LINGUIST List 28.3125

Tue Jul 18 2017

Review: Historical Linguistics; Syntax; Typology: van Gelderen (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 26-Feb-2017
From: Alexandru Nicolae <>
Subject: Cyclical Change Continued
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Elly van Gelderen
TITLE: Cyclical Change Continued
SERIES TITLE: Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 227
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Alexandru Cosmin Nicolae, Romanian Academy, Institute of Linguistics

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Cyclical Change Continued” is structured in four parts (“I. Characteristics of cycles”, “II. Macro-cycles”, “III. The negative micro-cycles”, “IV. Pronominal, quantifier, and modal micro-cycles”) which contain 13 chapters, including the introduction to the volume written by the editor, Elly van Gelderen.

The first part of the book (“Characteristics of cycles”) contains two contributions which present a wider interest for issues raised by cyclical change.

Elly van Gelderen’s introductory chapter, entitled “Cyclical change continued: Introduction” (pp. 3-17), is more than a summary of the papers of the volume (the standard practice of introductions to volumes of collected papers). Rather, van Gelderen addresses substantive and definitional issues surrounding ‘the linguistic cycle’: its definition and the history of the hypothesis that certain types of language change take place “in a systematic manner and direction” (p. 3); the reference literature; the typology of language change, where a distinction is made between ‘isolated changes’ (e.g. isolated instances of grammaticalization), ‘micro-cycles’ (e.g. changes affecting subparts of language), and ‘macro-cycles’ (e.g. change applying to the entire language/language types); analyticity and syntheticity, i.a.

The second contribution to the general characterization of cycles is Marianne Mithun’s “What cycles when and why?” (pp. 19-45). Focusing mostly on languages from the Iroquoian family and drawing many cross-linguistic analogies and comparisons, Mithun identifies three causes that set cycles in motion and provides rich illustration for each cause. To begin with, cycles may be set in motion by the processing of complex strings (sequences of morphemes and words) as single chunks; an illustration is provided by the renewal of the reflexive in Mohawk. Secondly, cycles are set in motion by semantic change. The grammaticalization of an anaphoric/discourse demonstrative into an article triggered the renewal of the means of identifying concrete location through a novel demonstrative (reinforced with a locative adverb, a recurring tendency) in Mohawk and Tuscarora; interesting Iroquoian/Romance parallelisms are drawn. Finally, the weakening of pragmatic force may also set in motion cycles. In this respect, Mithun distinguishes three types of cycles depending on their frequency: distributive cycles are rare (renewal of distributive suffixes through compound suffixes, a rarer type of cycle which can be seen in Iroquoian); pronominal cycles are more common (independent pronouns transform into affixes/clitics and ultimately agreement morphemes); negative cycles are pervasive cycles. The final part of the chapter focuses on language contact.

The second part of the book, devoted to “Macro-cycles”, opens up with a challenging paper by John McWhorter, “Is radical analyticity normal? Implications of Niger-Congo and Southeast Asia for typology and diachronic theory” (pp. 49-91). Starting from the premise that “radically analytic languages are diachronically anomalous” McWhorter sets out to develop a contact account of the radical analyticity characterizing the GYM (Gbe-Yoruboid-Nupoid) African languages and of the languages of Southeast Asia. Building on Trudgill’s (2011) distinction between ‘structural mixture’ and ‘structural abbreviation’ as effects of contact, McWhorter shows that radical analyticity can only result from the second type of effect. Radical analyticity – a rare phenomenon worldwide – is shown to be caused by rapid and untutored non-native adult acquisition of a second language, not by language-internal mechanisms via which grammars lose their inflectional affixation entirely.

By employing usage- and frequency-based means of measuring the degree of analyticity and syntheticity, Benedikt Szmrecsanyi’s contribution, “An analytic-synthetic spiral in the history of English” (pp. 93-112), questions the orthodoxy according to which the grammatical history of English is characterized by a drift from syntheticity to analyticity. On the basis of a 12th to 20th century corpus of English, Szmrecsanyi shows that English did not undergo a steady synthetic to analytic drift, but rather the linguistic development had the shape of a spiral: analyticity constantly grew until the end of Early Modern English, but declined subsequently, with 20th century English displaying almost the same proportion of analyticity-syntheticity like 12th century English. As Szmrecsanyi insists in the concluding section where he identifies the caveats of his approach, this proportion is to be interpreted from a quantitative rather than qualitative perspective: it is the proportion of analytic vs. synthetic structures that is being taken into consideration, not the actual elements themselves (for example, determiners became an important analytic category to the detriment of pronouns, which have been in decline).

On the basis of an impressive wealth of empirical data, in the last paper devoted to macro-cycles (“The interaction between the French subject and object cycles”, pp. 113-135), Mariana Bahtchevanova and Elly van Gelderen discuss the linguistic phenomena that take place when two cycles involving similar elements (pronouns) are in motion at the same time. Three important insights for the inner workings of linguistic cycles are drawn from the analysis: (i) different pronominal elements can be at different stages in a cycle (i.e. there are differences between first, second person elements and third person elements in the subject cycle, and there are general differences between the subject cycle and the object cycle), (ii) it is possible for some stages to be skipped (i.e. in the object cycle, the agreement marker stage is skipped), and (iii) similar cycles can influence one another (i.e. the pronominal position of both the object pronouns and the subject pronouns causes interference between the two cycles). The results are formally accounted for in the generative framework.

