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Review of  Adpositions and Other Parts of Speech

Reviewer: Andrew David Thomas Harvey
Book Title: Adpositions and Other Parts of Speech
Book Author: Libert Alan Reed
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 25.2888

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Libert’s “Adpositions and Other Parts of Speech” is a cross-linguistic review of how a diverse range of scholars refer to words on “the border between adpositions and some other parts of speech” (vii). Less about proposing solutions than it is about underscoring difficulties and highlighting issues for further investigation, the work addresses a broad scope of terms, examining the context in which they are used, as well as the consistency with which they are used. It consists of eight chapters, the contents of which are listed below. Because of the various ways in which linguists have applied the expressions which Libert examines, many subsections read like brief resumes of how each linguist has come to understand that label in their particular language of examination. As such, for each topic discussed, if there is no consensus on how a term is employed cross-linguistically, I will list the languages included in the discussion.

In Chapter 1: Introduction outlines, the book is outlined and some forms of adpositions are exemplified and addressed. It is established that words should be defined according to their functions (for example, words ‘used as’ adpositions, as well as adpositions which ‘are actually/really some other part of speech’, should be referred to simply as adpositions). The use of the terms ‘Fausses Prépositions, Fake Adpositions, and True Adpositions’ in several Indo-European languages as well as Arabic is examined next. ‘Unechte and Uneigentliche Adpositions’ are reviewed as labels for nouns and adverbs used as prepositions. The inconsistency surrounding the use of the epithet ‘Quasi-Adpositions’ for certain deverbal prepositions is examined, followed by an explanation of the labels ‘Semi-Adpositions’ and ‘Pseudo-Adpositions’ as being reserved for verbs or adverbs which have not completely made the transition to preposition (i.e. that have not fully lexicalized as prepositions). The designation ‘So-Called Adpositions’, employed applied to describe Yoruba and Lolo, is then examined, followed by ‘Adposition-Like Words’ which is an expression reserved for cases when the boundaries between word classes are fuzzy. ‘Other Terminology’ includes discussions of ‘impure prepositions’, ‘marginal prepositions’, ‘equivalent to prepositions’, and ‘nominal prepositions’ and ‘verbal prepositions’ (and several variations of the latter two), as well as Uyghur ‘role-shifted prepositions’ versus ‘proper prepositions’. ‘Mental State Postpositions and Other Adpositions with Unusual Semantics’ is a short exploration of adpositions which mark semantic roles typically denoted by nouns, verbs, or adjectives.

Chapter 2: Adpositions and Nouns, examines the borderline between adpositions and nouns. The problem of classification is illustrated with some comments from Suutari (2006) on Mixtec, as well as an example from the Khoisan language !Xun. ‘Adpositions in General as Nouns’ raises the issue of words which are grammatically nouns in a language (e.g. Mongolian) being classified as adpositions in grammars simply because they translate into English as adpositions. ‘Some Adpositions as Nouns’ examines languages in which it has been argued that some of the supposed adpositions are nouns, including examples from Persian, Telugu, Ma’di, and Turkish, among others. The following section examines ‘The Presence/Absence of Inflection as a Criterion’, highlighting that, though invariability has been used as a method of distinguishing adpositions from nouns, it is not an entirely satisfactory way of doing so. Similarly, the presence of genitive case on complements is also examined as a criterion, to similar effect, as “adpositions in different languages assign different cases, […] as do some verbs” (40). Two further measures are examined in ‘Other Criteria’: whether the word in general does or does not have a corresponding noun, as well as semantic meaning type (as proposed by Vajda 2004 for Ket). The next terms to be examined are ‘Pseudo-Postpositions’ in Chagatay, and ‘Substantive Adpositions’ in Welsh, Twi, and Sinhala. ‘Noun-Like Adpositions’ in Uralic languages, Toqabaqita, and Turkish are discussed, followed by ‘Adpositional Nouns’ in Seimat, Yakut, Brahui, Berbice Dutch Creole, and Hausa. ‘Nominal Adpositions’ are reviewed as they apply to Persian (specifically prepositions which are found with the ezafe marker), and Hungarian. ‘Relator Nouns’ are discussed for Finnish, Rabha, and Kurtöp, as well as Southeast Asian languages, which the literature employs to refer to words sometimes called locational prepositions. ‘Relational Nouns’ as the label applies to Mam, Mangghuer, and Burushaski is then examined. ‘Local Nouns, Locative Nouns, and Location(al) Nouns’ are then discussed for Longgu, Basque, Ewe, Gújjolaay Eegimaa, and Tamangic, followed by ‘Region(al) Nouns’ in Thai, Zapotec, ‘Spatial Nouns’ in Japanese, Khalaj, and Basque, ‘Auxiliary Nouns’ in Altaic languages including Tuvan, Chuvash, Bashkir, and Tatar. ‘Localizers’ apply to one word in Mandarin: ‘shang’, described by Wu (2008) as the head of a locative phrase, LP.

