LINGUIST List 28.2118

Mon May 08 2017

Review: Linguistic Theories; Syntax; Typology: Malchukov, Comrie (2015)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 01-May-2017
From: Ross Bilous <>
Subject: Set Valency Classes in the World’s Languages
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Andrej L. Malchukov
EDITOR: Bernard Comrie
TITLE: Set Valency Classes in the World’s Languages
SUBTITLE: Volume 1-2
SERIES TITLE: Comparative Handbooks of Linguistics 1/1+2
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Ross Bilous, York University

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Valency Classes in the World’s Languages, Volumes 1 and 2,” edited by Bernard Comrie,
constitute a handbook of a series whose purpose is to offer the academic readership a uniform account of empirical studies on a particular grammatical feature or construction from a cross-linguistically comparative perspective. This handbook, divided into of three parts, is made up of a sizable collection of articles whose authors concern themselves primarily with inter-linguistic variation in argument coding and argument alternations of different classes of verbs, with a view to revealing universal as well as language-particular characteristics in their argument-structure properties. Part I (“The Leipzig Valency Classes Project: Introducing the Framework”) synthesizes the results of research on a “relatively large set of core verb meanings (70) for a relatively small set of languages (30)” (p. 3), with focus on lexical properties of verbs representing different valency classes. Part II (“Case Studies”) contains 30 articles accounting for the results of questionnaire-based studies conducted on different languages of the world. Finally, Part III (“Theoretical Framework”) consists of 4 articles by leading scholars who made substantial contributions to the study of verb classes in consideration of their valency properties. The handbook also contains a list of abbreviations (p. ix), Acknowledgements (p. xi), List of authors (p. xiii), Language index (p. 1703), and Subject index (1709).

Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) of Part I outlines the approaches to the study of verbs in terms of their valency, their drawbacks, and the semantic map method developed within the frame of the Leipzig Valency Classes project (a first systematized cross-linguistic attempt at laying the foundations of a comprehensive typological classification of valency classes) and of the earlier Ditransitive project. In the semantic map method verbs are cross-linguistically categorized on the basis of semantic similarities which reflect similarities in form and are encoded adjacently in a semantic space, assumed to be universal. Project participants studied 70 verbs in consideration of two verbal properties: coding properties (e.g. case and adpositional marking, etc.) and behavioral properties (e.g. object rearrangement, indefinite object omission, reflexivization, causativization, etc.). The major objective was to identify general patterns in verb syntax by means of examining cross-linguistically semantically equivalent verbs. The results of this research showed that, although verbs can be generally categorized based on their shared lexical properties (or by means of identification of coding frames and valency-increasing/valency-decreasing alternations), universal generalizations applicable to all verbs are impossible in view of the existence (across languages) of varying (structurally and semantically conditioned) exceptions in the syntactic behavior of certain verbs.

Chapter 2 (“Leipzig Questionnaire on valency classes”) of Part I explicates the structure of the questionnaire used in the study and “designed to obtain a consistent set of data from a representative set of languages” (pp. 27, 29). It contains a list of 70 verb meanings (=Vs, [p. 29]) with basic examples of valency patterns, coding and syntactic properties of Vs, argument (or uncoded case) alternations and diathetic alternations/valency changing operations (the availability of those two types of alternations depends largely on the morphological complexity of a language), and, finally, questions exploring further properties of individual verbs and of lexical classes. Chapter 3 (“Comparing verbal valency across languages”) deals with the concept of valency defining it in terms of “coding frames” and “role frames” and examining the necessity to limit it to “verb-specific” (pp. 42–47) elements (=arguments) in contrast with adjuncts (not verb-specific elements). By means of cross-linguistic comparison of equivalent verb meanings and of participant roles, the authors conclude that the distinction between arguments and adjuncts is not crucial for capturing central aspects of valency variation, and coding frames need first of all contain argument flags (information about cases and adpositions) and argument indexes (information about the person associated with the verb). Chapter 4 (“Valency classes and alternations: parameters of variation”) discusses the question of universality of valency classes as well as possible variation in their distributional properties in terms of availability of certain cross-linguistic regularities and of language-particular variations in coding patterns (e.g. zero valent or avalent verbs do not represent a universal pattern). Also, valency alternations (involving arguments only) are defined as sets “of two different coding frames” (p. 91) and four syntactic types of alternations are distinguished, based on the typological literature. In Chapter 5 (“Transitivity prominence”) the extent to which different languages use transitive encoding is discussed. An attempt to define the concept of transitivity is made, which we address below (see ¶4 of Evaluation). The results of the study show that transitivity prominence does not seem to be language-specific, but “decreasing transitivity prominence” (p. 144) is specific to a small series of verbs. The smallest in size, Chapter 5a follows up on Chapter 5 by assessing transitivity prominence from a statistical perspective, analyzing 49 two-argument verbs in about 30 languages. In Chapter 6, “Statistical observations on implicational (verb) hierarchies”, it is shown (based on the study of 5 types of verb alternations) how a method can be developed to study implicational hierarchies and it is suggested that the results of synchronic research on implicational scales can be used for diachronic predictions and research, and that a procedure applied for Guttman scaling (a method used to determine the degree to which a data-set conforms to an implicational hierarchy [p. 156]) may need further investigation by means of tests and comparisons.

