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Review of  Diachronic and Typological Perspectives on Verbs

Reviewer: Anish Koshy
Book Title: Diachronic and Typological Perspectives on Verbs
Book Author: Folke Josephson Ingmar Söhrman
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Latin
Language Family(ies): Australian
Issue Number: 25.3043

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The volume is organized as a collection of 15 papers along with a brief introductory note from the editors Ingmar Söhrman and Folke Josephson. This volume is a sequel to an earlier volume Interdependence of Synchronic and Diachronic Analysis (2008) by the same editors. While the earlier volume focused on the issues of tense, aspect and mood in terms of their conceptual parallels and diachronic relations, the present volume apart from taking up further questions on modality also focuses on issues of evolution of grammatical systems with respect to the verb.

Gerd V.M. Haverling’s paper “On tense and mood in conditional clauses from Early to Late Latin” focuses on a diachronic study of the loss of distinction in the temporal reference of the subjunctive and indicative from Classical Latin to Late Latin in conditional clauses, in the process tracing the additional functionalities that past tense markers take up, like representing hypothetical situations and counterfactuality as a result of grammaticalization.

Judith Josephson's paper “The fate of the subjunctive in late Middle Persian” also takes up the loss of the subjunctive, especially in subordinate clauses in late Middle Persian, where it has been reduced to mere formulaic uses. The loss is paralleled by grammaticalization of the preverb /be/ in an expanded /be/+VERB construction, which eventually takes over the role played by the subjunctive, namely, expressing volition, possibility and future. Structural changes that follow the eventual loss include reanalysis/incorporation of the finite verb of the subordinate into the main clause with the indicative also having taken over some of the functions of the subjunctive.

Nadezhda Zorikhina Nilsson’s paper “The negated imperative in Russian and other Slavic languages: Aspectual and modal meanings” explores the effect of negation on the use of the perfective aspect in Imperative clauses and hypothesizes that the replacement of one system by another in many of these languages is to be understood in terms of the general typological principle of opposition between marked and unmarked forms, with the perfective as the marked and the imperfective as the unmarked form. The perfective attains in these languages the specialized meaning of expressing inverse imperatives.

William B. McGregor's paper “Grammaticalisation of verbs into temporal and modal markers in Australian languages” looks at the development of certain temporal and modal categories as a result of the grammaticalization of certain construction types like the compound verb constructions (CVC), complement constructions and auxiliary constructions. The CVCs often follow the typologically attested patterns of first delexicalization of one of the verbs in a CVC and then the delexicalized verb turning into a derivational affix. Complement constructions involving the verbs 'say,' 'do,' etc., are seen as developing modal semantics as a result of codification of pragmatic implicatures. Auxiliary constructions also show widely attested path of lexical verbs becoming auxiliary verbs and auxiliary verbs becoming inflectional markers.

Atle Grøun's paper “Aspect and tense in counterfactual main clauses: Fake or real?” investigates what are called fake and real aspectual markers (imperfective) in counterfactuals in Romance and Slavic languages (French and Russian, mainly), where the fake imperfective is seen in French, that is, the imperfective makes no semantic contribution, while the real is seen in Russian counterfactuals. Moving from these already established facts, the author investigates the case of certain counterfactuals in both Russian and French, where the imperfective becomes fake in certain irrealis contexts. The author's analysis gives an Optimality Theory based competition analysis for Russian, leading to the choice of the best form-meaning association, which is however operational in a setting of pragmatic strengthening based on associative learning. The form-meaning association is conventionalized, developing stereotypical interpretations. The French case is only briefly dealt with.

Lars Johanson's brief paper “On non-canonical modal clause junction in Turkic” probes if the non-canonical Altaic phenomenon observed in Turkic clause junctures is merely a result of contact induced changes with Indo-European or whether the language internally available device of using the subjunctive marker as an adjunctor when juxtaposing two independent clauses, is responsible for the apparently non-Altaic structure.

