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Review of  Ethnosyntax

Reviewer: Dennis Alexander
Book Title: Ethnosyntax
Book Author: Nicholas J. Enfield
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 14.1483

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Date: Tue, 20 May 2003 15:13:42 +1000
From: Dennis Alexander
Subject: Enfield, ed. (2002). Ethnosyntax: Explanations in Grammar and Culture

Enfield, N. J. ed. 2002, Ethnosyntax: explorations in
Grammar and Culture, Oxford university Press, Oxford.

Reviewer: Dennis Alexander, School of Languages,
Cultures and Linguistics, University of New England

This book is a collection of papers exploring the
interaction of culture and grammar. There is an
intuitive and emergent logic to the sequence going from
Part I: Theory and Scope, though Part II: Culture,
Semantics and Grammar, to Part III: Culture, Pragmatics
and Grammaticalization. Reading the papers in the
presented sequence, a reader moves from theoretical and
cautionary aspects, through specific types of studies
and finishes with a paper that describes and applies a
particular procedure for ethnosyntactic studies. The
papers also stand alone and can be read in any order.

Chapter 1, Introduction, N.J. Enfield

Enfield's introduction locates the discourse firmly
within mainstream linguistics and extends the reach of
the topic to the interfaces of linguistics with
anthropology and psychology. By way of preparation
Enfield identifies some potential bumps between the
theory and practice of ethnosyntactic studies. In
particular, some of the problems besetting the culture
concept are addressed briefly in the introduction.
There is also a discussion of the continuum from
'narrow' ethnosyntax - referring to the direct encoding
of cultural meaning in the semantics of morphosyntax -
to 'broad' ethnosyntax - encompassing a wider field of
possible relations between grammar and culture.
Enfield highlights the joint importance of both care in
cultural description and care in linguistic description
as necessary foundations for studies in ethnosyntax.
The concluding remarks of the introduction highlight the
value of exploratory studies. He situates these
explorations of the culture - language interface
alongside psycholinguistic investigations into the mind
- language interface.

Chapter 2 Syntactic Enquiry as a Cultural Activity,
Anthony V. N. Diller and Wilaiwan Khanittanan.

Diller and Khanittanan start from the 'ethno-' of the
linguists studying a language, rather than from the
'ethno-' of the speakers of a language being studied.
One major message of this paper is that grammaticality
judgements are strongly influenced by the cultures of
both linguist and their informants.
Diller and Khanittanan then provide a case study of
grammaticality and acceptability judgements using
coreference for zero anaphora pronouns, lightly in
English and in depth for Thai.
Diller and Khanittanan make an important point about the
interaction between cultural attitudes to a language,
diachronic processes and about how non-linguist, naïve
native speakers make grammaticality and/or acceptability
judgements which differ from those of linguists. There
is also an interesting point about the affect of
training, imagination and context on grammaticality

Chapter 3, Ethnosyntax, Ethnopragmatics, Sign Functions
and Culture, Cliff Goddard

Goddard's develops and elaborates the distinction
between 'broad' and 'narrow' ethnosyntax. He then
illustrates the 'narrow' sense of ethnosyntax with an
example from Russian. At the end of this example he
notes the commonality of semantic content that goes with
the set of constructions described. Goddard uses this to
go on to identify some connections between ethnosyntax
in the broad sense and ethnopragmatics. The adaptation
of Givon's aphorism to be "Today's ethnosyntax is
yesterday's ethnopragmatics." is echoed later by
Goddard goes on to approach the study of culture-
language interactions through the application of
Peircean sign functions to distinguish semantic from
iconic and indexical meanings. In this way a semantic
meaning can be distinguished by being expressible as a
paraphrase in universal semantic primes.

Chapter 4, Culture, Cognition, and the Grammar of 'Give'
Clauses, John Newman
This is a cross linguistic study of a particular domain
of syntax. Newman identifies two levels of linguistic
interaction as 'language - cognition' and 'language -
culture'. He notes that in Cognitive Linguistics,
language and culture are viewed as aspects of cognition.
Newman analyses three specific languages in some depth
in relation to aspects of give clauses:
Japanese give forms and societal hierarchy
(acknowledging that this cultural analysis is, to an
extent, controversial).
Chipewyan and encoding of the culturally significant "in
control" versus "out of control" contrast.
Nuahtl encodes different aspects of human interaction
through morphosyntax.
Newman also includes discussion of what might be
cultural and what might be if not universal, then cross-
linguistically very general, and what might be language
specific but not culturally motivated.

