LINGUIST List 31.1911

Tue Jun 09 2020

Review: Historical Linguistics; Linguistic Theories; Typology: Cristofaro, Zúñiga (2018)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 15-Mar-2020
From: Philemon Gomwalk <">,>
Subject: Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: Sonia Cristofaro
EDITOR: Fernando Zúñiga
TITLE: Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony
SERIES TITLE: Typological Studies in Language 121
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Philemon Victor Gomwalk, University of Jos


In this collection of articles, the respective authors deal with a wide range of topics that cover both synchronic and diachronic approaches to typological hierarchies in languages of the world. Most of the chapters are forward-looking in terms of their outlook on the major typological hierarchies identifiable in numerous languages cited in individual chapters.

From the theoretical perspective of the editors of the collection, typological hierarchies are generally understood as one of the major research results of the functional-typological approach to the study of diachronic linguistics; an approach which focuses on chains of synchronic, implicational relationships pertaining to the distribution of different grammatical phenomena cross-linguistically (see Chapter 1, pp. 5-10 of the collection)

Some of the chapters in the collection postulate the existence and operation of organizational principles of language that favor particular grammatical configurations as opposed to others. For example, the distribution of 'zero' versus 'overt' marking, as described in the NUMBER hierarchy, is accounted for in terms of an 'economy principle’, whereby speakers tend to use overt number marking only when it is really needed. Thus, each value on the number hierarchy is less frequent than the value to the left in a typical grammatical construction in many languages of the world. More frequent values are easier to identify in such structures, so are in less need of disambiguation through overt marking (see Chapter 1, p. 7).

The editors of the book collection cite such key seminal studies as Greenberg (1995); Croft (2003) and Haspelmath (2006) as containing typical expositions of the general principles of zero versus overt number marking in languages. Similarly, some of the contributions in the collection under review also serve to illustrate the workings of the principles of the ANIMACY/REFERENTIAL hierarchy in languages. This particular hierarchy attempts to capture a pattern in which number distinctions in grammatical constructions are made for only 'animates' or 'inanimates + nonanimates', but never for 'inanimates'. Thus, number distinctions are considered to be more relevant to animates than to inanimates, since the former category are inherently individuated than the latter (see Chapter 1, p.8).

Another fundamental issue raised and discussed in some chapters of the collection relate to the explanation of principles of logical hierarchies in terms of synchronic distributional patterns and to the connection of such patterns to their diachronic sources. The editors draw attention to the existence of certain general assumptions about the link between synchronic patterns and their possible diachronic sources. One key assumption is that particular grammatical principles can make it possible to account for diachronic patterns by looking at the synchronic properties of languages, especially from a cross-linguistic perspective. The theoretical implication of this assumption is that there are synchronic grammatical principles which make it possible for speakers to recurrently use particular constructions, as opposed to others – a practice that often leads to the conventionalization of particular constructions within a particular language.

Within the framework of the series of arguments put forward in different chapters of the book collection, it is clear that the distributional patterns described by typological hierarchies in many languages of the world are not always directly related to principles pertaining to the synchronic properties of the distributions per se. Rather, individual patterns may be shown to reflect properties of particular source constructions and developmental processes which are independent of the resulting distributions (see Chapter 1 in the collection). Convincing diachronic evidence of this line of argument (i.e. individual patterns reflecting properties of particular source constructions in languages) are, for example, provided in Part 1 of the collection by Cristofaro & Zuniga as well in other chapters in Part 2, especially those of Denis Creissels (Chapter 2, pp.59-109) and of Marianne Mithun (Chapter 3, pp. 111-128) in the collection.

For instance, the key conclusion that emerges from the discussion in Mithun's chapter is that development of 'ergative case markers’ from instrumentals in language of the Iroquoian language family in North America is plausibly triggered by the absence of an overtly expressed agent as well as the semantic connection between instruments and agents within particular constructions in the said languages from a diachronic point of view. Mithun specifically argues that to the extent that ergative makers are derived from instrumental markers, this provides a plausible explanation for such markers to be restricted to the right-end portion of the NUMBER hierarchy in Iroquoian languages (see Mithun's chapter, p. 127).

