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Review of  Intransitive Predication

Reviewer: Nilson Gabas, Jr.
Book Title: Intransitive Predication
Book Author: Leon Stassen
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 15.1861

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Date: Wed, 16 Jun 2004 11:06:49 -0300
From: ''Nilson Gabas, Jr.''
Subject: Intransitive Predication

AUTHOR: Stassen, Leon
TITLE: Intransitive Predication, paperback ed.
SERIES: Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2003

Nilson Gabas, Jr., MCT-Museu Goeldi (Brazil)

[The announcement to which this review is linked is that of the original
hardback edition. --Eds.]

The book is a careful investigation of cross-linguistic variation in
one of the core domains of all natural languages, intransitive

Basing his analysis on a database sample of 410 languages, Leon Stassen
(henceforth S) presents a universally applicable model for defining the
domain of intransitive predication in natural languages. Intransitive
predicates are defined as a 'cognitive space', regarded in terms of
four domains: events (X cries), properties (X is happy), classes (X is
a student), and locations (X is in the garden).

Taking these four domains in consideration, S offers a typology of the
structural manifestations of predication in terms of the nature and
number of the formal strategies used in its encoding (Part I of the
book), together with a discussion of a number of abstract principles
which can be used to explain the cross-linguistic variation embodied by
the typology (Parts II and III).

In the final part, S brings together the research results in a
universally applicable model, which can be read as a 'flow-chart' for
the encoding of intransitive predications in different language types.

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK'S CONTENT (modified from pages 21-22)
Based on the definition of the domain of investigation given in Chapter
1, the next three chapters (which together form Part One of the book)
investigate the cross- linguistic encoding options for the four
predicate categories in the domain. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the
criteria according to which various different types of predicate
encoding can be identified across the languages of the sample. The
result of this discussion is the establishment of a number of
prototypical features of the encoding of different predicate
categories, in the form of different ENCODING STRATEGIES. In Chapter 4
this result is applied to the database of the project, leading to a
typology in which, for each sampled language, the encoding of the four
predicate categories in the domain is specified in terms of sameness or
difference in strategy choice. In this sense, the descriptive research
result arrived at in Chapter 4 consists in the specification of the
FORMAL STRATIFICATION of the domain for each language in the sample.

Part Two (Chapters 5-8) and Part Three (Chapters 9-13) deal with
specific, residual, problems. A conspicuous feature of the encoding of
the domain at issue is that, in very many languages, more than one
formal stratification appears to be permitted. This phenomenon of
SWITCHING are looked at from various angles in Part Two, and the
principles which turn out to constrain the possibilities of switching
are identified. The chapters in Part Three contain the exploration of a
major typological distinction in intransitive predicate encoding --
namely, the difference between 'verby' and 'nouny' encoding of
property-concept predicates. It is argued that this distinction can be
explained in terms of a principle which S calls the Tensedness
Parameter. The definition of this principle is given in Chapter 9.

Chapters 10 and 11 in Part Three involve a detailed investigation of
the empirical validity of the Tensedness Parameter for all the
languages of the sample. The general assessment is that this parameter
provides a reliable basis for the prediction of 'verby' versus 'nouny'
status of property-concept predicates across languages. S then
concludes Part Three by offering a few speculations as to the nature of
the relationship between tensedness and property predicate encoding.

The descriptive and explanatory results assembled in the first thirteen
chapters are summarized in Chapter 14, which, on its own, constitutes
Part Four of the book. This chapter presents a model of the encoding
possibilities of the domain of intransitive predication across the
languages of the world. S argues that this domain is, cognitively or
conceptually speaking, the same in all languages, and that cross-
linguistic variation in the formal stratification of the domain derives
from the interaction of a limited number of universal principles of
natural language, which are either formally or cognitively motivated.

The book is the result of a massive and thorough piece of work. S
builds up his analysis based on empirical data and upon intense
typological investigation, bringing the reader with an impressive study
of the subject. His concept of STRATEGY (characterized as prototypical)
is an important key to his work, which he takes as the basis for the
postulation of the four strategies involved in intransitive
predication. Each of these strategies would be motivated by a different

According to S, the verbal strategy (the one associated with
intransitive event predicates) would be identified by the application
of the criteria of agreement, auxiliary and negation, and is motivated
by considerations of semantic relevance and typological markedness (cf.
Section 2.3).

