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Review of  Possible and Probable Languages

Reviewer: Mayrene Bentley
Book Title: Possible and Probable Languages
Book Author: Frederick J. Newmeyer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 18.799

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AUTHOR: Newmeyer, Frederick
TITLE: Possible and Probable Languages: A Generative Perspective on
Linguistic Typology
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2005

Mayrene E. Bentley, Department of Languages & Literature, Northeastern
State University, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

_Possible and Probable Languages_ (PPL) serves as an excellent reference
book or supplemental reading for a typology course or a syntax course
focused on the question of language variation and/or acquisition. PPL
provides a comprehensive overview of the principal research on language
universals and the motivation behind the research within the framework of
generative syntax and more recently, Optimality Theory. Citing Chomsky's
evolving views on Greenberg's universals, Newmeyer details how Chomsky's
ideas changed during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, on the relationship between
cross-linguistic variation and the principles of universal grammar (UG).
In summarizing Chomsky's contributions as well as the work of other
prominent linguists, Newmeyer takes issue with particular aspects of the
claims of functionalism and formalism in hopes of showing that neither
approach alone can account for language variation. PPL's goal is clear:
both language use and a formal structural system are necessary to explain
the relationship between grammatical form and outside forces shaping the
world's languages.


Chapter 1

''On the Possible and Probable in Language'' is a summary of language
universals and their explanation from functionalist and formalist
viewpoints. Newmeyer provides examples of possible and improbable features
of languages from the typological literature as well as ''The Universals
Archive'' that is housed at the University of Konstanz and available
electronically. These universals provide a backdrop for a discussion of
experiments where subjects tried to learn ''unnatural'' rules with respect to
real and unreal languages. These experiments suggest two things: 1) that
humans adapt more readily to learnable rules and hence, there is a link
between innateness and possible grammars; 2) although a rule may appear as
''improbable,'' it does not imply that it is impossible, but simply

Chapter 2

''Parameterized Principles'' looks at how early generative syntax neglected
what typology had brought to light in the 60s regarding cross-linguistic
variation and instead, sought solutions to various syntactic questions in
theoretical assumptions based on language-specific discoveries. Newmeyer
walks the reader through numerous examples of how UG later returned to
answering questions of cross-linguistic variation in word order, gapping,
etc., by delving into markedness, deep vs. surface structures,
parameterized principles, and currently, optional features on functional
heads. However, it becomes apparent that UG's goal is antithetical to the
hard-sought goal of explanatory elegance since numerous constraints were
needed to account for and predict an ''unexpected (and previously unnoticed)
clustering of typological properties'' (p. 44-45).

Chapter 3

''Parameters, Performance, and the Explanation of Typological
Generalizations'' zeros in on particular principles of UG such as ''Head
Parameter,'' and ''Subjacency,'' and how these principles and their
corresponding parameter settings fall short when accounting for linguistic
variation and the correlation of other language features. Newmeyer
maintains that Greenberg alone has been successful in correlating the basic
word order of a language with other morphosyntactic features. Newmeyer's
extensive grasp of the literature in these areas makes for a very
convincing argument while leading the reader to conclude that ''the degree
of grammatical variation is in fact highly constrained, but much more by
performance factors than by UG'' (p.75). Newmeyer concludes this chapter by
reviewing Hawkins' (2004) hypothesis of ''Performance-Grammar
Correspondence'' as the means for explaining efficiency in language.

Chapter 4

''In Defense of the Saussurean View of Grammar'' sets out to defend research
in formal grammar and the notion that mental grammar is integral to
language use. Newmeyer begins, however, by showing that ''language users
are sensitive to the frequency of grammatical forms'' (p.130). He then
seeks to counter the supposed ''disparity'' between the formal structures
that grammars describe and the utterances people make by arguing that
speakers have a full argument structure (SVO, SOV, etc.) although they may
produce only parts of the full-blown structures. Newmeyer cites examples
from Merchant (2004) on seven different languages that illustrate how
speakers respect morphological case even when replies are fragments. He
then provides additional examples that show how speakers rely on inference
to decipher the language code, which is ultimately only a partial conveyor
of what speakers need grammars to do. With respect to language change,
Newmeyer devotes several pages to data (reflexives and differential object
marking) that attempt to disprove that a need to lessen ambiguity has led
to certain morphosyntactic features; he claims that speakers rely instead
on ''the well-established hypothesis that within a given domain, more
frequent combinations of features require less coding than less frequent
ones'' (p. 158). Although Newmeyer spends time arguing that if ''speakers
were really driven to reduce potential ambiguity'' (p. 159), they would put
objects before all other linguistic constituents since an object is more
predictive of verb type than the subject is, he chooses not to invoke the
argument he uses a few pages later that ''our interpretation of a
structurally ambiguous string is determined in large part by real-word
contextual factors that have nothing at all to do with grammar, no matter
how broadly defined'' (p.162). He ends the chapter by decrying stochastic
grammars and advocating that language evolution had to have begun with
conceptual structures that were translated into sounds via grammar such
that as communication evolved, use and grammar evolved imperfectly.