Ingmar Söhrman's paper “Reference, aspectuality and modality in ante-preterit (pluperfect) in Romance languages” takes an in-depth look at the syntactic-functional and the morphological-formal side of the ante-preterit tense in Romance languages, which has been often taken to be the same as expressing pluperfect tense. Going beyond the accepted definition of pluperfect as referring to an event that happens before another event in the past, the author investigates the subtle referential modal and aspectual attributes of the ante-preterit in Romance languages and compares it to typologically diverse languages like Greek, Slavic and other European languages. The author concludes that in terms of aspect, ante-preterit is used both as a past imperfect as well as in perfective function and in terms of modality/pragmatic functions, its role is understood as expressing (a) change of referential world, (b) enhancement of modifying illocutionary force. Typologically, the Romance languages in this respect do show parallels with Slavic and Germanic languages.

Birte Stengaard's brief paper “Subjects and objects with Latin habere and some of its Romance descendants” takes a look at the argument structure (subject and object) of the Latin verb ‘habere’ in 4th century texts and its survival in modern Spanish and Portuguese as a grammatical element expressing temporality as an auxiliary, having lost its lexical status. In the historical texts ‘habere’ is also seen to express possession (as in Ibero-Romance). The diachronic processes involved in this semantic and syntactic evolution shows the verb developing an abstract sense expressing impersonality, modality, etc. The historical texts also give no structural evidence of its possible disappearance in the future and may explain its survival till date for structural reasons.

Peter Bekker in “Diachrony and typology in the history of Cree (Algonquian, Algic)” studies the unusual typological features of Cree (and also other Algonquian languages) by applying internal reconstruction. Three unusual features focused on, include (a) the prefixal and suffixal expression of some semantic categories, (b) parallels between verbal and nominal morphology, and, (c) a lack of symmetry in the ordering of selected morphological and free grammatical elements, like adpositions, demonstratives, etc. Internal reconstruction is carried out drawing parallels with distantly related two Algic languages even hypothesizing a common origin for all; parallels are also drawn with Kutenai and Salish from the Pacific Coast, with speculations of common origins. The NP-VP parallels are explained by hypothesizing a clearer distinction in the past between nouns and verbs. The prefixal and suffixal marking of the same categories is understood in terms of retention (suffixes) and innovation (prefixes), suggesting a development away from suffixes to prefixes; the third aspect of lack of symmetry is left inconclusive. Considering the languages seem to be in a mixed state, both diffusion as well as genetic links with languages showing similar features is suggested. Evidence is also taken from archaeology and human genetics. The structure of Proto Algonquian is also highlighted based on internal reconstruction with different possible stages of evolution.

Looking into the development of Aorist indicative aspect into a tense marker representing immediate/ recent past in Vedic, Eystein Dahl’s paper “Typological change in Vedic: The development of the Aorist from a perfective past to an immediate past” discusses the diachronic development of this marker through four stages of Vedic (Early Vedic, Early Middle Vedic, Middle Vedic and Late Vedic). Arguing that use of perfective to mark recent past is typologically a common phenomenon, Dahl looks for typological clues through Vedic examples in the development of this type of past marking. Through various stages, the aorist indicative is seen to mark perfective aspect as well as absolute and/or relative past tense to an immediate past reading with loss of aspectual meaning. Dahl suggests that this is a result of conventionalization of a pragmatic implicature, that of the association of perfective with proximate past.

Ailbhe Ó. Corráin’s paper “On the evolution of verbal aspect in insular Celtic” examines the development of periphrastic aspectual markers in Insular Celtic, namely, introspective, retrospective and prospective formations, from a state where there were none, in the process trying to look for typological clues that could explain the development of such systems in natural languages. These markers, which develop from locative markers, are understood cognitively as evolution of spatially organized construct of time. Motivations for the development of these systems is suggested as a result of pressure to develop imperfective marking in a system where all finite verbs were punctual and categories of preterite, imperative and future were all primarily perfective. The development of the aspectual system also follows a specific order; some latter forms necessarily requiring some others to be in place already (in accordance with the principle of diachronic stratification).