Chapters 7 to 11 of Part II are case studies of valency patterns and valency alternations in some typologically different languages of Africa. They are Nllng, Mandinka, Emai, Yorûbá, and Modern Standard Arabic. In Nllng, three major grammatical relations are generally predicated by semantics, and its dependent marking system makes it possible to predict coding frames and valency alternations for the majority of verbs. Also, the vast majority of verbs fall into one of the three proposed classes, and many verbs have more than one coding frame. In Mandinka, there is a clear-cut distinction between transitive and intransitive constructions, and the number of core nominal terms is limited to two (null core arguments being totally excluded). Its valency patterns are represented by coding frames of mono-, bi- and tri-valent verbs. There is also a number of (un)coded valency alternations. Next, Emai equivalent data reflect four basic valency types: monovalent, bivalent, trivalent and quadrivalent. The majority of verbs are, however, bivalent. As to valency alternations, some verbs exhibit no alternations, while many do. In Yorûbá, valency frames are identified in view of the syntactic properties of its verbs. There are 10 basic coding frames in this language (keeping in mind that it does not have zero argument predicates [or avalent verbs]) and 5 major valency alternations. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is characterized by the availability of 9 coding frames. Derivational patterns (or stems) have more than one valency changing function. Basic function stems are causative, reflexive, reciprocal, and passive. Valency alternations in MSA are of two types: morphologically uncoded and verb-coded (increasing and decreasing, or reducing), the latter – due to stem variation.

