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Review of  Noun Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe

Reviewer: Yury Lander
Book Title: Noun Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe
Book Author: Frans Plank
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 14.2484

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Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 16:23:25 +0400 (MSD)
From: Yura Lander
Subject: Noun Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe

Plank, Frans, ed. (2003) Noun Phrase Structure in the
Languages of Europe, Mouton de Gruyter, xxi + 845 p.,
hardback ISBN 3-11-015748-9, Empirical Approaches to
Language Typology / Eurotyp 20-7.

Announced at

Reviewed by Yury A. Lander, Institute of Oriental studies, Moscow

This volume presents results obtained by a group of
typologists working under the EUROTYP project on noun
phrase. Therefore, it may be taken as sequential of other
EUROTYP volumes published by Mouton de Gruyter during the
last decade and as a continuation of the well-known
collection Plank (ed.) 1995, with which the present volume
considerably overlaps as regards the set of contributors.

The scope of "Noun Phrase Structure..." is very broad
including, in particular, the issues of nominal
morphological categories as well as certain general
problems of formal marking. On the other hand, such
subjects as word order and the syntactic structure of noun
phrases are touched only briefly (for these see, e.g.,
Rijkhoff 2002, the work of another member of the EUROTYP
project). Also the topics of adjectival and relative clause
modification, which certainly constitute very important
aspects of noun phrases, have been largely left outside.
This, of course, does not decrease the value of the volume
(see below).


The collection is divided into four parts, among which
three are dedicated to particular aspects of noun phrases.
In addition, the volume contains indexes of subjects,
languages and authors, as well as two tables of contents
(the second is detailed) and a list of contributors.

The introductory part includes one paper only, and not so
surprisingly, it is written by the editor. In "Noun phrase
structure: AN UND FUER SICH, in time, and in space" (pp. 3-
33), Frans Plank provides background for the EUROTYP
research acquainting the reader with the typological aims
and methodology assumed by the authors of the volume. A
useful appendix to the introduction includes the contents
of the works published by the EUROTYP noun phrase group.

Part II "On inflection" consists of papers covering
morphological categories related to noun phrases.

Aleksandr E. Kibrik's "Nominal inflection galore:
Daghestanian, with side glances at Europe and the world"
(pp. 37-112) introduces data from various Daghestanian
languages, which are remarkable in their highly developed
case system, with the rich category of localization being
in its heart. However paradigmatically transparent and
syntagmatically compositional at first sight, the
Daghestanian inflection is asserted to reveal features that
do not easily fit traditional conceptions of case and the
inflection/derivation opposition.

Edith Moravcsik in her "Inflectional morphology in the
Hungarian noun phrase: A typological assessment" (pp. 113-
252) gives a comprehensive description of such aspects of
the Hungarian inflection as syncretism, allomorphy,
cumulation, zero exponence etc. against a background of
general characteristics of Hungarian (such as vowel harmony
and presumable agglutination) and both typological
universals and "euroversals" (i.e. statements beginning
with something like "In all languages, if they are
European ...", p. 114).

"The selective elaboration of nominal or pronominal
inflection" (pp. 253-287) by Frans Plank contrasts with the
other papers in that it does not discuss any concrete
language material. The conclusions of this chapter come
from statistical data based on a large sample of languages
of the world. Plank's main findings are that (i) cross-
linguistically the degrees of complexity of the categories
of number, pronominal distance and person correlate with
each other, and (ii) there are languages whose nominal
inflection is elaborated more than the pronominal one
(contrary to familiar typological generalizations). The
latter fact is suggested to be related to the word order
parameter. Curiously, it turns out that Europe itself
cannot provide evidence for either of these observations.

The most part of Greville G. Corbett's "Types of typology,
illustrated from gender systems" (pp. 289-334) is devoted
to the typology of gender resolution (rules determining
agreement in conflict situations, where different gender
features can be assigned to a target) and the typology of
bases for gender systems ("gender assignment"). Though on
the first view the two typologies are autonomous, it is
argued that the rules of gender resolution (partly) depend
on the type of gender assignment.

Part III "On (over-)determination" is concerned with
diverse effects that can be related to the referentiality

"Double articulation" (pp. 337-395), another paper by Frans
Plank, examines the phenomenon of marking (in)definiteness
and (non-)specificity (at least) twice in a single
constituent. The data (this time mainly from European
languages) is rich. The exposition starts with multiple
occurrences of articles in conjunctive noun phrases and
ends with definiteness marking on nouns that already
contain a historical trace of (in)definiteness exponents,
but also includes manifold cases where double articulation
cannot be explained by simple considerations. At the end of
the paper, Plank touches upon possible motivations of the

The second paper of Edith Moravcsik "Non-compositional
definiteness marking in Hungarian noun phrases" (pp. 397-
466) takes up the topic of multiple expression of the same
category attempting to enter it into the general typology
of non-transparent formation of phrases. Such a typology
includes undermarking (the absence of overt exponents in
spite of the obvious presence of the corresponding
property), overmarking (a case of redundancy) and
contradictory marking (manifesting contrasting properties
within the same phrase). All these types are thought over
in details in relation to the distribution of (in)
definiteness marking in Hungarian.

