LINGUIST List 27.1484

Tue Mar 29 2016

Review: Cog Sci; Discourse; Ling Theories; Semantics; Syntax: Huumo, Helasvuo (2015)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 08-Dec-2015
From: Kim Jensen <>
Subject: Subjects in Constructions – Canonical and Non-Canonical
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Marja-Liisa Helasvuo
EDITOR: Tuomas Huumo
TITLE: Subjects in Constructions – Canonical and Non-Canonical
SERIES TITLE: Constructional Approaches to Language 16
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Kim Ebensgaard Jensen, Aalborg University

Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote


Edited by Marja-Liisa Helasvuo and Tuomas Huumo, 'Subjects in Constructions – Canonical and Non-Canonical' (henceforth SiC) is the sixteenth installment in John Benjamin's influential book series, Constructional Approaches to Language. As its title indicates, SiC is devoted to subjects and subjecthood in cognitive linguistics and discourse-functional linguistics; more specifically, the volume deals with constructions (in cognitive-linguistic and discourse-functional-linguistic perspectives) with non-canonical subjects. An edited book, SiC contains ten papers distributed over three thematic sections. The first section focuses on non-canonical subjects in grammatical and discursive perspectives, while the second section is devoted to the characteristics of different types of non-prototypical subjects. Lastly, section three contains papers that discuss constructions that contain subjects and their statuses within the grammatical systems of the different object languages that these chapters treat. In addition to these papers, SiC features an introduction by the editors.

The introduction is entitled 'Canonical and non-canonical subjects in constructions: Perspectives from cognition and discourse'. Written by the editors, Marja-Liisa Helasvuo and Tuomas Huumo, the introduction presents the agenda of the volume and provides an overview of the papers within. Moreover, a discussion of different possible cognitive and discourse-functional perspectives on subjects is provided, and a useful list of general topics covered in the volume is also offered.

Section one is entitled 'Grammatical and discourse perspectives on non-canonical subjects' and contains three papers. The first paper is entitled 'On the subject of subject in Finnish' and is written by Tuomas Huumo and Arja-Liisa Helasvuo. In this article, they address a number of features of the subject in Finnish, such as case marking, semantic role, and agreement. Looking at different types of construction, the authors address, among other things, referential relations. Operating mainly within cognitive grammar (e.g. Langacker 1987, 1991, 2008), the notion of an eNP is introduced in this paper.

In the next chapter, Renate Pajusalu's 'Hidden subjects in conversation: Estonian personless verb forms as referential devices', the author investigates discursive aspects of implicit referents of the verbless and the impersonal verb forms in Estonian. While the two constructions appear similar, Pajasalu shows that they are functionally different in that they have different contexts of use in conversation.

The last chapter in section one is Hanna Jokela and Helen Plado's 'Subjects under generic conditions: Implied subjects in Finnish and Estonian if-clauses'. The authors address generic reference in three constructions: impersonal,, zero person , and the da-infinitive from Estonian. Focusing on their use in generic conditional contexts, the authors address the differences between these three construction types and their interactions with the contexts in which they appear.

There are four papers in section two 'Stretching the limits of subjecthood'. The first one is Michel Achard's 'Abstract locational subjects: Field and settings in French and English', in which the author explores the French and English abstract locational pronouns 'il', 'a', 'it', and 'there'. Anchored in cognitive linguistics – primarily Langacker's (e.g. 1987, 1991, 2008) cognitive grammar framework - Achard argues that the four forms serve to profile abstract regions, where the referent of the complement appearing after the verb is located. Moreover, it is proposed that the four pronouns form a natural class of abstract locational subjects based on the above-mentioned profiling function with each form profiling a different kind of region.

In the following paper, 'Subjecthood of the agent argument in Estonian passive constructions', Liina Lindström looks at elative and adessive case marking of agents in Estonian periphrastic passives. Taking a diachronic perspective, Lindström compares the period 1800-1850 to the 1990s and finds, among other things, that a change occurred in the elative in which it had become restricted to inanimate actors in the 1990s, while it was the main agent-marking device in passives in the period 1800-1850. Interestingly, the author attributes this change partially to a diminishing influence of German on Estonian, remarking that the elative is a semantic counterpart of the German 'von'-passive. With the German influence waning, the elative has become restricted to atypical low-animacy agents.

