LINGUIST List 28.811

Fri Feb 10 2017

Review: Anthro Ling; Historical Ling; History of Ling: Norde, van de Velde (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 04-Sep-2016
From: Natalie Operstein <>
Subject: Exaptation and Language Change
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Book announced at

Review Editors' note: This is a review article, a special feature of LINGUIST List reviews.

EDITOR: Muriel Norde
EDITOR: Freek van de Velde
TITLE: Exaptation and Language Change
SERIES TITLE: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 336
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Natalie Operstein,

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Exaptation and Language Change”, edited by Muriel Norde and Freek Van de Velde, focuses on a single proposed mechanism of historical-linguistic change, ''exaptation''. This concept and term initially emerged in the field of evolutionary biology (Gould & Vrba 1982) and were first applied to the field of historical linguistics by Roger Lass (Lass 1988, 1990), who provided the following definition:

Say a language has a grammatical distinction of some sort, coded by means of morphology. Then say this distinction is jettisoned, PRIOR TO the loss of the morphological material that codes it. This morphology is now, functionally speaking, junk; and there are three things that can in principle be done with it:

(i) it can be dumped entirely;

(ii) it can be kept as marginal garbage or nonfunctional/nonexpressive residue
(suppletion, 'irregularity');

(iii) it can be kept, but instead of being relegated as in (ii), it can be used for
something else, perhaps just as systematic.

[...] Option (iii) is linguistic exaptation. (Lass 1990: 81-82; emphasis is original)

The present volume attempts to unravel the defining features of linguistic exaptation, delimit its scope of application, and determine its usefulness in relation to other mechanisms and pathways of diachronic change, including analogy, reanalysis and grammaticalization. In doing so, it builds on earlier publications such as Traugott (2004). The volume is based on two workshops devoted to exaptation that were organized by the editors in 2011 and 2012, and consists of a brief preface and thirteen chapters.

In ''Exaptation: Taking stock of a controversial notion in linguistics'', Freek Van de Velde and Muriel Norde provide a conceptual introduction to the volume. They define exaptation as ''the leap-like co-optation of a trait for a new function that is not immediately related to its former function'' (p. 10). This understanding of exaptation departs from the one in Lass (1990) in three significant ways: it assumes that the new function is unpredictable or ''leap-like''; it does not assume that the exapted form was functionless prior to the innovation; and it is not limited to the domain of morphology. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to a discussion and illustration of each aspect of this understanding, including exaptation outside morphology, the criterion of functional emptiness of the exapted form, and what precisely counts as a ''leap-like'' change and a ''new'' function.

In ''Being exacting about exapting: An exaptation omnibus'', Brian D. Joseph argues that using a special label for refunctionalization of marginal patterns, while taxonomically appropriate, is uninformative about the developments involved, and that such developments are better accounted for by using the traditional notions of analogy and reanalysis. In support of this view, he examines four developments in the history of Sanskrit and English. The two Sanskrit examples concern reduplication in the perfect tense, and each involves extension of a marginal reduplicative pattern beyond its original domain, to roots outside those in which it arose. The two English examples involve extension/reanalysis of the preposition ‘of’ from marginal patterns in the language.

In ''Co-opting exaptation in a theory of language change'', Livio Gaeta argues that the usefulness of the notion of exaptation will be enhanced if supplemented by its conceptual counterpart -- adaptation -- in the discipline from which it was borrowed. Gaeta conceives of adaptation and exaptation as functionally distinct types of language change: while adaptive changes are ''oriented'' (e.g., in the domain of morphology they may be seen ''as an improvement of the system adequacy or as a markedness reduction'', p. 86), exaptive changes are ''non-oriented'' (''they do not seem to respond to a general design'', p. 86). The bulk of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of what types of changes may qualify as adaptive and what types of changes may be viewed as exaptive in various domains of grammar.

In ''Exaptation in Japanese and beyond'', Heiko Narrog begins by articulating his views on the four defining features of exaptation: the ''junk'' status of the source material, the conceptual novelty of the category created by exaptation, the unexpectedness or unpredictability of the change, and the leap-like nature of the change. In doing so, Narrog usefully situates his understanding of these characteristics in relation to that of the other volume contributors. The main body of the paper presents a comprehensive survey of exaptive changes in the history of Japanese, which are carefully distinguished from grammaticalizations. An interesting aspect of the paper is numerical comparison of exaptations and grammaticalizations in the history of Japanese, made possible by the author's comprehensive cataloguing of both. While the number of reported exaptations is only 6, the number of grammaticalizations is over 400; this disparity points to the minor status of exaptation as a source of grammatical material in Japanese.