David Gil ("English goes Asian: Number and (in)definiteness
in the Singlish noun phrase"; pp. 467-514) concentrates on
the description of certain aspects of the noun phrase in
Singlish, a colloquial variety (or descendant) of English
spoken in Singapore. The author focuses on the syntactic
issues related to (what could be called) determiners, and
on their impact on the number interpretation of the whole
phrase. Naturally, many of the effects discussed in this
chapter turn out to be areal features that are shared by
Singlish and other South-East Asian languages.

The last paper of this part is "A WOMAN OF SIN, A MAN OF
DUTY, and A HELL OF A MESS: Non-determiner genitives in
Swedish" (pp. 515-558) by Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm. The
topic of this article is various semantic and syntactic
properties of a group of non-prototypical possessives,
whose representative translations are given in the title.
It is demonstrated that these constructions do not form a
homogeneous class but occupy different places in the
continuum between adjectives and prototypical genitive
phrases (which in Swedish directly affect the definiteness
of a nominal).

Part IV "On amplification" is devoted to complex noun

"The interaction between numerals and nouns" (pp. 561-620)
by James R. Hurford is a survey of constructions with
cardinal numerals in European languages. The parameters
Hurford gives a more or less comprehensive description
include in particular word order, formation of complex
numerals, morphological characteristics of components of
numeral constructions.

Another detailed survey is Maria Koptjevskaja-
Tamm's "Possessive noun phrases in the languages of Europe"
(pp. 621-722). This paper elaborates on Europe-internal
tendencies and distinctions in the marking of possessives
with non-pronominal specific possessors. A special
attention is given to the geographic distribution of
different marking types of possessive constructions.

"Action nominal constructions in the languages of Europe"
(pp. 723-759) by the same author may look like a
supplementation of the preceding chapter. Still it is not
only a survey. Actually, in this paper Koptjevskaja-Tamm
forwards a number of remarkable universals concerning the
form of action nominal constructions although she also
highlights that the patterns under discussion show a high
degree of variation, e.g., as to how close they are to the
sentential prototype.

The final paper of the collection, "Noun phrase
conjunction: The coordinative and the comitative strategy"
(pp. 761-817) written by Leon Stassen, illustrates the
application of typological techniques to the domain of
conjuctive phrases. The focus of this chapter lies on the
distinction of the two strategies of conjunction, which
roughly can be named the AND-strategy and the WITH-
strategy. Besides the general description of these
strategies, a large part of the paper deals with their
distribution (both areal and structural) among the
languages of the world.


The first impression of this volume is that it contains an
enormous amount of non-trivial information. I will firstly
touch upon the data and the method of its presentation, and
then briefly discuss the authors' conclusions.

In my opinion, it is certainly a positive feature of the
volume that its contributors are more often governed by
language facts than govern the data (as often happens
in "theory-oriented" works). Actually, unlike some recent
collections reflecting the growing interest in noun phrases
(see, e.g., Coene & D'hulst (eds.) 2003), the authors
of "Noun Phrase Structure..." do not focus on any formal
and interpretative analysis but in many respects choose the
atheoretical position.

One of the goals of the volume was to represent the
European data in a typological perspective. Hence a number
of contributors had to attract the data from wide samples
of languages, and in several papers the study of such
samples has occupied the central place (Plank's paper on
(pro)nominal inflection, Stassen). Further, the need to
characterize certain languages according to various
typological parameters has led to the rummaging and
rethinking of relatively familiar matter (see especially
Moravcsik's articles). On the other hand, a few chapters
focus on the facts that are often left in a periphery, even
though their importance is hardly to be denied: some
examples are double articulation (Plank), "non-determiner"
genitives (Koptjevskaja-Tamm), the interdependence between
the number interpretation and determination (Gil).
Importantly, many papers show a great descriptive strength.
In this respect I should mention at least the papers by
Kibrik and by Gil, both introducing splendid and tremendous

Thus, one could conclude by formulating two merits of the
collection . the interest to the details and the
representation that is oriented on the data rather than on
the support of deductive hypotheses. This is not all,
however, and it is interesting to look at how the
contributors managed with problems that almost necessarily
accompany inquiries based on cross-linguistic comparison.