The next consistent part of the book, part III, is devoted to the negative micro-cycles. The first paper, “The negative existential cycle viewed through the lens of comparative data” (pp. 139-187) by Ljuba N. Veselinova, proposes a family-based sample analysis of the evolution of standard negation markers from negative existentials, a path of linguistic change known as the Negative Existential Cycle [NEC] (Croft 1991). Using data from six unrelated language families, it is shown that stages with variation (in either the expression of SN or in the expression of negative existence) are more common, hence more important for this cycle than stages without variation. Importantly, the author also compares NEC with other negative cycles (i.e. the Jespersen Cycle), and highlights the differences between them: in contrast to the Jespersen cycle, NEC rarely comes to full completion, due to the nature of the elements involved in these different cycles.

Johan van der Auwera and Frens Vossen (“Jespersen cycles in the Mayan, Quechuan and Maipurean languages”, pp. 189-218) present a comprehensive analysis of the behaviour of negative cycles in three language families of Central and South America, on the basis of an impressive sample: 530 languages. It is shown that negation strengthening took place twice in Mayan and Quechuan; the most interesting phenomenon encountered in Maipurean is the extension of a prenominal marker to clausal negation, this being an instance of a reversed Jespersen cycle which proceeds from right to left. Van der Auwera and Vossen also stress the role of asymmetry in the development of the Jespersen cycle, show that there is a relation between irrealis marking and negative cycles, and discuss a rarer type of change encountered in the grammaticalization of negation, i.e. the grammaticalization of nominal privative markers as negators.

The final chapter on negative micro-cycles is Clifton Pye’s “Mayan negation cycles” (pp. 219-247). What is characteristic of Mayan is the existence of different types of negation cycles, with only one Mayan language exhibiting the beginning of a classic Jespersen-type negation cycle. In general, in Mayan negation is strengthened by adverbials in clause-external position. Pye takes up the thorny task of reconstructing negation marking in the six main branches of the Mayan languages. The extensive discussion of Mayan negation illustrates three broad types of change: (i) extension (of existential negation); (ii) division; (iii) clitic addition; clitic addition is taken by Pye to be responsible for a short-circuited form of the Jespersen cycle.

In the first contribution to (the more heterogeneous) part IV (“Pronominal, quantifier, and modal micro-cycles”), T. Givón discusses “[t]he diachrony of pronominal agreement. In Ute and maybe elsewhere” (pp. 251-286). The pronoun cycle is a typical cycle (with relatively few exceptions) by which stressed pronouns first turn into clitic pronouns, which subsequently turn into verbal pronominal agreement; the last step is the erosion (i.e. disappearance) of verbal pronominal agreement. Among many other interesting findings on Ute (for example, the fact that this language is in the midst of the change from clitics to verbal suffixes) and on the inner workings of referential (dis)continuity, Givón also advances a very interesting diachronic-typological generalization, namely that “[languages] that currently display obligatory pronominal agreement are either now, or have been in the past, languages with flexible word-order and second-position pronominal clitics” (p. 284). This generalization, formulated mostly on the basis of the analysis of Ute, will have to be substantiated and verified by further research in order to be proved valid (as the author himself acknowledges).

Johanna L. Wood’s chapter (“The degree cycle”) triggers interest from at least two perspectives: firstly, because her chapter discusses and analyses ‘a cycle within a word’, and secondly, because the type of linguistic change under scrutiny is of a rarer type, namely ‘functional-to-functional’ (the most often examined type being from lexical categories to functional categories). Focusing on English “th-” demonstrative forms, the following facts are discussed: (i) the participation of “thus” in the CP-cycle (the change by which lower (VP) adverbs acquire higher (CP) adverbs functions); (ii) the development of demonstrative “this” and “that” into degree adverbs.

Remus Gergel (“Modality and gradation. Comparing the sequel of developments in ‘rather’ and ‘eher’ ”, pp. 319-350) discusses the interaction of two different ‘spirals’ undergone by comparatives like “rather”: a semantic change from an original temporal based comparison to modal meanings, and a change from modal ordering to a modificational use. The temporal-to-modal change shows a spiral in which trajectories already seen with earlier items are accessed repeatedly. If we agree that (epistemic) modality is higher in the functional structure than temporality (cf. Cinque 1999 a.o.), we observe that the first spiral discussed by Gergel represents a prototypical instance of grammaticalization, with the changing element undergoing movement upwards on the functional spine (Roberts & Roussou 2003); the repetitive nature of the change allows us to label it as a cycle. The second spiral (the development of the modificational use) is a follow-up of the first spiral – or rather, as Gergel puts it, an independent sequel, as it takes the input of the first development, but not automatically follows from it.