Chapter 5

''The Locus of Functional Explanation'' addresses specifically whether an
atomistic or holistic functionalism explains the ''functional pressures and
the typological distribution of formal elements that represents a response
to those pressures'' (p. 174). Newmeyer is upfront that his position rests
on the side of the holistic approach, which he explains as one that claims
no direct link between function and use. The link between function and use
is indirect and evolves through language use and acquisition and ultimately
plays itself out typologically according to Newmeyer. He argues that
atomistic functionalism (AF) is unable to provide all the possible external
factors motivating language, and that the literature has obscured this fact
to a certain degree. The last part of the chapter is a rebuttal to the
claims of Optimality Theory (OT); in particular, Newmeyer takes issue with
those who argue that the constraints put forth in OT can be accounted for
functionally, i.e., FOT. He replies specifically to claims made by Aissen
(1999, 2003) that differential object marking can be explained by OT
constraints. The OT machinery required to account for the various
hierarchies implied within the given data essentially contradict the
functional explanations, i.e., they are too convoluted since ''there is no
way for a correct form to emerge without competition between rival forms.
Therefore, one needs to set up a proliferation of candidate sets, simply to
ensure that a 'winner' results.'' (p. 223).


PPL bears witness to the fact that the functionalist viewpoint is being
heard and taken seriously. While Newmeyer brings together the major
research initiatives of the last forty years and seeks to highlight what
each does best, his overview of OT was much too brief for anyone to
understand it without some background in the representative tableaux. His
motive for having a discussion of OT in the book is not to laud its
contributions to the field of syntax in the past decade, but to show its
inadequacy as a means for explaining typological generalizations within a
theory of interacting constraints.

Many in the formal linguistic community will bristle at Newmeyer's
conclusions. Others will recognize the merit in what he says and may, with
time, begin to change the direction of theoretical linguistics as well.
They can't dismiss the book. It is meticulously researched, comprehensive,
and written by a linguist of stature. Newmeyer's clarity of thought and
expression make the book more accessible than many of the original
articles. His juxtaposing of various views provides a larger context for
evaluating the research efforts of those linguists cited in the book. PPL
is an excellent resource for graduate students and linguists who want to
keep pace with recent developments in the field of linguistics, but haven't
the time to absorb all the literature across competing frameworks.
Moreover, it is a summary of Newmeyer's views on how the forces of language
use and formal grammar join together as language is acquired and evolves
over time to eventually provide the typological patterns found throughout
the world's languages.

Editing comments: Glossing of examples was not consistent such as p. 38
where the Dutch is given a word-for-word gloss, but the Italian isn't.
Page 34 inserted English ''the'' in the German example in (11b) while on page
36, example (16) omitted the gloss ''person.'' Despite careful introduction
to theoretical terms in UG, Newmeyer refers to ''LF'' with no explanation on
p. 44 and to ''X-bar schema'' on p. 49, but explains it on p. 105. Omission
of the word ''to'' occurs in the last paragraph of p. 83. The expression
''neutralize adjectives'' is first used on p. 85 but not defined until p. 86.
E-language is defined on p. 105, but not I-language. The tables and
tableaux are not always appropriately placed within the text and cause the
reader to ''search and find'' to get the needed examples as he or she reads,
especially on pp. 199-200.


Aissen, Judith (1999) ''Markedness and Subject Choice in Optimality Theory,''
Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 17:673-711.

_____ (2003) ''Differential Object Marking: Iconicity vs. Economy'' Natural
Language and Linguistic Theory 21:435-83.

Hawkins, John (2004) Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars. Oxford:
Oxford UP.

Merchant, Jason (2004) ''Fragments and Ellipsis,'' Linguistics and Philosophy

Mayrene Bentley is an Associate Professor at Northeastern State University.
Her research interests are typology, Eastern Bantu languages, and Cherokee.

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