One of such problems concerns the reliability of data, -
and here most authors tried to do their best. Two papers of
the collection (Kibrik and Gil) are based on apparently
thorough fieldwork, Moravcsik's papers reflect a native
speaker's intuition (although to a great extent her own
idiolect only), and almost all other contributors have
worked extensively with informants. This is not to say, of
course, that the collection misses shortcomings in this
respect. Indeed, I have found a few examples that raise
doubts either in spelling or in interpretation. Yet most
data seems to be perfect, and this (together with other
factors) makes the authors' conclusions convincing.

Another problem that is unavoidable in all data-oriented
investigations is that even this kind of work needs a
conceptual system to control the data. Apart from one
exception (namely, David Gil's attempt to discuss the
Singlish noun phrase in purely intuitive notions), the
authors just commit themselves to the terminology that is
more or less conventional. The use of commonly adopted
terms makes the papers easily readable and understandable,
the more so that (almost) all secondary notions are related
to accepted linguistic notions in some or other way.

Nevertheless, this practice of using traditional conceptual
system is not without its flaws. Thus, if one takes the
labels as already assigned to concrete phenomena, they may
simplify the real situation. Let me give just two examples.

Moravcsik's treatment of referential devices in the
Hungarian noun phrase is based on a conceptual system that
does not distinguish between genericity and non-specificity
(the two features that are by no means identical; cf. Givon
1979 and a number of formal semantic works dealing
with "kind-referring" phrases, see e.g. Carlson & Pelletier
(eds.) 1995). Moreover, in respect to some phenomena (e.g.,
AZ, the definite or specific article, and EGY, the
indefinite article or perhaps a numeral 'one'; see
Szabolcsi 1994 for some discussion), the applicability of
such notions as definiteness and indefiniteness remained
untested - although these terms did receive a more or less
strong commentary in the beginning of the paper. It seems
to me that in some cases this could lead Moravcsik to
certain misinterpretations.

To continue with a rather general example, there is a tacit
agreement among the authors to represent noun phrases in
traditional way, with a noun being the head of the
constituent (see Zwicky 1985, Corbett et al. (eds.) 1993
for why this is not necessarily the case). Of course,
nobody may require of anybody to follow the DP hypothesis
(Abney 1987), according to which it is the determiner that
heads the nominal constituent (though the absence of even
mentioning of Abney's name in the volume looks surprising,
given his profound effect on many current theories of
nominals). Still, the matter is debatable, and from this
point of view, some phenomena touched upon in the volume
may be less odd than they are shown. Take one of the most
interesting facts reported by Hurford, the behavior of
Finnish plural numerals, which (usually) mean 'n groups
of' - unlike what happens with "singular" numerals; cf. the
following minimal pair (Hurford's (46)):

(1) ostin kolme autoa
bought:1SG 3:ACC:SG car:PARTIT:SG
'I bought three cars'
(2) ostin kolmet autot
bought:1SG 3:ACC:PL car:ACC:PL
'I bought three sets of cars'

Hurford (pp. 584-589) analyzes the phenomenon of Finnish
plural numerals under the rubric "Meaning of whole noun
phrase determines number of numeral and noun", thus
assigning the crucial role to the construction. However,
the examples given above show that while in the "normal"
construction (1) the numeral governs the noun, in the
construction with a plural numeral (2) the most likely head
is the noun, and presumably the plural marking on the
numeral is an instance of agreement similar to those
discussed by Hurford under another rubric, "Number assigned
to numeral by sister noun". (Possibly, the situation is
more complex, since in plural the accusative form of
Finnish nouns coincides with the unmarked nominative form.)
Presumably it is certain peculiarities of the Finnish
category of number (which is not studied by Hurford) .
rather than the construction . that are responsible for
special semantic effects. Thus, it seems that the disregard
of dependency issues (in fact, overtly declared by the
author on p. 563) led to some inconsistency here . although
the data presented by Hurford does not decrease in value,
of course.

The motivation of such shortcomings is most likely the
inherent complexity of many purportedly simple notions.
Hence it is indicative that when the authors take some of
such notions more deeply they meet difficulties. The
discussions of the problem of the application of the
concept of case in respect of Daghestanian languages
(Kibrik), of the notion of determiner in respect to Swedish
genitives (Koptjevskaja-Tamm) and on the concept of
agglutination for Hungarian (Moravcsik) may serve as
illustrations. But the most intriguing is the fact that the
very palpability of the noun phrase category turns out not
to be apparent.