Chapter 5, Masculine and Feminine in the Northern
Iroquoian Languages, Wallace Chafe.
Northern Iroquoian languages express gender in
pronominal prefixes whereas Southern Iroquoian languages
(Cherokee) don't. The Northern languages have an
elaborate system for marking third person for masculine,
feminine and neuter. The masculine and feminine forms
are treated conspicuously differently within the
language, with masculine being required and feminine
being conflated in many situations with neuter or non-
specific forms. Chafe offers a plausible hypothesis
linking the morphology and the aspects of Northern
Iroquoian culture that depict males as conspicuous,
flamboyant and independent and feamles as stable,
undifferentiated and in the background. Chafe notes
that the pattern is now a relic but is still used - and
influences some of the current of native speakers of
Northern Iroquoian. Chafe also notes that just because
this pattern is visible and plausibly causal for
Northern Iroquoian does not mean it will explain other
similar instances of similar patterns

Chapter 6, Using HE and SHE for Inanimate Referents in
English: Questions of Grammar and World View, Andrew
Pawley is looking at a basilectal vernacular variety of
English known as Tasmanian Vernacular English (TVE).
Pawley identifies some rules for animation and gender
Once animation is chosen, some objects have fixed gender
while others have variable gender.
Pawley considers the motivation for choices where
variable assignment is possible and adduces both his own
hypothesis and Wierzbicka's. Finding that more corpus
data would be needed to falsify either, Pawley proceeds
to describe and analyse gender assignment in TVE. He
then compares this with work by Mathiot in two regions
of the USA. Pawley reanalyses Mathiot's data and finds
that it accords well with the rules developed for gender
assignment in TVE. His final commentary is on the
possibility of a blind spot in linguists' awareness of
what is happening all around them. As a native speaker
of this particular variety, I can certainly attest to
such lack of awareness until I read Pawley. I also find
much to consider in his exposition.

Chapter 7, A study in Unified Diversity: English and
Mixtec Locatives, Ronald Langacker.
Langacker identifies spatial paths and locations as
relatively uncontroversial candidates for domains to be
found in all languages. He also reasonably
uncontroversially asserts that each language will have a
rich inventory of conventional symbolic resources for
expressing spatial relations. These represent the two
poles of universalism and diversity around the axis of
which his description and analyses revolve. Langacker
also persuasively cautions against the assumption that
surface differences between languages represent deeper
Langacker gives a substantial exposition of the use of
bodypart compound locatives in Mixtec. He also uses an
exposition of English locatives to explain relevant
aspects of the theorey of Cognitive Grammar. These are
then applied to the Mixtec constructions as analytical
tools. There is, perhaps, a question as to whether the
analysis of associated regions and bodypart
constructions in Mixtec is one of metonymy or of
Langacker then goes on to consider the possible
grammaticization of the Mixtec bodypart components of
the compounds in relation to the theory of Cognitive
Grammar. He does not claim that the Mixtec locative
nouns are adpositions but that they will become
adpositions. However, his demonstration that this was
what occurred in English, which appears to be the basis
for his prediction, is not fully convincing.

Chapter 8, English Causative Constructions in an
Ethnosyntactic Perspective: Focusing on LET, Anna
In this paper Wierzbicka does two important things.
First she shows how the English LET causative is
semantically different from the German LASSEN causative
and that this difference encodes a cultural difference.
She then goes on to show how particular syntactic
environments can affect the meaning of LET - what is
preserved and what is altered and how the range of
constructions for English LET differs from the range of
constructions for German LASSEN and for Russian DAT'.
Wierzbicka also shows how this range of constructions
and their meanings is related to the cultural motivation
of the constructions. In her conclusion Wierzbicka
makes some trademark points about the importance of
semantic analysis of the cultural dimensions of grammar
and about the need for a consistent semantic
metalanguage for cross-cultural comparison of meanings
whether encoded in the lexicon, grammar, or pragmatics.

Chapter 9, changes within Pennsylvania German Grammar as
Enactments of Anabaptist World View, Kate Burridge.
Burridge examines two recent developments in
Pennsylvania German grammar that "^Ê go against usual
pathways of grammatical change and appear to be driven
by the cultural and religious preoccupations of the
speakers." The changes are the evolution of a lexical
word WOTTE [to wish] out of a grammaticalized modal verb
and the development of a lexical verb ZEHLE [to count]
into a marker of future.
Burridge opens with a substantial description of the
cultural context of the Mennonites, the speakers of
Pennsylvania German, and their religious and linguistic
Following this groundwork, Burridge identifies the
linguistic background to grammaticalization and
Pennsylvania German modal verbs. She then describes the
evolution of WOTTE against the usual paths and against
the patterns of other Pennsylvania German modal verbs
followed by an analysis of the cultural forces shaping
this occurrence. A broadly similar approach is worked
through for ZEHLE.
Burridge's title for the conclusion, with footnoted
credit for the form to Givon, is salient: "Today's
Pragmatics is Tomorrows Semantics." (Cf Goddard above.)