Chapter 3: Adpositions and Verbs examines words on the border between adpositions and verbs, which, given that both represent a relation, may sometimes be fuzzy. The first section, ‘Debate on One Word of Chinese’, underscores the ongoing discussion as to whether Mandarin adpositions are adpositions or verbs. The word bei4 is a salient example, having been classified variously as a preposition, a subject marker, a subordinate verb, a matrix verb, or part of a compound verb. Following this, there is an examination of ‘Prepositional Verbs’ as the expression applies to South Efate, Pijin, and Namakir, the term ‘Verbal Adpositions’ as it applies to several Oceanic languages and Bunaq, ‘Deverbal Prepositions’ in Lao and English, and ‘Verb-Like Prepositions’ are examined in Toqabaqita, Araki, and Chinese. ‘Verpositions’ is a label coined by Matisoff (1991) for “verb-derived morphemes that have come to function like prepositions” (69) and examples are given from Vietnamese, Thai, Mandarin, and Hmong. Discussion then moves to ‘Verbids’, employed by Ansre (1966) for Ewe and Lefebvre (1990) for Fon to refer to lexical items distinct from verbs and heading locative and instrumental phrases. Beermann et al. (2005), in their work on Ga consider verbids to be verbs. Sanskrit ‘Prepositional Gerunds’ are then examined, followed by ‘Serial Verbs’ in Lao, Northern Vietnamese, Titan, Tetun Dili, and some spoken languages in Togo. Discussion then shifts from languages with serial verbs (often lacking verbal inflection) to English ‘Participles’ which, despite the fact they show inflection, may still exist in the blurry boundary between verbs and prepositions. The chapter finishes with a brief discussion of ‘Coverbs’ in Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, and Classical Chinese, and ‘Converbs’ with examples from Old Turkic, Sakha, and Karaim.

Chapter 4: Adpositions and Adjectives is a shorter chapter, discussing words existing at the interface of adpositions and adjectives. Following the an introduction, which establishes the issue by drawing on Turkish, and Punjabi, the section ‘Transitive Adjectives’ focuses on whether words such as English ‘near’ in ‘near the river’ are prepositions or adjectives, examining criteria including absence of PP complement, ability to appear in prenominal position, as well as Pullum and Huddleston’s 2002 criterion of functioning as “an adjunct in clause structure that is not in a predicative relation to the subject” (85).

Chapter 5: Adpositions and Adverbs, deals with the intersection between adpositions and adverbs, treating Lakhota, English, and Pali. In the first section, ‘(In)transitivity’, the ability to take a complement as a criterion for distinguishing adverbs from adpositions is discussed, with examples from English, Attic Greek, and Hungarian. ‘Improper Prepositions’ as they apply to Greek (Ancient and Modern) is then examined, specifically if they can or cannot be classed as adverbs. Following this, ‘Adverbial Adpositions’ are explored in Slovenian, Haitian Creole, Bislama, and Vedic Sanskrit, as well as ‘Adpositional Adverbs’ as the term applies to Vedic Sanskrit, English, and Hungarian. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Ancient Greek ‘Preposition-Adverbs’, which is described diachronically as a word which becomes a preposition in a later form of the language, but behaves as an adverb, rather than a preposition.

Chapter 6: Adpositions and Conjunctions begins with the consideration that these two word classes may, in fact, be one and the same. However, Cuyckens’ (1991) argument is that this is because, semantically, adpositions and conjunctions behave similarly, and that if grammatical criteria are used instead, a distinction between the two can be maintained. The first section: ‘Words Meaning ‘With’ as Conjunctions’ examines examples from Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Turkish, Vaeakau-Taumako, Berbice Dutch Creole, and Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan. The second section, ‘Adpositions vs. Subordinating Conjunctions’, discusses this difference with examples from English, German, and Korya Chiini. ‘Clausal Postpositions and Other Terms’ concludes the chapter, examining clausal postpositions in Ket, as well as sentence-prepositions in Danish and Middle English, prepositional conjunctions and postpositional conjunctions in Japanese.