Really, in several places of the volume one can find
considerations that are based on that what is usually
assumed to constitute a single noun phrase in reality does
not form any well-established syntactic category. Such
observations are justified in respect to languages that
display non-configurational characteristics (see Heath 1986
and Plank (ed.) 1995 among others), but it is exciting to
find remarks of this kind in case of European languages,
many of which are often thought to be the standards of
configurationality. Plank in his speculations on double
articulation and Stassen show that even here the degree of
cohesion within a presumable noun phrase may vary and some
components of such a "constituent" may be more autonomous
than others. After all that, Gil's arguments for that
syntactically the category of noun phrase in Singlish is at
times indistinguishable from that of sentence look quite

However, this collection would not be of great value if the
denial of the accepted status of noun phrases was its main
result. After all, giving up assumptions on the existence
of a syntactic category cannot be fruitful until an
alternative system is offered, and seemingly, it was not
the authors' wish to work on new theoretical systems. It is
a great number of other conclusions (which cannot be
discussed in details here, unfortunately) that do credit to
the collection. Their power varies broadly, however.

To begin with, there are generalizations that cover only
concrete areal or genetic formations and generalizations
that attempt to be relevant for most (or even all)
languages. The former type of generalizations is itself
significant for areal and historical investigations. But it
becomes of typological and theoretical interest only if
compared with generalizations of the latter type. In fact,
the picture given in the volume conforms to the intuition
of many typologists that Europe cannot reflect the real
diversity adequately and in some respects it even occupies
a periphery. Hence a lot of beautiful conclusions cannot be
made exclusively on the basis of European languages. On the
other hand, the surveys of such phenomena as constructions
with numerals (Hurford) and possessives and action nominals
(Koptjevskaja-Tamm) show that a considerable structural
variation can be observed even within Europe, so that what
is sometimes thought to be most typical may be only "one of

Interestingly, in spite of the "global" orientation of the
volume, the statistical generalizations are at times
preferred to universals. It is important to realize,
however, that statistical generalizations are not identical
to "statistical universals": tendencies may be greater or
smaller, while statistical universals typically operate
with the (seemingly) simple notion of "the absolute
majority of languages". It could be then a target of
criticism that sometimes the authors center on tendencies
that are NOT true for most languages, and declare that
these tendencies are typologically relevant. Yet it is
important to draw attention to what is studied. As has been
noticed by Dryer (1998), "random variation and historical
accident are considerably less plausible as explanations
for differences in frequency that involve correlations
between two linguistic parameters rather than a single
parameter". Now, most authors do not limit themselves to
mere one-parameter classification but point a special
attention to various co-variation phenomena (as a task of
the general typology, this is particularly emphasized by
Plank). Moreover, sometimes the direction of attention
towards co-variation (which presupposes the cluster view on
certain phenomena) helps to explain the existence of such
probably unexpected phenomena as, e.g., the constructions
that are intermediate between WITH- and AND-strategies
(Stassen): as many other theoretically unique but in
reality widespread patterns discussed by the authors, these
constructions are the product of historical change, which
leads to the gradual replacement of typically coexisting

Maybe, it is indeed the orientation to the study of co-
variation that is responsible for non-triviality of what is
presented in the volume. And it is apparently the feeling
that the grammar should be harmonious (inspired by the very
idea of co-variation) that guided the authors of "Noun
Phrase Structure in the Languages of Europe" and that
allowed them to create a volume that will, I believe,
stimulate research in different domains of grammar.


Abney, S.P. 1987. The English Noun Phrase in Its Sentential
Aspect. Ph.D. diss., MIT.

Carlson, G.N. & F.J. Pelletier (eds.) 1995. The Generic
Book. Chicago/London: The Univ. of Chicago Press.

Coene, M. & Y. D'hulst (eds.) 2003. From NP to DP. 2 vols.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Corbett, G.G., N.M. Fraser, & S. McGlashan (eds.) 1993.
Heads in Grammatical Theory. Cambridge etc.: Cambridge
Univ. Press.

Dryer, M.S. 1998. Why statistical universals are better
than absolute universals. Chicago Linguistic Society 33:
The Panels, 123-145.

Givon, T. 1978. Definiteness and referentiality. In J.H.
Greenberg (ed.), Universals of Human Language, vol. 4,
Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 291-330.

Heath, J. 1986. Syntactic and lexical aspects of
nonconfigurationality in Nunggubuyu (Australia). Natural
Language & Linguistic Theory 3 (3): 375-408.

Plank, F. (ed.) 1995. Double Case: Agreement by
Suffixaufnahme. N.Y. etc.: Oxford Univ. Press.

Rijkhoff, J. 2002. The Noun Phrase. N.Y. etc.: Oxford Univ.

Szabolcsi, A. 1994. The noun phrase. In F. Kiefer & K. E.
Kiss (eds.), The Syntactic Structure of Hungarian, Syntax &
Semantics 27, N.Y. etc.: Academic Press.

Zwicky, A. 1985. Heads. Journal of Linguistics 21: 1-29.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Yury Lander is a research fellow in the Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow. His current interests include the morphosyntactic typology of noun phrases (possessives, quantification and relativization) and various configurationality issues.