Locational strategy (which prototypically encodes locational
predicates) would be identified by the presence of a supportive,
'locative' item which has the morphosyntactic characteristics of a V,
and has as its defining feature its specific semantic character. For S,
Locative Predicates denote concrete location, and are therefore
sensitive to considerations of locational specification (cf. Section

Nominal strategy (the strategy prototypically associated with class
predicates) would be identified by a nonverbal supportive item, usually
a 'zero copula' or have the form of a lexical item which originates
from nonverbal discourse-marking elements ('pro-copula', 'particle
copula'). It could be defined as deriving from the universal encoding
properties of identity statements (Sections 3.6 and 3.7).

The definition of the last strategy, property strategy, would follow a
universal principle, called by S 'The Adjective Principle'. This
principle basically states that predicate adjectives have no
prototypical encoding of their own, and that they take either the
verbal strategy, the nominal strategy, or a mixture of both, as their
encoding strategy.

The most interesting part of the book comes from S's search for a
principle that predicts the occurrence of one strategy (verbal) or
another (nominal) as the property strategy of a given language. For
him, languages which make use of the verbal strategy are called A-
languages, and languages which make use of the nominal strategy are
called B-languages. The distinction between them is based on a
parameter which he calls 'Tensedness Parameter', stated as follows (p.

(8) Definition of the Tensedness Parameter
(a) If a language has a grammatical category of tense, which
(1) is morphologically bound on verbs, and
(2) minimally involves a distinction between past and nonpast
time reference,
then that language is tensed.
(b) In all other cases, a language is non-tensed.

This Tensedness Parameter is employed in the construction of the
following set of bi-directional universal statements (p.357):

(17) The Tensedness Universals of Adjective Encoding
(a) If a language is tensed, it will have nouny predicate adjectives.
If a language has nouny predicate adjectives, it will be tensed.
(b) If a language is non-tensed, it will have verby predicate
adjectives. If a language has verby predicate adjectives, it will
be non-tensed.

The stipulation of the parameter as well as its outcome seem to hold
very well against the range of languages under study, and makes the
hypothesis and its corollaries justly reliable. Nevertheless, S's
conclusions do not seem to be universal. At least one counterexample
for the stipulation of the Tensedness Parameter and for the statement
that no language has a specific encoding for the property strategy
comes from Karo, a Brazilian language of the Tupí family.

Karo, according to S's parameter, is a non-tensed language (tense in
Karo is optionally marked by means of different particles) that has
different encodings for all four types of strategies. In Karo,
encodings of the verbal strategy, the locational strategy, the nominal
strategy, and the property strategy are found, respectively, in the
following examples:

1a. owét
'I cried'

1b. wat owã yat ka'a 'a' pe'
wat owã ya-t ka'a 'a' pe'
1SG.POSS mother stand-IND house CL.ROUND LOC
'My mother is in the house'

1c. wat iyõm agóa'pât nãn
wat iyõm agóa'pât nã-n
1SG.POSS father shaman be-IND
'My father is a/the shaman'

1d. cúrem 'õn
cú=tem 'õn
big=ADVZ 1SG
'I am big'

Although the existence of languages such as Karo might disqualify S's
Adjective Principle as universal, it does not place S's investigation
into risk. It only (conceivably) entails additional revision(s) to it.

An additional - perhaps small - problem arises from the fact that
further references about Brazilian Indian languages (the languages that
I am most familiar with) are missing in the sample database -- S could
have been slightly more careful in representing them. For instance,
there are additional references of Macro-Jê languages available in the
literature (Eduardo Ribeiro, p.c.), such as Wiesemann (1972, 1986), and
Maia (1998) which, if added to S's database, could, in principle, give
additional support for his ideas.

Although the lack of references holds up for other families of
languages of Brazil as well, this fact does not seem to diminish the
(vast) contribution S makes to the field of Linguistics through the
publication of Intransitive Predication.

Gabas Jr., Nilson (1999) A Grammar of Karo, Tupí (Brazil). Ph.D.
dissertation. Santa Barbara, University of California.

Maia, Marcus A. R. (1998) Aspectos Tipológicos da Língua Javaé. Munich:
Lincom-Europa. 90p.

Wiesemann, Ursula (1972) Die phonologische und grammatische Struktur
der Kaingáng-Sprache. Janua Linguarum, series practica, 90. The Hague:
Mouton. 211 p.

Wiesemann, Ursula (ed.) (1986) Pronominal systems. Tübingen: Gunter
Narr Verlag. xxi, 501 p.

Reviews of Stassen 1997: Studies in Language 24:2 (2000), 448-453
(Barry J. Blake).
Nilson Gabas, Jr. has been working with Brazilian Indian languages
(especially Karo, Tupí) since 1987.