Kjartan G. Ottoson in “The anticausative and related categories in the Old Germanic languages” traces the development of the anti-causative in languages that did not have them, examining various branches of Old Germanic including Old Nordic, Gothic, West Germanic, Old High German, etc., and explains it not only as an attempt by these languages to systematize the transitive-intransitive distinction but also as a transition typologically from a system where aspect was important to one where valency becomes more valued. The contributions of various aspects/processes in this evolution is also highlighted, including the emergence of middle categories constructed with the reflexive pronoun, the opaqueness of the originally aspectual (inchoative marking) ‘na(n)’-verbs, flexibility of the middle reflexives, restriction to only ‘passive’ use of the Indo European Mediopassive in Gothic and survival only in Germanic, and the development of labile verbs in English (e.g. ‘open’ which can be both transitive and intransitive) as a result of lacking both the middle reflexives and the ‘na(n)’-verbs. The anticausative element is argued to have been inherently present in both the language-systems, namely, the ones with the na(n)-verbs as well as those with middle reflexives. The excessive multifunctionality of the causative ‘ja-’ in Proto Germanic is also taken as a contributing factor for the development of an anticausative system, as the system required a better means of distinguishing transitives from their intransitive counterparts.

Folke Josephson in “Directionality, case and actionality in Hittite” looks at the role of two enclitic particles, ‘-kan’ and ‘-san,’ through Old to Middle to modern Hittite, where they are used as actional modifiers expressing punctuality, telicity and direction. These particles interacted with directional adverbs, preverbs and postpositions at various stages of the language and affected their meanings with their own inherent meanings of goal/directed path (‘-san’) and source (‘-kan’). These enclitics are also shown to express the abstract link between case and verbal actionality. These also contribute because of their modal functions like accomplishment, limitation, etc. A comparison with similar directional verbs in Latin occupies the major part of the paper and is used as supporting evidence.

Kristine Gunn Eide’s brief paper “The case of unaccusatives in Classical Portuguese” evaluates the effect of the diachronic change in classical Portuguese to Modern Portuguese in terms of being a topic prominent language to a subject prominent one, in the process shifting the subject from their post-verbal position where they received case and agreed with the verb, to a pre-verbal position leading to the loss of nominative case on post-verbal subject arguments of unaccusatives and passives, even while it offers the nominative to the pre-verbal empty expletive pronouns. The paper is a generative framework based analysis of syntactic restructuring. The post-verbal subjects of unaccusatives often are either unmarked for case or even resemble objects or may receive other case markings like partitive.

The last paper “Some historical developments of the verb in Neo-Aramaic”by Geoffrey Khan, inquires into some general aspects of the development of Ergative syntax in Neo-Aramaic, initially due to contact with Iranian Kurdish dialects and then showing/taking its own developmental path with differences in Jewish and Christian dialects in the same regions. The feature that is taken up for a brief analysis is the finite verbal forms in their perfective and imperfective forms, which have been eliminated and have been replaced by passive and active particles. Comparisons and contrast are drawn with other forms of Aramaic and with earlier forms as well.


Grammaticalization, as is expected in a volume on diachronic issues, forms a major theme in multiple papers in this volume, including those by Haverling, Josephson, and, McGregor. McGregor raises a very significant issue when he highlights the difficulty in assigning motivation for structural changes, arguing that all grammaticalization cannot be looked upon as essentially a cognitive process in nature, that is, a metaphorical transfer. Instead, his argument that a semiotic understanding of grammaticalization is often missing in studies which only focus on the loss of meaning of the source but do not talk about the gaining of meaning of the end product of grammaticalization which may not often involve cognitive/metaphorical transfers is indeed noteworthy.

Structural reasons for change form the backdrop of many papers, including debates on how certain structural patterns are found to be deficient or typologically rare or non-confirming, that is, being marked (Nilsson), and therefore assisting a process of change. The property of unmarked forms taking on more and more roles with marked forms becoming more and more specialized is insightfully discussed by Nilsson. McGregor, Dahl, Corráin as well as Söhrman very usefully highlight the central thematic emphasis of the volume, by looking at structural change as not being random but as attestations of typological patterns of development and change, thus emphasizing on change as a process and not merely as an event and looking at language evolution as fundamentally goal-oriented. Josephson is right in arguing that languages give structural cues on whether certain features are stable or will be lost eventually. Since linguistic structures form a system, any loss is seen to be compensated by multiple means including by reanalysis of existing forms. At times, as Ottoson argues, change is motivated by a desire to systematize -- at times a lack of a feature, at other times to bring clarity in a situation of excessive multifunctionality of certain markers. Even when Johanson highlights change as a result of contact, the emphasis on looking for language internal devices or reasons for change is not lost. One cannot say with certainty if a language can resist change at all costs, but the presence of language internal favourable factors leading to change must be seen as constituting an important environment for change. This is confirmed by Stengaard's paper, which talks about the persistence of certain features due to the lack of any structural evidence suggesting a possible disappearance. Dahl also raises the stakes when he attempts to show how far the Vedic stages/processes are representative of the stages in natural languages, thus attempting a more global understanding of change in terms of universal principles of change.