Chapter 7: Adpositions and Pronouns, treats the so-called ‘inflected prepositions’ of the Celtic languages. Examining Stewart and Joseph’s 2009 position that these words should be viewed as pronouns, Libert makes the argument that if they are analyzed as prepositions 1) there is greater morphological regularity across forms, and 2) it avoids the necessity of positing case marking prefixes (an unlikely state of affairs).

Chapter 8: Conclusion, remarks on general themes that have emerged throughout the work, including the absence of inflection being a problematic criterion for determining adpositionhood, as well as using the word class of items identical to the item under examination for adpositionhood: “an analysis which refers to this property does not seem to allow for homonymy across word classes, a phenomenon which clearly occurs […]” (115). The author closes with the hopes that the work “will at least make it clearer what difficulties there are […] and perhaps point the way towards possible solutions” (116).

‘Adpositions and Other Parts of Speech’ is a wide-ranging examination of adposition and adposition-like words across a large number of languages and families. The slim volume (135 pages) is a good source for those looking for interesting morphosyntactic puzzles, especially if they are familiar with the debates surrounding the assignment of words to part of speech categories. The reader hoping for a basic, accessible definition of an adposition (either formal or functional) had best look elsewhere.

At the root of this work is the proliferation of terms used to designate similar, if not identical word classes or sub-classes, as well as terms which may have come to mean different things for different language-specific literature. Libert focuses specifically on adpositions or adposition-like words across the discipline, examining where two different epithets are in fact synonymous, as well as the various shades of meaning one label may have gained for one language versus another. Drawing on reference grammars, pedagogical grammars, and specialist research articles, Libert examines labels from a plethora of works which span over 150 years and represent a vast array of differing terminological traditions. This is consistent with Libert’s findings: a trove of approximately 45 different labels for evaluation.

The choice to examine each term on its own and compare its uses across time and contexts has its advantages and disadvantages. In presenting terms as stand-alone entities, similarities in their usage can be brought to the fore. As is quickly made clear, the meaning of labels was modified (expanded, rendered more specific, or innovated) to suit the needs of the investigating linguist as well as the language of examination, thus resulting in some terms containing several quite different types of words. ‘Quasi-prepositions,’ for example, represent either prepositions derived from other parts of speech, or prepositions being formed with more than one word (pp.18-19). In addition, words with similar functions were spread across several terms: ‘Unechte and Uneigentliche adpositions’, for example, can be classed as ‘words used as prepositions’. Because of this organizational decision, it is difficult for the author to identify any criteria by which to characterize words as adpositions versus other parts of speech. Libert has therefore created what he refers to as an “anthology” (vii), to “let[ting] the thoughts of others dominate, while offering some suggestions or criticisms” (ibid.).

As with the majority of the literature on parts of speech (see e.g. Schachter and Shopen 1985, Trask 1999, and Pullum 1999) primacy is given to the distributional (functional) criteria over morphological (formal) criteria, though Libert establishes that without a clear role of the function(s) of adpositions, applying distributional criteria will still be problematic.

To justify how part-of-speech categories are drawn, this work conceives words as existing in traditional categories with firm boundaries. Given the current popularity of the ‘prototypes’ model pioneered by Rosch (e.g. 1977), this is somewhat less common than positing categories as continua upon which words lie according to their similarities and differences to cognitively-designated ‘prototypes’. Though this option is identified in the 3 strategies for dealing with items that do not fit into clear categories (p. 3), Libert makes good use of the more absolute model throughout the work by pairing it with the distributional maxim that: in a grammar which defines parts of speech distributionally, words ‘used as’ adpositions must be adpositions. For example, claims that languages such as Khmer have few ‘dedicated’ prepositions, but instead possess ‘syntactically polyfunctional’ words, are countered by positing that “rather than saying that a word can be e.g. both a verb and a preposition, stating that a verb has a homonymous preposition” via zero-derivation (6-7). That is not to say that the work disregards nuance: for example, Libert rejects Palmer’s (1967) claim that in the Cushitic language Bilin, postpositions are actually nouns because they take genitival complements. Given that “adpositions in different languages assign different cases” (40), it is not viewed as a sufficiently robust criterion.

Throughout, Libert displays a keen eye for catching inconsistencies in others’ work: for example, it is noted that Crowley (2003:19) classifies the Bislama word ‘antap’ as not a preposition, but “’an adverbial type of constituent’, but later glosses it as ‘adv.prep.’ i.e. not ‘adv.’ or ‘prep’” (98). This might make one wonder whether if, for Crowley, adverbial prepositions are a class separate from both prepositions and from adverbs […]” (ibid.). Eckmann (1966) is observed in his ‘Chagatay Manual’ referring to ‘ara’ and ‘qoyï’ as true prepositions, but then as pseudo-prepositions in the following section (42). Such attention to detail often helps evaluate the rigor with which the various criteria are being applied.