In Ilja A. Serant's paper 'Categorization and semantics of subject-like obliques: A cross-linguistic perspective', the author investigates the semantics obliques in subject(-like) functions. Drawing on functional cognitive linguistics – more specifically on Langacker's (e.g. 1987, 1991, 2008) cognitive grammar and construction grammar (e.g. Goldberg 1995, Goldberg 2001) – Serant's is a typological study of non-prototypical trajector constructions in a variety of languages. In this chapter, a three-way classificatory system of such constructions is proposed, which consists of the following categories: 1) lexeme-driven non-prototypical trajector constructions, 2) gram-driven non-prototypical trajector constructions, and 3) syntax-driven trajector constructions. Serant further suggests that these constructions are organized in a radial category network (Lakoff 1987) as subconstructions of a type of what she calls the consequency construction.

The final paper in section two is 'The world is raining: Meteorological predicates and their subjects in a typological perspective', authors Pål K. Eriksen Seppo Kittliä, and Leena Kolehmainen offer a wide-ranging typological study of meteorological predicate constructions (such as 'it is raining', 'it is snowing', 'it is thundering' etc.), arguing that the semantic peculiarities of such constructions have linguistic consequences, some of which result in their subjects behaving non-canonically. The authors suggest that three patterns recur across languages: 1) the predicate type, in which the meteorological phenomenon appears in the predicate but the subject does not refer to the phenomenon (as in Palestinian Arabic 'ɨddunya tɨshti' [literally 'the world is raining']), 2) the argument type, in which the subject (or a subject-like nominal) expresses meteorological phenomenon and the predicate is semantically superfluous (as in Korean 'pika onta' [literally 'rain comes']), and 3) the argument-predicate type, in which both the subject (or subject-like nominal) express the meteorological phenomenon (as in Turkish 'yağmur yağiyor' [literally 'rain rains']).

The third section of SiC is entitled 'Subjects in networks of constructions' and contains three papers, the first of which is Jaakko Leino's 'The syntactic and semantic history of the Finnish genitive subject: Construction networks and the rise of a grammatical category'. Leino focuses on five constructional contexts of Finnish genitive subjects and the non-finite verb forms that accompany such subjects: the necessive infinitive, the permissive infinitive, the temporal infinitive , the partint participle, and the referative participle (and its respective subconstructions). Against this backdrop, the author proposes three grammaticalization sources – namely, the dative genitive path, the genitive attribute path, and the path of genitive-accusative syncretism.

Aki-Juhani Kyröläinen's contribution 'From canon and monolith to clusters: A constructionist model of subjecthood in Russian' takes Croft's (2001) radical construction grammar and ideas from Langacker's (e.g. 1987, 1991, 2008) cognitive grammar as its theoretical framework. Challenging the traditional applications of syntactic tests of subjecthood, the author proposes a clustered model of subjecthood, drawing on statistical cluster analysis (Kaufman & Rousseeuw 1990). Based on a range of features, Kyröläinen applies cluster analysis and a neighbor-joining algorithm to build a radial network (Lakoff 1987) of subjecthood in Russian and finds that Russian the nominative and the dative are the two clustered subject constructions in Russian.

Concluding the volume is Laura Janda and Dagmar Divjak's 'The role of non-canonical subjects in the overall grammar of a language: A case study of Russian'. Like the previous chapter, this study also proposes a radial category network of constructions. Focusing on dative subjects, the authors present an experiment based on discourse-cohesion and find the result do not seem to support the hypothesis that there are differences in the thinking for speaking of speakers of Russian and English.


'Subjects in Constructions – Canonical and Non-Canonical' is well structured, and the division of the contributions into three thematic parts makes sense. Consequently, navigating through the volume for articles of specific interest is quite easy for the reader, making the volume very reader-friendly. Speaking of reader-friendliness, I should also point out that in addition to the obligatory index of subjects, SiC includes an extremely useful index of constructions, where readers can look up specific construction types and see where in the volume they are discussed. This is a feature of the book series that SiC is part of, and should, in my opinion, be made standard in all book length publications within the framework of construction-based linguistics.

Content-wise, the volume is generally extremely interesting in that it primarily addresses non-canonical subjects. Overall, this reflects a general stance in the volume which moves away from the rigid, Aristotelian category-based approach to syntactic categories embraced by formalist approaches to syntax.. Prime examples of this are Kyröläinen's chapter, Janda and Divjak's chapters, and Serant's application of radial category theory in her study of non-canonical trajector constructions.. Moreover, Pajusalu's chapter includes a range of discourse-pragmatic features which would otherwise be completely ignored in traditional formal syntactic frameworks. Of course, seeing that all contributions within SiC are anchored in functionalist syntactic theory (such as discourse-functional linguistics, construction grammar, and cognitive grammar), this orientation should come as no surprise, but it does suggest that although there are obvious differences between cognitive linguistics and discourse-functional linguistics, they are still allies of sorts and seem to share a common foundation.