The role of codification of pragmatic implicatures in the development of modal semantics (McGregor), conventalization of form-meaning associations in a setting of pragmatic strengthening (Grøun) as well as eventual move from an aspectual reading to a tense reading (Dahl), highlights an often ignored role played by the pragmatics of language use in the process of diachronic development of forms.

Even though the book’s title seemingly suggests that two different perspectives would be used to study verbs, the reader soon realizes that the papers actually embark on mostly a diachronic study of various aspects of verbs, mostly TAM categories but also touching upon preverbal, adverbial markers, etc. It is assumed throughout the various analyses that typological studies that only look at languages as they are in their current state can only probably provide a shallow analysis, description or explanation and therefore a diachronic perspective is assumed necessary for any meaningful typological study. Structural similarities or patterns that come about are not necessarily historical accidents but are often driven and guided by language internal factors – at times a loss of markers that distinguished forms, or at other times, a gradual loss of certain forms due to their marked nature in the system or their disuse. Sometimes structural changes could mark the end of certain forms. Contact with other languages, diffusion of certain features in contact areas are all touched upon in the papers. Does the diachronic approach coupled with comparative approach provide a better solution? Does dwelling on diachronic principles make certain explanations for typological phenomenon easier or stronger? The papers argue for these positions forcefully.

The papers present a very interesting mix of approaches and theoretical persuasions, with Eide’s paper using a generative analysis of syntactic restructuring and Grøun’s paper using an Optimality Theory-based competition analysis leading to the choice of best forms, with multiple papers emphasizing on conventionalization/concretization of pragmatic implicatures and many on the usual aspects of grammaticalization like expansion, specialization, delexicalization, contact-induced changes, the role of structural strength in the stability and maintenance of certain features, the role of cognitive processes like ease of processing, etc. in determining stability/instability of features, development of abstract meanings, retention and innovation of features, etc. The purely diachronic papers also follow sound principles of historical linguistics in looking for internal reasons for change and seeking comparisons with other languages typologically to support claims of diachronic change by showing parallels in other languages. Attempts at internal reconstruction are supplemented with typological comparisons. The importance of diffusion and genetic links is also highlighted. The corroboration from archaeology and human genetics is also an important step in forming stronger claims (Bekker). The various positions taken in evolution and growth of languages and the tensions between them are well articulated through papers that question an exclusively cognitive basis for change and those that argue for a cognitive basis. The importance of language-internal pressure to systematize its oppositions and processes leading to change is also equally highlighted. Thus, over-all the papers provide a rich menu of possibilities in the analysis of diachronic as well as typological aspects of verbs. The language families covered in the analyses are quite impressive and distributed. The papers are not organized in any particular thematic patterns or subsections. This review has tried to bunch papers together that deal with a particular thematic principle, keeping in view the broader theme of the volume as envisaged by its title.

Thus overall, the volume provides a good combination of shorter papers that present a preliminary hypothesis and open up a larger window for more detailed and parallel analysis, as well as longer research papers that provide detailed analyses of verbal morphosyntax in diverse settings. Both students of historical linguistics and typological studies will benefit from the confluence of ideas and synthesis of practices. Also, the fact that the inferences drawn from diachronic studies are used to provide explanations for typological phenomena and vice-versa provides a good model for a synthetic approach.
I have worked on the Mon-Khmer languages Pnar and Khasi spoken in Meghalaya in the Northeastern region of India and submitted a dissertation on the pronominal clitics in these languages at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I am presently working on my Doctoral thesis on 'The typology of clitics in the Austroasiatic languages of India' while also teaching at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. My career interests include working on the morphosyntax of lesser-studied languages of India from a typological perspective.