Chapters 12 to 21 of Part II deal with valency classes and valency alternations in the following languages of Eurasia: Icelandic, Italian, Eastern Armenian, Bezhta, Even (North Tungusic), Ket, Chintang, Mandarin, Japanese, and Ainu. Chapter 12 explains some peculiarities of how two- and three-place predicates instantiate different argument structure constructions in Icelandic (a language with rich case morphology), such as Nominative/ Dative/ Accusative/ Genitive Subject Constructions, and different ditransitive constructions. Case variation in this language is an important source of uncoded alternations. Chapter 13 discusses some major cases of argument coding and valency changing strategies in Italian, with reference to different patterns of avalent, monovalent, bivalent, and trivalent verbs. This language also disposes of some uncoded (e.g. object omission, oblique subject alternation, etc.) and coded alternations (e.g. voice alternations) as well as other argument rearranging alternations (e.g. conative alternation, locative alternation, etc.). In Chapter 14, two and the only marked valency alternations (the mediopassive and the causative) and various unmarked alternations (e.g. reciprocal, object omission, proprietive, etc.) in Eastern Armenian are discussed and the concept of “extended valencies” (p. 496) accounting for optional and obligatory markedness of identical participants is introduced. Bezhta, addressed in Chapter 15, is a language possibly lacking zero valency. Its verbs take at least one argument in either Absolutive or Ergative case. Its uncoded alternations are represented by case variation and its coded alternations – by antipassive, causative, potential, and other constructions. Both types of alternations have semantic implications going beyond mere valency changes. Chapter 16 tackles the issues of valency classification en Even. In order to identify valency frames, the authors try to distinguish between arguments and adjuncts. Then, case-coded and verb-coded (among some other types of changes) alternations (e.g. voice constructions) are addressed. Chapter 17 shows how unique features (e.g. absence of derivational categories, absence of labile verbs, limited morphological means to express voice, wide use of periphrastic and suppletive constructions, existence of a small set of [both morphologically and syntactically] avalent verbs) of Ket morphosyntax are appropriate for identifying in this language valency classes and valency increasing and decreasing alternations. Next, the already mentioned above distinction between arguments and adjuncts is also important for the study of the Chihtang language. Chapter 18 addresses this issue, since the common morphosyntactic criteria (e.g. referentiality of NPs as an indicator of argumenthood) are considered to be of little utility in this case. Valency frames are generally lexically conditioned and later modified by some syntactic operations. Case variation (e.g. differential case marking) is mainly at the source of what the authors call “flexible valency” (p. 669). Based on the study of 663 verbs, 15 predicate frames have been identified. As to valency alternations, a distinction is made between alternations with a dedicated marker and those without one. Chapter 19 analyzes valency in Mandarin in view of its relevant typological and unique (e.g. state-denoting lexemes behaving like verbs) properties. Valency classes are identified based on the distinction between mono-, bi- and tri-valent verbs. Six out of seven major valency alternations are uncoded (no morphological coding of the verb is observed). Japanese valency classes are discussed in Chapter 20; Japanese is a language with argument-adjunct marked distinction. While identifying valency classes, the authors took into account not only the number of possible arguments of a predicate, but also its syntactic and semantic status reflecting its entire meaning. Among the productive coded alternations (e.g. passive, causative, etc.) less productive constructions are detected (e.g. lexically-governed transitivity alternations). As to the uncoded alternations, these are instantiated on some lexically-restricted classes of predicates, except for one uncoded alternation that is possible without imposed restrictions. Chapter 21 is the last chapter included in the first volume. It presents the results of the study on Ainu valency. The authors found no major problems in identifying valency patterns in this well-documented endangered language due to the fact that its arguments and adjuncts are encoded differently. As to valency patterns, only 5 of them were identified: avalent, monovalent, bivalent, transitive, bivalent equative copula, and trivalent transitive.Uncoded alternations are seen as “zero-causative derivations” (p. 819, due to the existence of labile verb pairs), whereas coded alternations are represented by two valency-increasing and five valency-decreasing types of constructions.

Chapters 22 to 27 analyze the coding frames and valency alternations of 6 languages of Austronesia and the Pacific, which are as follows: Balinese, Jakarta Indonesian, Sri Lanka Malay, Xârâcùù, Nen, and Jaminjung. And finally, Chapters 28 to 36 examine the constructions under study in the following 10 languages of Americas: Central Alaskan Yupik, Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Silammon Salish, Yaqui, Zenzontepec Chatino, Yucatec Maya, Bora, and Mapudungun. Just like the studies presented briefly in the previous two paragraphs, the investigations carried out on these 16 languages also differ in the issues they focus on and solutions provided, first of all due to the varying morphosyntactic means of argument structure realization in the languages studied, and also based on the nature (since some languages are almost extinct) as well as the richness and the quality of the linguistic data extracted.