The bulk of ''Functional changes and (meta-)linguistic evolution'', by Ferdinand von Mengden, is devoted to tracing the conceptual history of the term ''grammaticalization'' and to a survey of the conceptual motivations for a range of labels for refunctionalization of grammatical elements, including ''secondary grammaticalization'', ''regrammaticalization'', ''regrammation'', ''functional renewal'', ''hypoanalysis'', ''functional shift/conversion'', and ''lateral shift/conversion'' (sections 2-5 of the paper). The notion of exaptation is then examined against this background. Von Mengden sees exaptation as being different from other functional shifts in two ways: firstly, because it requires ''junk'' as its input and produces a functional novelty as its output, and secondly, because of its parallel with biological evolution. These properties of exaptation are examined in Section 6 of the paper.

The purpose of ''Exaptation from the perspective of construction morphology'', by Muriel Norde and Graeme Trousdale, is to recast the notion of exaptation in terms of diachronic construction grammar. After introducing the basic premises of this approach, Norde & Trousdale define exaptations as ''processes involving various constructional changes, whereby the link between a subschema and one higher-level schema is severed, and the subschema comes to be aligned to a different higher-level schema'' (p. 170). Following this discussion, they examine several changes in Swedish, Danish and Dutch, such as reanalysis of the genitive inflection -s as a determiner, in construction grammar terms, and conclude that not all of the changes count as exaptations under their approach.

''Exaptation and degrammaticalization within an acquisition-based model of abductive reanalysis'', by David Willis, relies on a model of diachronic change in which the locus of change is assumed to be language learning children and the cause of change, cross-generational reanalysis during first language acquisition. The view of exaptation and degrammaticalization as ''special cases of . . . reanalysis'' (p. 199) naturally falls out from this general approach. The specific point of contact between degrammaticalization and exaptation is seen in the status of the source structures: it is assumed that in both cases children reanalyze ''obsolescent material'' in adult grammars by assigning it to a different category or function. The theoretical discussion is supplemented by an examination of two specific changes: degrammaticalization of the indefinite pronoun 'something' to a noun meaning 'thing' in Goidelic Celtic and South Slavic, and exaptation of the number feature in the ‘was’ / ‘were’ alternation to encode the positive / negative distinction -- the use of ‘was’ in affirmative and ‘were’ in negative clauses -- in various English dialects.

''Allogenous exaptaton'', by Francesco Gardani, takes a break from the volume's focus on language-internal change by looking at exaptation of borrowed morphology. Gardani aligns allogenous exaptation with Lass's (1990) original definition as follows:

Once speakers are able to isolate a [borrowed, N.O.] formative but do not know what to do with it, either because it does not mean anything to them (junk) or its lexical- semantic load is weak, what should they do with it? They can either expunge it from the language, or keep it as a fossilized form, or implement it to the effect that it becomes an active element in their language. These are the three options famously envisaged by Lass in his founding paper, the third of which is exaptation. (p. 253)

The examples examined all involve verbal morphology and include recurring refunctionalization of source language infinitive, perfective or imperative markers as loan verb markers and/or denominal/deadjectival verb formatives in the recipient languages, challenging the assumption that exaptive changes are unpredictable. For example, the German suffix -ier-, which initially entered the language as an (unanalyzed) part of French verbs borrowed in the infinitive, was extracted from the loaned verbs and put to use ''either to derive verbs from nouns or to mark verbs as non-native'' (p. 232). In addition to providing examples of exaptation of borrowed morphological elements, Gardani discusses how allogenous exaptation differs from grammaticalization, secondary grammaticalization, and degrammaticalization.

The next three chapters re-examine morphological developments that were analyzed as exaptations in previous literature. In ''How functionless is junk, and how useful is exaptation? Probing the -i/-esc- morpheme'', Dieter Vermandere and Claire Meul look at the development of the Latin inchoative verbal suffix -esc/isc- in Romance languages. Functionally, Romance -esc/isc- has been explained as a stress-aligning device (it allows stress to uniformly fall after the verb root in present tense forms) and/or as a means to avoid stress-conditioned verb root allomorphy (compare the present-tense conjugation of finire with that of udire in 1).

(1) finire 'finish' udire 'hear'
fin-ísco ód-o
fin-ísci ód-i
fin-ísce ód-e
fin-íámo ud-iámo
fin-íte ud-íte
fin-íscono ód-ono

Vermandere & Meul argue that the previously proposed functions of -esc/isc- are mere side-effects of this suffix's presence in verb paradigms, and that if the exaptation account for the development of -esc/isc- is to be maintained, it is necessary to redefine the functionality of -esc/isc- in Romance languages and to abandon the requirement that the exapted form be functionless (''junk'') or the exapted function conceptually novel.