As detailed as this work is, one can be frustrated by the author’s tendency to provide untranslated quotations in several languages throughout. The placement of long blocks of text in German and French renders some of Libert’s arguments inaccessible to some readers. It is also a shame that a language index was not included.

On page 65 (paragraph 2), ‘contruction’ should be ‘construction’.

‘Adpositions and Other Parts of Speech’ is the first book to treat the distinction between adpositions and other parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and pronouns) at length. Its goals are threefold: raising salient examples of fuzzy part-of-speech boundaries; exploring the various criteria used to determine adpositionhood; and underscoring the need for a functional notion of the adposition. These goals have largely been met in this book, with every subsection introducing, elaborating on, and providing key instances of a ‘blurry’ case of categorial assignment to a word or set of words: fantastic theoretical challenges to syntacticians, lexicographers, and other specialists interested in part-of-speech assignment. The various criteria for adpositionhood are examined throughout, running as themes along the way. The necessary brevity with which each topic is treated (usually providing data from just a handful of prudently-selected languages at most) practically begs comparative linguists to search for analogs within other languages and language families.

Ansre, G. (1966) The Verbid -- A Caveat to ‘Serial Verbs’. “Journal of West African Languages” 3.1 pp. 29-32.

Beermann, D., J. Brindle, L. Hellan, S. Tedla, F. Bagiya, J. Furberg, Y. Otoo, and M.E.K. Dakubu (2005) A Comparison of Comparisons. In M. Butt and T.H. King eds., “Proceedings of the LFG 05 Conference” pp. 42-63. CSLI Publications, Bergen.

Crowley, T. (2003) “A New Bislama Dictionary” (2nd Edition). Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, Suava, Fiji, and Pacific Languages Unit, University of the South Pacific, Vila, Vanuatu.

Cuyckens, H. (1991) Prepositions as a Part of Speech. “Linguistica Antverpiensia” 25 pp. 107-127.

Eckmann, J. (1966) “Chagatay Manual”. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Huddleston, R. and Geoffrey Pullum (2002) Adjectives and Adverbs. In R. Huddleston and G. Pullum, “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language”, pp. 525-595. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lefebvre, C. (1990) Establishing a Syntactic Category of P in Fon. “Journal of West African Languages” 20.1 pp. 45-63. Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Matisoff, J.A. (1991) Areal and Universal Dimensions of Grammaticalization in Lahu. In E.C. Traugott and B. Heine eds. “Approaches to Grammaticalizaton” 2 pp. 383-453. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Pullum, G. (1999) Linguistic Categories. In “A Concise Encyclopedia of Parts
of Speech” (Brown, K. and Miller, J. eds.) pp. 66-70. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Rosch, E. (1977) Human Categorization. In Cognition and Categorization
(Rosch, E; and Lloyd, B.B. eds.), “Annual Review of Psychology” 32 pp. 1-72. Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

Schachter, P. and T. Shopen (1985) Parts-of-speech systems. In “Language
Typology and Syntactic Description”. (Shopen, T., ed.) 1 pp. 3-61. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Stewart, T.W., Jr. and B.D. Joseph (2009) How Big Can Case Systems Get? Evidence from Scottish Gaelic. In “Word Structure” 2.1 pp. 108-120. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Suutari, T. (2006) “Body Part Names and Grammaticalization” in M.-L. Helasvuo and L. Campbell, eds. “Grammar from the Human Perspective” pp. 283-299. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Trask, R.L. (1999) Parts of speech. In “A Concise Encyclopedia of Parts of Speech”
(Brown, K. and Miller, J., eds.) pp. 278-284. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Vajda, E.J. (2004) “Ket.” Lincom Europa, Munich.

Wu, H.I. (2008) “Generalized Inversion and the Theory of Agree.” Ph.D. dissertation, MIT.
Andrew Harvey (BA (Hons.) French, Linguistics, Memorial University of Newfoundland 2011; MA Linguistics, University of Dar es Salaam 2013) is a field linguist with interests in field methods, lexicography and corpus design, grammar writing, and the minimalist programme. Principal investigator of the documentation and description of Gorwaá (South Cushitic, Afro-Asiatic), his MA dissertation, titled ‘The Parts of Speech of Gorwaá: Toward a Description of the Gorwaá Language” was the first academic work to treat Gorwaá. He plans to pursue doctoral studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2014, returning to Tanzania in 2015 to further document Gorwaá.

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