In “All you need is another ‘Need’. On the verbal NPI cycle in the history of German” (pp. 351-394), Łukasz Jędrzejowski examines the NPI cycle in the diachrony of German on the basis of three NPIs: “dürfen”, “bedürfen”, and “brauchen”. Challenging traditional wisdom, Jędrzejowski shows that “dürfen” was not directly replaced by “brauchen”, but rather that “bedürfen” acted as a go-between in this change. The data investigated here strengthen the characterization of the linguistics cycles: as stressed by van Gelderen (2011 and passim), a cycle is uniform as the same general repeated change is observed; however, at the end of the cycle, when the change starts again, its pace and its fine-grained transformations are slightly different from the previous similar developments.

In the last chapter of the book (“The grammaticalization of 要 Yao and the future cycle from Archaic Chinese to Modern Mandarin”, pp. 395-418), Robert Santana LaBarge discusses the grammaticalization of the Chinese word “yāo / yào” and shows that this change is illustrative of the future cycle: “yāo / yào” (whose early semantics is related to Compulsion and Volition) developed new functional meanings (including deontic and future time meanings), and its full verbal usage is currently being ‘renewed’/ ‘reinforced’ by a another lexical item – all these changes being the hallmarks of cyclical change. In contrast to English “will”, Chinese “yāo / yào” still has a dual grammar – full verb on the verge of being renewed and auxiliary – a fact that created controversy among scholars. LaBarge advances an interesting theoretical idea on the grammaticalization of auxiliaries: in V1-V2 structures, the promotion of a full verb to an auxiliary may be the consequence of a labelling conflict of the type discussed by Chomsky (2013).


The book reviewed is impressive from many points of view.

First and foremost, it is impressive from an empirical perspective: the material discussed in the chapters of the book is from a large number of (genealogically unrelated, typologically distinct and geographically diverse) languages, some of which rarely discussed in the literature.

Secondly – and more importantly – the book is impressive from the point of view of its contribution to the concept of ‘linguistic cycle’. Van Gelderen’s and Mithun’s chapters represent an excellent applied discussion of cycles, every general theoretical and methodological aspect concerning this linguistic concept being taken into account in these contributions. The Sapirian ‘drift’ is conceptually undermined by some of the papers, e.g. McWhorter or Szmrecsanyi. The role of the external factors in linguistic change is stressed by McWhorter, who shows that radical analyticity in a few African and Asian languages arose from rapid and untutored non-native adult acquisition of a second language, not from language-internal changes. A (somewhat tacitly assumed) universal directionality of cycles is questioned in van der Auwera and Vossen, who analyse a reversed instance of the Jespersen cycle which proceeds from right to left. Another important recurring idea which is explicitly made prominent by Pye is that linguistic cycles are sensitive to the underlying structure of the language (“We will not know what historical paths that negation takes until we have investigated negation in all languages”, Pye, p. 245). Givón introduces a distinct, but related idea, namely that the universality of a cycle/chain is, to some extent, an illusory epiphenomenon: “local diachronic changes, constrained locally, tend to have global consequences without being necessarily globally constrained” (Givón, p. 253). In her analysis, Wood shows that the cyclic change does not proceed only from lexical-to-functional; rather, functional-to-functional is also a path of change. Finally, more or less explicitly, many of the papers converge on the idea that cycles actually involve repeated instances of grammaticalization.

In conclusion, it goes without saying that the book is illuminating for many categories of scholars: first and foremost, for descriptive and historical linguists, but also for theoreticians of all persuasions (generative grammarians, functionalists, etc.) and typologists.


Chomsky, Noam. 2014. Problems of projection. Lingua 130: 33-49.

Cinque, Guglielmo. 1999. Adverbs and Functional Heads. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Croft, William. 1991. The evolution of negation. Journal of Linguistics 27: 1-39.

Roberts, Ian, Roussou, Anna. 2003. Syntactic Change: A Minimalist Approach to Grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011. Sociolinguistic Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Alexandru Nicolae is a researcher at the “Iorgu Iordan - Al. Rosetti” Institute of Linguistics, Bucharest, and a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics, University of Bucharest. PhD dissertation (2013): ''Types of Ellipsis in Romanian'', University of Bucharest (& University of Cambridge, cotutelle). He is currently working on word order and configurationality in (old) Romanian. His research interests include: minimalist syntax, diachronic syntax, and the syntax of Romanian. He has co-authored the latest academic grammars of Romanian (“Gramatica de bază a limbii române”, ed. Gabriela Pană Dindelegan, 2010/2016; “The Grammar of Romanian”, Oxford University Press, ed. Gabriela Pană Dindelegan, 2013; “The Syntax of Old Romanian”, Oxford University Press, 2016), wrote a book on word order change in Romanian (“Ordinea constituenților în limba română. O perspectivă diacronică”, Bucharest University Press, 2015), and has been working in the past seven years with Alexandra Cornilescu on the syntax of the Romanian nominal phrase. Visiting PhD Student (2012) and Visiting Researcher (2015) at the University of Cambridge; Fulbright Senior Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2016).

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