Chapter 10, Cultural logic and Syntactic Productivity:
Associated Posture Constructions in Lao, N.J. Enfield
Enfield opens by highlighting the importance of
conventions which act as premisses in cultural logic for
interpreting utterances. This is done in relation to
serial verb constructions and the notion of 'ready-
recognizability of event' as a precondition for use of
these constructions. Enfield then outlines process
whereby cultural logic gets encoded into ideas of
Next Enfield moves into serialization and associated
posture constructions in Lao. Two approaches to
investigation are used: requests for grammaticality
judgements; and elicitation events using pictures of
actions performed in various postures.
Enfield's findings and conclusions describe five general
observations on how interaction between culture and
grammar can be realized:
- the dependence on cultural logic requires personal
searches for salient cultural representations,
- the notion of grammaticality makes constant and direct
reference to the heuristics of cultural typifications,
- the extent to which complex expressions encode sub-
components as culturally normal events affects the
accessibility of those sub-components to certain
productive morphosyntactic processes,
- construal of the semantics of verb serialization is
contingent upon cultural typifications, and
- the choice as to whether to employ a certain syntactic
form at all is contingent upon cultural typifications.
He does not claim these as exhaustive but sees his
results as a motivation for further joint investigation
of the interface between culture and grammar.

Chapter 11, Aspects of Ku Waru Ethnosyntax and Social
Life, Alan Rumsey.
Rumsey begins with a "potted ethnography" of the Ku
Waru. he highlights the importance of 'pairing' across
a number of domains and social dimensions to the Ku Waru
in particular, and across the Western Highlands of Papua
New Guinea in general.
Rumsey's discussion includes existential clauses, person
and number categories, the use of parallelism and the
form and meaning of some pairing compounds. Of these,
Rumsey regards the existential clause constructions as
the strongest candidates for being examples of
ethnosyntax in the narrow sense. His description and
discussion of parallelism with reference to Ku Waru to
oratory and poetic skill. His discussion of paring
compounds as a category formation device is also very

Chapter 12, From Common Ground to Syntactic
Construction: Associated Path in Warlpiri, Jane Simpson.
In opening her paper, Simpson makes several important
points about the claims of ethnosyntax that the meanings
of some syntactic constructions involve underlying
cultural concerns and that these cultural concerns can
be identified. Simpson also narrows the arena of
investigation from a kind of culture at large to a
narrower concept of 'common ground' which is
identifiable from common topics of conversation, shared
expectations and assumptions, and, shared assumptions
about how to build conversations.
Simpson then develops a procedure for carrying out
Simpson then follows her procedure in analysing
associated path constructions in Warlpiri, an Australian
language. The example is particularly useful because
Simpson has chosen a construction which she judges to be
a candidate for grammaticalization in the relatively
near future. The analysis is succinct and, within the
bounds of the paper, a thorough demonstration of the
procedure in action.

Overall, this is a collection of very readable and very
interesting papers. Enfield's selection, introduction
and arrangement emphasises the exploratory nature of the
papers and sets the investigatory tone of the

It is the two-way nature of the interaction between
culture and grammar that emerges from reading this
collection. The balance between simplicity and
complexity is maintained across the papers and both
informs and invites dialogue with and between the

There is some significant tension between the views of
the authors and this is productive. For example,
Goddard adduces Geertz and Shore in his discussion to
show that there is significant cognitive development
occurring under the influence of culture and language.
This contrasts with the view of Cognitive Grammar that
culture and language are aspects of an independent
cognitive faculty. Also, whereas Simpson includes a
cross-linguistic checking component in her procedure,
Chafe appears to suggest that similarity of culture is
not necessarily going to have similar effect on
different languages.

In summary, this volume is a significant and important
contribution to the exploration of ethnosyntax.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER Dennis Alexander is a mature age PhD student at the University of New England. His current research is in the relationship between the semantics of abstract expressions and figurative language. More generally his interests include semantics, figurative language, sociolinguistics, cognitive linguistics and the philosophy of language.û