In a similar vein, the discussion in Chapter 2 written by Denis Creissels clearly suggests that in an ergative language, the development of particular diachronic alignment patterns (including but not limited to number hierarchies) need not be directly related to any synchronic properties of these patterns. Rather, these diachronic patterns can be traceable to the original structure of highly particularized source constructions, and their development may have been triggered by unknown factors leading to the re-analysis of these constructions.

Creissels provides convincing illustrative evidence drawn from such languages as Basque, Akhvak, Latvian, Tagalog and Guarani in order to support his basic arguments and conclusions on the operations of the obligatory coding principle, as it affects such processes as 'Tense-Aspect-Modality' (TAM) grammatical ellipsis and univerbation of light verb compounds(see Creissels' chapter, p.104).


With respect to an overall assessment of the quality and impact of the respective chapters in the book collection, I must admit that I enjoyed the style of presentation and depth of illustrations contained in the specific following chapters, in ascending order of preference: first, Chapter 6 by Antoine Guillaume; second, Chapter 8 by Francoise Rose; third, Chapter 10 by Scot DeLancey and; fourth, Chapter 11 by Joannes Helmbrecht, Lukas Deck, Sarah Thanner and Ilenia Tonetti.

Chapter 6 by Antoine Guillaume receives my highest rating (i.e. 1st) in the collection because the author succeeds in providing a plausible historical reconstruction of the Reyessana hierarchical agreement system of prefixes, alongside a reconstruction of its entire argument marking system.

The two major reconstruction designs provided in the chapter represent an interesting and valuable contribution to the on-going theoretical debate around the functional motivations for the cross-linguistic, recurring role of SAP > 3 hierarchy, especially the interconnectivity within the 1 > 2 > 3 proper > 3 human > 3 animate > 3 inanimate NOMINAL hierarchy continuum. Guillaume's chapter has, in my view, succeeded in adding credible supportive evidence to the basic position also expressed in such studies as Cristofaro (2013) and Guildea & Zuniga (2016). Contrary to the traditional view which holds that the PERSON (or Nominal) hierarchy is a immutable universal feature of human language (reflective of a general principle of human cognition), the evidence presented in Guillaume's chapter serves to seriously challenge the theoretical basis of this long standing viewpoint, at least from a diachronic perspective. Instead, the evidence points to the fact that the source of morphemes and constructions that lead to hierarchical patterns and effects are not necessarily wholly homogeneous (or universalistic) but can also be heterogeneous in nature (see Guillaume's chapter, p.252).

The diachronic data provided in Guillaume's chapter also point to the fact that the diachronic changes which affect some source morphemes or constructions in human languages can eventually lead to the development of marked grammatical systems that do not necessarily involve the intervention of a PERSON hierarchy.

Chapter 8 written by Francoise Rose receives my next highest rating (i.e. 2nd) in the book collection because it attempts to provide an alternative perspective to the traditional viewpoint on PERSON indexing systems in languages built on the typical 1 > 2 > 3, especially in relation to contemporary Tupi-Guarani and Proto-Tupi-Guarani language varieties.

The discussion, illustrations and conclusions that emerge from Rose's chapter provide additional supportive evidence for the position also canvassed by the same author in a previous study (Rose, 2015).The major arguments in Rose’s (2015), simply put, is that the 1 > 2 > 3 person hierarchy is not a universally applicable system in languages as often assumed in previous synchronic and diachronic linguistic literature on hierarchical systems.

The chapter by Rose in the collection tries to further justify the new line of argument that the PERSON hierarchy has not been the functional motivation responsible for the creation of the hierarchical systems observed in both contemporary Tupi-Guarani and Proto-Tupi-Guarani.

The chapter by Rose indeed raises quite plausible possibilities that such a hierarchy could have resulted from historical morphological processes which are linked to the diachronic indexing of pronominal paradigms lacking third-person (3P) forms.

In the final analysis, the discussion contained and illustrations put forward by Rose in the collection may be viewed as providing another line of argument for clearly distinguishing the use of hierarchies as an analytical tool for describing the synchronic stages of language from their parallel use as a functional motivation of diachronic facts (see Rose's Chapter, p.304).

Chapter 10 written by Scott DeLancey receives my third commendation because it provides credible evidence and illustrations of the diachronic changes that are observable in the indexation of the categories SAP 1 → SAP 2 in a selected number of Tibeto-Burman languages.