Like the preceding chapter, ''The history of nominative -er in Danish and Swedish: A case of exaptation?'', by Eva Skafte Jensen, focuses on a single diachronic change previously analyzed as exaptation: the development of an inflectional marker -er into a derivational marker in Danish and Swedish. Omitting the fine details (which are meticulously spelled out in the paper), the change in question involves the following major steps: nominative case marker > foregrounding device > marker of subjective evaluation in adjectives > adjective suffix in idiomatic phrases (Danish) / suffix deriving nouns from adjectives (Swedish). Also, as in the preceding chapter, Jensen argues that whether or not to consider the development of -er a case of exaptation depends on one's definition of exaptation and the weight placed on its different defining characteristics. She ultimately concludes that the notion of exaptation is not needed as not providing a useful contribution to our insights about language change.

In ''Is the development of linking elements in German a case of exaptation?'', Renata Szczepaniak focuses on the evolution of linking elements in German compounds, as seen in Schwein-e-braten 'roast pork' or Name-ns-shield 'name tag'. She identifies two layers of linking elements. The older layer goes back to Proto-Indo-European stem-forming suffixes located between the root and inflectional endings. Szczepaniak argues that their development into linking elements in German is not a case of exaptation because the source material was not functionless but rather was used to mark declension classes, and the two functions were related. The more recent layer derives from genitive singular and plural endings, which were reanalyzed as linking elements following reanalysis of noun phrases with a prenominal genitive modifier as compounds. Szczepaniak argues that the development of genitive endings into linking elements is not exaptation, either, because the exapted material was only partially functionless: although the category of case is lost, that of number is still present (compare Geburt-s-urkunde 'birth certificate' with Geburt-en-rate 'birth rate').

The remaining two chapters apply the notion of exaptation to syntax. In ''Exploring and recycling: Topichood and the evolution of Ibero-Romance articles'', Albert Wall and Álvaro Sebastián Octavio de Toledo y Huerta propose an exaptation-based analysis of two developments in the evolution of the definite article in Ibero-Romance languages. The first of these is the use of determinerless singular nouns in Brazilian Portuguese (as in 2 below), and the second is extension of the definite article ‘el’ to head that-clauses in Spanish (as in 3 below; the glossing has been simplified).

(2) Barracão pegou fogo . . .
shed caught fire
'The shed caught fire'

(3) también influye mucho el que estés nerviosa
also influences much the that be.2s nervous
'It also plays a role that you might be nervous'

The authors argue that the definite articles in Portuguese and Spanish have reached the end point of their respective grammaticalization paths: while in Portuguese the article is extended to every type of noun, in Spanish it is extended beyond nouns to infinitives and infinitival noun clauses. They suggest that the innovations in (2) and (3) occur outside the attested grammaticalization paths (in the authors' words, they do not follow the ''internal logic'' of their respective grammaticalization clines), and are motivated by re-interpretation of the articles as topic-marking devices. Wall & Octavio de Toledo see these developments as aligning with the following definition of exaptation:

Exaptation in language change can be thought of as the phenomenon of the emergence of a new grammatical function at what could otherwise be expected to be the end of a cline of grammaticalization. (Traugott 2004: 153)

In ''Exaptation and adaptation: Two historical routes to final particles in Japanese'', Katsunobu Izutsu and Mitsuko Narita Izutsu argue that both exaptation and adaptation are needed in linguistics. They look at two pathways of final particle development in Japanese, from subordinating conjunctions (shown in 4) and coordinating conjunctions (shown in 5).

(4) clause 1 -- CONJ -- clause 2 > clause 1 -- CONJ > sentence -- FINAL PARTICLE

(5) clause 1 -- CONJ -- clause 2 > clause 2 -- CONJ > sentence -- FINAL PARTICLE

The change in (4) consists in suppressing the main clause and reinterpretation of the subordinating conjunction as a final particle. Izutsu & Izutsu argue that this pathway is best described as adaptation: the conjunction occurs at the end of its clause and naturally becomes sentence-final when the main clause (clause 2) is suppressed. In this case, the feature of being sentence-final ''has not been coopted but, in a way, shaped by natural selection'' (p. 388). By contrast, the pathway in (5) is viewed as exaptation: since the coordinating conjunction is moved to the end of the clause prior to being reinterpreted as a final particle, the feature of being sentence-final is ''not shaped by natural selection'' but rather ''is coopted for the remedial function'', and the shift to the sentence-final position is ''an unexpected abrupt change'' (p. 389).