Although topic- and theory-wise, the volume is very interesting and should appeal to most functionalist and/or cognitivist syntacticians, SiC strikes me as a bit restricted in terms of the object languages that the chapters within cover. While other languages are discussed in the volume, SiC does have a special focus on Finnish and Estonian, with a secondary focus on Russian, which means that it is probably of particular interest to researchers that have those three languages as their object languages. Thus, it is a valuable source to such readers, but it also means that parts of the book are characterized by somewhat of an imbalance in terms of object languages. For instance, the first section deals exclusively with Finnish and Estonian. To me, it would have been interesting to see work on discursive features of subjects in other languages as well. In any case, one can hope that the three papers in section one will inspire future work on discourse-functional aspects of non-canonical subjects in other languages in the future. Part two is a bit more varied in terms of object languages with Achard's chapter comparing data from French and English, and Serant's chapter and Eriksen, Kittilä and Kolehmainen's chapter both, by virtue of being anchored in language typology, make use of data from several languages. The latter in particular includes an impressive catalog of cross-linguistic data. Part three contains one chapter on Finnish and two chapters on Russian, again contributing to the imbalance of the volume. Now, it is important to emphasize that this is not a critique of the fact that the book contains reports on linguistic research into non-canonical subjects in Finnish, Estonian, and Russian. Criticizing SiC for that would be uninformed to put it mildly. The research presented in the chapters devoted to these three languages, as well as in the remaining chapters, is incredibly important, groundbreaking, and of high quality. My point is just, as mentioned above, that it would have been interesting as a reader to engage with research into non-canonical subjects in more different languages. However, as I also mentioned above, one can hope that the research reported in SiC will inspire linguists working with other languages to address subjecthood in similar fashions.

SiC is a research anthology and, as can be expected, contains papers that display a high level of sophistication and that address advanced and complex issues pertaining to grammatical subjects. This means that the contents in SiC are primarily useful for research purposes and not so much for pedagogical purposes. That is, the chapters in SiC are not suitable as course readings – at least not at undergraduate level. I can imagine that one or more of the papers in SiC can be used in advanced courses in grammar and linguistic theory a postgraduate level. For instance, Huumo and Helasvuo's chapter on Finnish subjects could be used in an advanced course in Finnish syntax at postgraduate level, and Serant's contribution could be used as reading material in a course at postgraduate level in construction grammar (this applies to all three chapters in part three, too) as well as in a course in cognitive-functional language typology. Leino's chapter could be used in a postgraduate level course in grammaticalization. However, the main target readership of this book remains professional researchers in linguistics. Offering deep cognitive or discourse-functional insights into aspects of non-canonicity in subjects, every paper in the volume is a valuable contribution to the study of syntax. Of course, those who will benefit the most from SiC are linguists within the paradigms of cognitive linguistics and discourse-functional linguistics, but linguists with an interest in argument structure who work within other paradigms may also find parts of the volume interesting and useful. For instance, Pajasalu's chapter should be relevant to linguists working at the intersection between discourse-pragmatics and syntax, while both Serant's and Eriksen, Kittilä and Kolehmainen's contributions should be of relevance to language typologists.

Given the thematic scope of the volume and the groundbreaking nature of most of the contributions within, I would not be surprised to see papers from SiC appear on bibliographies in future publications on subjects, argument structure constructions, valence and functional syntax.


Croft, W.A. (2001). Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, A.E. (1995). Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kaufman, L & P.J. Rousseeeuw (1990). Finding Groups in Data: An Introduction to Cluster Analysis. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, R.W. (1987). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar – vol. 1: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, R.W. (1991). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar – vol. 2: Descriptive Application. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, R.W. (2008). Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paradis, E, J. Clause & K. Strimmer (2004). APE: Analyses of phylogenetics and evolution in R language. Biostatistics, 20(2): 289-200.


Kim Ebensgaard Jensen is an associate professor of English at Aalborg University where he teaches courses in English linguistics and discourse analysis. Research coordinator of the Languages and Linguistics Research Group, his research interests include cognitive linguistics, construction grammar, and corpus linguistics.

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