Chapter 37 of Part III (“Situation types, valency frames and operations”) describes language as a semiotic system that resulted from the interplay of two independent forces: 1) formal constraints such as laws of logic, information theory, and physics complemented by other laws, 2) functions of communication and cognition. Entities of grammar such as valency classes are affected by the formal constraints only. They display the combinatory potential of verbs. The article analyzes the typology of valency at 3 semantic levels (3 - sense construction, 2 - designatum, and 3 -significatum) to which correspond 3 ranges (extra-linguistic, cross-linguistic, and language-specific), 3 domains, 3 components and 3 roles. Situation types of level 3 are represented by predicates with their argument frames at level 2, which in their turn are represented by verbs at level 1. Argument structure realization is explained to be achieved by means of valency operations which create particular predicates (mapped onto lexemes of a given language) with particular clusters of arguments. Sets of alternative constructions are seen in terms of paradigmatic relations. Chapter 38 (“The hierarchy of two-place predicates: its limitations and uses”) defines prototypically transitive verbs as such that “necessarily create a change” in the patient (p. 1601) and distinguishes between practical and theoretical limitations to the hierarchy of two-place predicates (HTPP), despite its limited usefulness due to its applicability to certain languages and in various areas of grammar such as word classes, case frames, transitive/intransitive alternation, and voice. In Chapter 39 (“Verb classes within and across languages”) the importance of deepening our understanding of both universal and language particular characteristics of verb categorization is highlighted by way of: 1) reviewing some of the first attempts to classify verbs based on their commonly shared meanings, 2) introducing a broad semantic dichotomy that includes a number of verb classes, 3) examining the possible effects for cross-linguistic research on verb classes based on the study of argument realization alternatives in hitting verbs. And finally, Chapter 40 explores the issues of verb classification and valency alternations by considering semantic underpinnings of the use of five English physical activity verbs and of 11 specialized constructions (or instances of alternation phenomena) containing these verbs. It is shown how the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach allows for an appropriate methodology of explicating valency phenomena “right down to the level of semantic primes and molecules” (p. 1697). It follows from the study that syntactic alternations represent a combination of two types of meaning: the primary or basic sense of a verb conjoined with some additional meanings.


This handbook is an impressive collection in terms of the numerous issues and questions addressed as well as its interestingly convenient tripartite structure. However, despite its many obvious merits, some minor issues have been detected.

First of all, speaking about the structure of the volumes, a few suggestions can be made. Firstly, there is no introduction (e.g. “Introductory Notes”, “Introduction”, etc.) per se, either to introduce the handbook or each of its parts. The readership would definitely benefit from a general introductory chapter to the whole handbook and the contents of its three parts as well as a brief explanation of the reasons that motivated this division. It is only in Section 1 “General Information” (of Chapter 1 “Introduction”, at the beginning of Part I [p. 3]), that the reader is introduced, in passing, to the whole handbook by means of the confusing use of the wording “the present volume”, since it is not clear if the authors are referring to the 1st volume, the whole handbook, or just Part I. And it is only in the subsection 3.2 of the first chapter that the reader “suddenly” learns the details of the project and what led to the conception of this publication as well as the reasons for dividing it into three parts. This subsection could be easily incorporated into the above-mentioned general introduction to the handbook. Secondly, in some articles the references to some influential works on a subject could be provided, as it is the case of the following statement found on p. 4, ¶ 2: “Unlike earlier studies, which divided the verbal lexicon into a few highly general classes (e.g. stative vs. active verbs, intransitive vs. transitive vs. ditransitive, or, for intransitives, unaccusatives and unergatives) […]”.

As regards the content of the publication, theories, approaches and methods are generally very well explained and points made by the authors in their accounting for the results of their studies are generally clear. However, there is still some room for improvement and some suggestions can be made with regard to the potential data to be investigated. For instance, following the thought (p. 12) that “German makes finer coding distinctions among verb classes than English” (a language “of the more isolating type”), we would suggest that the study of languages of the highest morphosynthesis type like Ukrainian (Bilous 2011: 72), Hungarian or Estonian can be even more informative (in that it might, for example, possibly lead to some new revelations about “more granularity in coding frames and valency classes” [p. 17]) than the study of languages like German, considering their highly rich case morphology as well as polysemous nature underlying syntactically polyfunctional behavior of adpositional marking (both of which contribute to the “syntactic versatility” [p. 13] of the above-mentioned languages). Therefore, categorization of verbs in terms of their lexical properties would definitely benefit from the results of research on language-specific and verb-specific case coding properties (such as case selection or assignment and [double/triple] case alternations) and adpositional marking coding properties.