The discussion in DeLancey's chapter points to a number of significant facts which can be summarized as follows first, the deictic ranking SAP > 3 is fundamentally conservative in the languages sampled. Second, the inverse marking which is used to emphasize such ranking appears to be prominent from the data provided by DeLancey with specific reference to the Tibeto-Burman languages cited in the chapter. Third, the diachronic changes in the marking of both SAP 1 →2 and SAP 2 →1 categories seem to indicate two contrasting tendencies. The first tendency is one in which the SAP 1 →2 category is uniquely marked in different languages of the Tibeto-Burman language family while the second tendency is one in which the SAP 2 →1 category seems to merge with the markings of the SAP 3 →1 category. These tendencies are observed to apply differently in languages and branches of the larger Tibeto-Burman language phylum.

On the basis of the data provided in his chapter, DeLancey proposes that the observed tendencies in the Tibeto-Burman languages are acceptable as reflections of socio-pragmatic effects which, in turn, arise from the socially delicate nature of all natural utterances involving both the speaker and addressee in naturalistic grammatical constructions found in the languages reviewed (see DeLancey's chapter, p.370).

Chapter 11 written by Johannes Helmbrecht, Lukas Denk, Sarah Thanner and Ilenia Tonetti receives myfourth commendation because it focuses on the operations of the NUMERACY hierarchy which is central to description and explanation of 'case marking and agreement' phenomena in languages. The quality of treatment given the numeracy hierarchy in the chapter is sufficient both in depth and comprehensiveness.

The authors make a worthwhile effort to provide a clear definition of the animacy hierarchy and how it is manifested across several natural languages of the world. Languages from which illustrative data was extensively drawn include those from Australia, North America and Central America.

In the course of their treatment, the authors draw attention to the cardinal fact that the ANIMACY hierarchy belongs to a unique category of hypothetical hierarchies which combine sub-scales as 'person', 'definiteness', and ‘semantic animacy'. Also identifiable as central to the overall discussion of the Animacy hierarchy by Helmbrecht et al is the repudiation of the assumption that Proper Nouns (PN) traditionally occupy an intermediary place between Personal Pronouns and Common Nouns within typical grammatical domains in languages.

This particular point raised by Helmbrecht et al, in their chapter, is of evaluative significance because they were able to provide sufficient evidential data to seriously dispute the conventional claim that proper nouns occupy an intermediate place between personal nouns and common nouns, at least with respect to the diachronic study of selected languages. The arguments provided in favor of their stated position in the chapter are based essentially on analysis of sample data drawn from more than 30 languages which manifest 'split-ergativity' (or hierarchical alignment).

In the course of their analysis, Helmbrecht et al sought to establish approximate morphosyntactic coding patterns for Personal Nouns (PN), ultimately arriving at one cardinal conclusion; inter alia, '' Given the weak amount of evidence available for the hypothesis that PN are separate class of referential expressions that occupy a middle position in ANIMACY hierarchy (AH), we would like to express doubts that this hypothesis as it is can be maintained. We do not want to abolish the AH, but we think that it needs to be modified'' (see Helmbrecht et al, p.394).


The edited collection by Cristofaro and Zuniga represents, to my mind, a valuable contribution to the study of emergent theoretical and methodological issues in language diachrony. The collection makes several stimulating and challenging points about wide-ranging issues revolving around typological hierarchies in both contemporary and prehistorical varieties of language.

I found Part 1 of the collection, titled ''Setting the stage’’, written by the editors (Sonia Cristofaro and Fernando Zuniga) particularly stimulating from a theoretical point of view. This introductory chapter of the collection presents a well -organized and readable overview of the key trends in the emergent discussions of typological hierarchies as provided in the respective chapters of the book.

The other chapters in Part 2 of the book collection are also well written, dealing with various key issues of theoretical and methodological significance, which are persuasively argued and illustrated from a wide range of synchronic and diachronic language sources. In addition to making specific references to key issues highlighted in individual chapters, the editors also provide valuable cross-references to other studies already carried out on issues of theoretical and methodological significance in relation to typological hierarchies in languages.


Blevins, Juliette. 2018. Evolutionary Phonology and the life cycle of voiceless sonorants. In Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony, Sonia Cristofaro & Fernando Zuniga (eds.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapter 1 of this volume).

Creissels, Denis. 2018. The obligatory coding principle in diachronic perspective. In Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony, Sonia Cristofaro & Fernando Zuniga (eds.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapter 2 of this volume).

