. In fact, many of the authors, and Corbett especially, are oddlysilent on the issue of crosslinguistic categories versus comparative concepts(Haspelmath 2010). When Corbett speaks of the Correspondence Problem, he isprimarily interested in terminological rather than linguistic correspondence.This ambivalence is a potential merit of CT, in that any typologist can applythe method regardless of their theoretical assumptions. At the same time,throughout the book there is an implicit recognition of the need forcrosslinguistically viable comparative concepts, couched in language-generalrather than language-specific terms. I take this to be another merit of CT: inshifting focus away from superordinate categories like Noun or Finiteness andtowards the criteria that constitute them, it encourages typologists to seethe criteria as ‘basic’, i.e. having real status as a manipulable piece of thegrammar of a language, and the superordinate categories as emergent. Despitelacking any explicit acknowledgement of this stance, this is precisely theposition the authors in this volume appear to adopt.

Some readers might criticize this book for containing few exemplifying data.But while criteria are based heavily on reviews of previous literature, theaim of the chapters is not to provide comprehensive typologies based oncrosslinguistic surveys but to describe a theoretical space in which futuretypological studies may be situated. Future studies of finiteness, forexample, may now describe the exact realization of finiteness in a givenlanguage using the thirteen criteria set down by Nikolaeva.

To conclude, this volume successfully illustrates how Canonical Typology helpsresolve a number of debates in typological description. In many cases, thecanonical typologies presented expand the scope of investigation for a giventopic to include phenomena previously thought irrelevant (e.g. Nikolaeva &Spencer’s links between alienable and inalienable possession and modification,or Evans’ links between direct and indirect speech and logophor). In allcases, these typologies pave the way for a much more robust and detaileddescription of these phenomena, which future linguists should find invaluable.The multidimensional nature of the criteria in CT is also highly amenable tomultivariate statistical approaches to typology (Bickel 2011), making this anarea ripe for exploration. I recommend this book to anyone seeking anintroduction to the Canonical approach in typology, as well as to practicingtypologists who are interested in ways they might improve or add more detailto their typological descriptions.

REFERENCESBaerman, Matthew, Dunstan Brown & Greville G. Corbett. 2005. “Thesyntax-morphology interface: a study of syncretism”. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Bickel, Balthasar. 2011. Statistical modeling of language universals.“Linguistic Typology” 15(2). 401-414. doi:10.1515/LITY.2011.027.

Brown, Dunstan, Marina Chumakina & Greville G. Corbett (eds.). 2013.“Canonical morphology and syntax”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Comrie, Bernard. 2003. When agreement gets trigger-happy. In Dunstan Brown,Greville G. Corbett & Carole Tiberius (eds.), “Agreement: a typologicalperspective” (Transactions of the Philological Society 101), 313–337. Oxford:Blackwell.

Corbett, Greville G. 2005. The canonical approach in typology. In ZygmuntFrajzyngier, David Rood & Adam Hodges (eds.), “Linguistic diversity andlanguage theories”, 25-49. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Corbett, Greville G. 2006. “Agreement”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Nicholas. 2003. Typologies of agreement: some problems from Kayardild.In Dunstan Brown, Greville G. Corbett & Carole Tiberius (eds.), “Agreement: atypological perspective” (Transactions of the Philological Society 101),203-234. Oxford: Blackwell.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories incrosslinguistic studies. “Language” 86(3). 663-687. doi:10.1353/lan.2010.0021.

Polinsky, Maria. 2003. Non-canonical agreement is canonical. In Dunstan Brown,Greville G. Corbett & Carole Tiberius (eds.), “Agreement: a typologicalperspective” (Transactions of the Philological Society 101), 279-312. Oxford:Blackwell.

Sasse, Hans-Jürgen. 2001. Scales between nouniness and verbiness. In MartinHaspelmath & Ekkehard König (eds.), “Language typology and languageuniversals”, Vol. 1, 495-509. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Spencer, Andrew. 2005. Towards a typology of “mixed categories.” In C. OrhanOrgun & Peter Sells (eds.), “Morphology and the web of grammar”, 95-138.Stanford: CSLI.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERDanny Hieber is a graduate student in linguistics at the University ofCalifornia, Santa Barbara. Prior to grad school, he worked in Rosetta Stone’sEndangered Language Program to create language-learning software for theChitimacha, Iñupiaq, Navajo, and Inuttitut languages. His primary researchinterests are language typology, documentary and descriptive linguistics, andthe economics and praxeology of language. He holds a B.A. in linguistics andphilosophy from The College of William & Mary. Learn more about his work

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