With regard to the attempt to delimit valency to post-verbal arguments and the difficulty to find a “unique way of distinguishing between arguments and adjuncts” (p. 50, Chapter 3), it can be said that drawing a line between semantic content of a verb and its syntactic realization might prove to be revealing, at least to a degree (Bilous 2011: 79, 81–82, 95, 122), since syntactic component seems to have a changing/adjusting effect on verbal predicates (or their lexical entries) by ‘forcing’ them into new configurations during syntactic computations (due to a speaker’s ability to manipulate vocabulary items in different and complex ways, which can vary even and to a certain extent from one speaker of the same language to another, based on many factors, such as level of education, level of linguistic competence, knowledge of other languages, and so on). In other words, it is a basic inherent property of any verb, made available from Universit’sal Grammar (UG), to transitivise as soon as a suitable morphosyntactic context makes it possible (making available a post-verbal nominal featuring argument-like or adjunct-like meaning), in conjunction with other factors (semantic, pragmatic, etc.). Also, no clear point was made anywhere in the two volumes that cases and adpositions (=argument flags) in some languages can have the ability to change or modify a verb’s ‘basic’ meaning. For instance, the class of “manner-verbs” (p. 105) can be joined by the Ukrainian verb kynuty ‘throw’ when it selects one of the 3 competing cases – INSTR, realizing [MANNER] as a feature (Bilous 2011: 259, 298, 305), in line with the observation (Bilous 2011: 69, 94, 124, 325) that the predicate’s semantic content can be complemented with semantic features derived from the Representation of Semantic Features before syntactic operations take place. The concept of transitivity also needs to be addressed, since the purportedly cross-linguistic definition found on p. 136 is by no means strong enough for one simple reason to start with (much more needs to be said in this regard though): zero valent predicates can establish in some languages a transitive relation; yet they do not have an A (agent) (see Bilous 2011: 87–89 / Bilous 2012: 4, 8–10). This is valid due to the (proposed) existence of a universal transitivity feature (TF, available from UG) on any predicate and, in theory, able to be activated or instantiated in any language, even if a predicate has no agent role to assign (hence the existence of ‘dummy subjects’, provided by syntax as an alternative means to satisfy the EPP [‘Extended Projection Principle’, Chomsky 1981; cf. also Bilous 2011: 16, 103 for a detailed discussion) requirement.

Finally, as far as the quality of the text and the reliability of the data used are concerned, they are hard to find fault with, since all the articles appear to be well-edited and proofread. The typographical errors are rare. Here are examples of some of them: on p. vii in the Contents the reference to a page “10699” of Chapter 26 “Valency in Nen” should be “1069”; on p. 140, ¶1 the word “other” is repeated; on p. 141, in Ex. 14 the word ‘arm’ is used (for some unknown reason) interchangeably with the word ‘hand’.

In conclusion, the handbook is a valuable contribution to the study of verbs valency classes thanks to its extensive coverage of varying topics on verb classes from a cross-linguistic perspective and on their syntactic behavior as a reflection of the underlying semantic properties of different types of verbs. It is recommended first of all for scholars specializing in theoretical and typological linguistics with focus on verb typology and verbal argument-assigning properties, as well as for (under)graduate students and scholars in linguistics of all bents who would like to learn more about the subject.


Bilous, Rostyslav. 2012. Transitivity revisited: an overview of recent research and possible solutions. In Canadian Linguistic Association Annual Conference Proceedings 2012.

Bilous, Rostyslav. 2011. Transitivité et marquage d’objet différentiel. Doctoral Dissertation. Toronto, University of Toronto.

Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.


Ross Bilous is an independent researcher currently interested in the study of varying grammatical (largely morphosyntactic and semantic) issues from the perspective of theoretical linguistics, linguistic typology, historical linguistics, and applied linguistics (e.g. morphosyntactic realization of the argument structure in (non)Indo-European languages; interlinguistic semantico-morphosyntactic classification of verbs; relation between semantic feature realization, case assignment and DP-structure on post-verbal nouns; the phenomenon of (de)transitivization across languages; featural approach to the study of language change; the issue of Proto-Indo-European language reconstruction and characterization; challenges related to the transfer of units of meaning from one language to another in the domain of transitive relation during the process of translation; second language teaching and learning in different learning environments).

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