Cristofaro, Sonia & Zuniga, Fernando. 2018. Synchronic vs Diachronic approaches to typological hierarchies. In Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony, Sonia Cristofaro & Fernando Zuniga (eds.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Part 1 of this volume).

DeLancey, Scott. 2018. Deictic and sociopragmatic effects in Tibeto-Burman SAP indexation. In Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony, Sonia Cristofaro & Fernando Zuniga (eds.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapter 10 of this volume).

Guillaume, Antoine. 2018. From ergative case marking to hierarchical agreement: A reconstruction of the argument -marking system of Reyesano (Takanan, Bolivia). In Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony, Sonia Cristofaro & Fernando Zuniga (eds.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapter 6 of this volume).

Helmbretcht, Johannes; Denk, Lukas; Thanner, Sarah & Tonetti, Ilenia. 2018. Morphosyntactic coding of proper names and its implications for the Animacy Hierarchy. In Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony, Sonia Cristofaro & Fernando Zuniga (eds.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapter 11 of this volume).

Mithun, Marianne. 2018. Deconstructing teleology: The place of usage patterns among processes of diachronic development. In Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony, Sonia Cristofaro & Fernando Zuniga (eds.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapter 3 of this volume).

Rose, Francoise. 2018. Are the Tupi-Guarani hierarchical indexical systems really motivated by the person hierarchy? In Typological Hierarchies in Synchrony and Diachrony, Sonia Cristofaro & Fernando Zuniga (eds.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapter 8, this volume).


Blevins, Juliette. 2004. Evolutionary Phonology: The Emergence of Sound Patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blevins, Juliette. 2008. Consonant Epenthesis: natural and unnatural histories. In Linguistic Universals and Language Change, Jeff Good (ed), 79-107. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Blevins, Juliette. 2015. Evolutionary phonology: A holistic approach to sound change typology. In Handbook of Historical Phonology, Patrick Honeybone & Joseph Salmon (eds.), 485-500. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Corbett, Greville. 2011. Implicational Hierarchies. In The Handbook of Language Typology, (ed.), 190-205. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cristofaro, Sonia. 2011. Language Universals and Language Knowledge. In Handbook of Linguistic Typology, Jae Jung Song (ed.). 227-249. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cristofaro, Sonia. 2013. The Referential Hierarchy: Reviewing the evidence in diachronic perspective. In Languages Across Boundaries: Studies in the Memory of Anna Siewierska, Dik Bakker & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), 62-93. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

Croft, William. 2003. Typology and Universals, 2nd edtn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Guildea, Spike & Zuniga, Fernando. 2016. Referential hierarchies: A new look at some historical and typological patterns. Linguistics 54 (3): 483-530

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1995. The diachronic typological approach. In Approach to Language Typology, Masayoshi Shibatani & Theodora Bynon (eds.), 145-166. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. Against markedness (and what to replace it with). Journal of Linguistics 42: 25-70

Mithun, Marianne. 2003. Functional perspectives on syntactic change. In The Handbook of Historical Linguistics, Richard D. Janda & Brian D. Joseph (eds.), 552-572. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mithun, Marianne. 2008. The emergence of agentive systems in core argument marking. In The Typology of Semantic Alignment, Mark Donohue & Soren Wichmann (eds.). 297-333. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Rose, Francoise. 2015. When “you” and “I” mess around with the hierarchy: A comparative study of Tupi-Guarani hierarchical indexation systems. Boletim do Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi. Ciencias Humanas 10 (2): 347- 369
Song, Jae Jung. 2001. Linguistic Typology: Morphology and Syntax. Harlow: Longman

Zuniga, Fernando. 2006. Deixis and Alignment. Amsterdam: John Benjamins


Philemon Victor Gomwalk, PhD, has active research interests in understanding the nature of the synchronic and diachronic linguistic typologies of languages within the Chadic phylum in Nigeria, his home country. From 2000 till date, the reviewer has remained an active member of the teaching staff of the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages, at the University of Jos, Jos, Nigeria. His current fieldwork activities have increasingly focused on exploring the nature and extent of short-term synchronic variation as well as long-term diachronic change within the Jos-Plateau sub-region, a well-documented zone of historical linguistic admixture and complexity in Nigeria, dating from pre-historical into present times

Page Updated: 09-Jun-2020