This collection presents a variety of ways in which the notion of exaptation is understood by linguists. Though no consensus is evident -- e.g., every single aspect of the definition of exaptation has been challenged, and the authors have expressed different views regarding whether or not this notion contributes to our understanding of language change -- a number of common themes have emerged. First, that exaptation is not a primitive notion but a derived one: it ''does not have the same status as analogy or reanalysis, which are fundamental mechanisms of change'' (Gardani, p. 254). Second, that labels like ''unpredictable'' or ''unexpected'' change, which form part of definitions of exaptation, only make sense against a background of assumptions about ''predictable'' and ''expected'' changes; put differently, ''the notion of exaptation is based on that of grammaticalization (or a broader notion for directional changes)'' (Wall & Octavio de Toledo, p. 345). Third, that the characteristics that define exaptation are relative rather than absolute. This includes the ''junk'' status of the source material, the ''novelty'' of the new function, the ''unexpectedness'' or the ''leap-like'' nature of the change. For instance, Willis sees the source material of exaptation as ''obsolescent'' rather than ''junk'' (p. 203). Fourth, whether or not a given change constitutes an instance of exaptation depends on one's definition of the phenomenon. For example, Narrog, who attempts a comprehensive catalog of exaptive changes in Japanese, excludes the changes described in Izutsu & Izutsu as ''based on a quite different understanding of 'exaptation''' (p. 101). Similarly, Norde & Trousdale observe: ''According to Jensen (this volume), the question of whether -er should be seen as an instance of exaptation depends on its definition, or, more precisely, on the degree of prominence given to its various 'characteristics''' (p. 186). In their own paper, Norde & Trousdale ''consider the extent to which they [the developments, N.O.] constitute examples of exaptation'' (p. 171), which suggests that some developments may be seen as better examples of exaptation than others.

The volume opens a number of avenues for further research, which may include further clarifying the notion of exaptation and its place in linguistics, including in relation to the companion notion of adaptation (see Gaeta and Izutsu & Izutsu); its place among other types of refunctionalization of grammatical material; and the extent to which this notion is applicable to domains other than inflectional morphology. Although extensions of exaptation beyond morphology are lightly sketched in Van de Velde & Norde (pp. 11-15) and Gaeta (pp. 76-83), most changes discussed in the book are morphological, while Willis specifically views both exaptation and degrammaticalization as ''instances of the development of morphological material . . .'' (p. 198).

Another avenue for future research, which is relatively underexplored in the volume, is the sociolinguistic dimension. Most of the assembled studies make no attempt to embed the exaptive changes in a social context, and the changes are discussed in purely structural terms. For example, though Norde & Trousdale name L2 learners as a possible source of reanalysis of adjectives in -e as attributive adjectives in Dutch (pp. 187-188), they do not explore the language contact/acquisition angle in their paper. Exceptions to this are Gardani's chapter on exaptation of borrowed morphology and Willis's chapter, which embeds exaptive changes within (presumably, monolingual) first language acquisition as the general locus of diachronic change (for a summary of this hypothesis see Meisel 2011: 124-126). A promising attempt to articulate the social context of exaptation is made by Los (2013), who believes that it arises in cases involving ''a previous stage in which there was a clear breakdown in transmission'' (Los 2013: 268). Additional research on the social context of exaptation may bring a better understanding of this phenomenon, and is clearly warranted.

Rather than attempting a unified picture of exaptation, this volume opens it up for further exploration and provides a forum for a discussion of refunctionalization of grammatical elements, with the focus on ''unexpected'' changes that set exaptation apart from cross-linguistically recurrent changes such as those captured by grammaticalization clines. The main value of this collection is in the diversity of views it offers and the variety of phenomena that get discussed under a common rubric. It is expected to be of interest to historical linguists, historians of linguistics, morphologists, and experts on the languages discussed.


Gould, Stephen Jay & Vrba, Elisabeth S. 1982. Exaptation -- a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology 8: 4-15.

Lass, Roger. 1988. How to do things with junk: Exaptation in language evolution. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics 17: 33-62.

Lass, Roger. 1990. How to do things with junk: Exaptation in language evolution. Journal of Linguistics 26: 79-102.

Los, Bettelou. 2013. Recycling ''junk'': A case for exaptation as a response to breakdown. In Historical Linguistics 2011: Selected Papers from the 20th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Osaka 25-30 July 2011, Ritsuko Kikusawa & Lawrence A. Reid (eds), 267-288. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Meisel, Jürgen M. 2011. Bilingual language acquisition and theories of diachronic change: Bilingualism as cause and effect of grammatical change. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 14: 121-145.

Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 2004. Exaptation and grammaticalization. In Linguistic Studies Based on Corpora, Minoji Akimoto (ed), 133-156. Tokyo: Hituzi Syobo.


Natalie Operstein is the author of ''Consonant Structure and Prevocalization'' (2010) and ''Zaniza Zapotec'' (2015) and co-editor of ''Valence Changes in Zapotec: Synchrony, Diachrony, Typology'' (2015). Her research interests include historical and comparative linguistics, phonology, and language contact.

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