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Review of  Contemporary Linguistic Parameters

Reviewer: Dennis Ott
Book Title: Contemporary Linguistic Parameters
Book Author: Antonio Fábregas Jaume Mateu Michael T. Putnam
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 27.4380

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Reviews Editor: Robert A. Cote


This 15 chapter volume entitled “Contemporary Linguistic Parameters” and edited by Antonio Fábregas, Jaume Mateu, and Michael T. Putnam presents a cross-section of research on linguistic variation and attempts at modeling this variation in terms of parameters, a central notion of linguistic theory since the emergence of the Principles & Parameters program kick-started by Chomsky’s Pisa lectures (published as Chomsky 1981).

Part I of the book, titled “Prolegomena”, consists solely of Chapter 1, “’Parameters’ in linguistic theory”, by Fábregas, Mateu, and Putnam, who set out to elucidate the “what, where, and how” of parameters. The chapter provides a historical survey of the development of the notion in response to concerns of explanatory adequacy, using Rizzi’s null-subject parameter as an example. In addition to questions concerning the quantity of parameters, the values they can take and their micro vs. macro character, the chapter reviews different conceptions of parameters as syntactic, lexical, or originating in the mappings to the sound or meaning interface, as well as the nanosyntactic view of parameters as variation in exponence.

Chapters 2-13 make up Part II, “Main morphosyntactic parameters”.

Chapter 2, “Morphological parameters”, by Antonio Fábregas, departs from the question “Do morphological parameters exist?” and starts out with an illustrative review of variation in the realm of morphology. Addressing the question of how such sublexical variation could be understood formally, Fábregas notes that “variation in the lexical repertoire … [does] not seem to have consequences for other aspects of grammar”, making it “difficult to reduce [such] variation … to a parameter of any kind” (30). The chapter goes on to review a number of parameters that have been proposed, such as Julien’s approach to affix positioning, Hyam’s stem parameter, Baker’s polysynthesis parameter, and Raposo’s inflection parameter. The chapter ends on a discussion of the locus of morphological parameters as pertaining to either the lexicon or the morphophonological component.

Chapter 3, “Case. Ergative languages”, by Michelle Sheehan, offers a an in-depth survey of variation with regard to case systems. After introducing the fundamentals of accusative vs. ergative alignment, Sheehan reviews variable systems, where alignment is sensitive to various properties such as tense/aspect or person features, and split ergativity in a variety of languages exhibiting differential alignment in morphology vs. syntax or in case vs. agreement systems. The remainder of the chapter provides a comprehensive overview of theoretical approaches to ergativity. The proposals reviewed include, among others, parametrization in thematic-role assignment and the order of Merge and Agree, and parameters based on the analysis of ergative case as either dependent case or the inherent case of thematic ‘causers’. Sheehan concludes with a brief summary of her own proposal for a hierarchy of relevant parameters yielding different alignment systems.

Chapter 4, “Head directionality”, by Hubert Haider, discusses theoretical approaches to variable head-dependent ordering, focusing mostly on English-type OV vs. German-type VO order. After introducing some surface manifestations of head directionality, Haider reviews a number of syntactic properties that (he argues) correlate with different settings of the head-directionality parameter across the Germanic languages, among which various facts concerning adverb and auxiliary placement, stranded particles, the in situ positioning of certain wh-phrases, an obligatory ‘EPP’ effect, and that-trace effects. Haider then summarizes his own proposal, according to which projection lines are universally right-branching but the direction of licensing of dependents is parametrized as leftward/rightward (an appendix compares the empirical predictions of the approach to those of Kayne’s LCA-based proposal for a universal base), and Slavic is presented as a possible example of a language type with variable licensing directionality. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of head directionality in morphological structure.

Chapter 5, “Parameters and argument structure I”, by Víctor Acedo-Matellán and Jaume Mateu, is the first of two chapters focusing on variation in argument-structure realization, focusing on motion predicates and resultatives. The chapter starts out with a summary of the historical development of the notion of argument structure in syntactic theory, from Chomsky’s ASPECTS and the subsequent introduction of thematic roles (culminating in Baker’s UTAH) to Hale and Keyser’s influential proposals and their descendants, as well as more recent ‘constructionist’ models that the distinction between lexical and sentential syntax, and how variation can be captured in these approaches. The authors then provide a detailed discussion of the cross-linguistic realization of directed-motion constructions (including a discussion of Snyder’s compounding parameter) and constructions involving resultative predicates. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of diachronic developments in these two domains.

Chapter 6, “Parameters and argument structure II”, by María Cristina Cuervo, continues the theme of argument structure, focusing on applicative and causative constructions. The chapter dives straight into the facts concerning variation in the meaning and morphosyntax of the building blocks of applicative constructions and, subsequently, morphosyntactic variability in the expression of causatives. A final section succinctly summarizes the dimensions of variation uncovered in the preceding discussion and discusses how the variation could be captured on an approach suggested in recent work of Rizzi’s, according to which the locus of parameters is either the combinatorial syntactic system itself or the component that ‘spells out’ morphosyntactic features. No clear conclusion emerges, and Cuervo surmises that “[s]ome of the attested variation seems to escape parametric accounts” (144).

Chapter 7, “The functional structure of the clause”, by Martina Wiltschko, tackles variation in the domain of tense, aspect, and mood (TAM). Wiltschko reviews briefly the historical development of each notion in syntactic theory, including the rationale for treating tense as a separate functional element from the verb and the (non-universal) licensing function of tense morphology, and proposals that a functional head encoding aspect licenses grammatical objects. Wiltschko then discusses three different frameworks within which specific proposals have been advanced to capture variation in TAM: cross-linguistic formal semantics (which bases cross-linguistic comparisons on meaning rather than structural composition), cartography (which assumes that morphosyntactic features are realized by a complex cascade of functional heads), and Wiltschko’s own Universal Spine Hypothesis (which assumes that languages differ in how they lexically realize a universal set of ordered functional domains). Against this backdrop, the chapter closes with a detailed comparison of the TAM systems of Standard and Austrian German.

The discussion of variation in the verbal domain continues in Chapter 8, “Extended projections of V: Inner Aspect”, by Jonathan E. MacDonald. MacDonald outlines how languages differ in how the (a)telicity of verb phrases is determined, e.g. in whether or not telicity is influenced by the direct object and other “telicity-inducing elements” (such as aspectual prefixes in Slavic, verb-verb compounds in Chinese and specialized morphemes in languages such as Tagalog and Malagasy, where verbs such as kill do not generate an entailment of completion in the absence of such devices), and the classification of predicates into different aspectual classes, such as stative vs. eventive and further subdivisions thereof. MacDonald notes that beyond the basic telic/atelic distinction, it remains unclear to what extent these distinctions are universal. The chapter then discusses the interaction of telicity with outer aspect (viewpoint), tense, and mood, before concluding that the variation reviewed throughout the chapter “can be relegated to the morphophonological component” (197), although details are left open.

Chapter 9, “Null subjects”, by Roberta D’Alessandro, presents a comprehensive discussion of the null-subject property that permits a variety of languages to leave subjects superficially unexpressed. D’Alessandro first delineates the empirical landscape by illustrating the different types of null-subject languages (NSLs), with “radical NSLs”, which freely permit omission of subjects and objects, on one end of the spectrum and “expletive NSLs”, which require overt expression of referential but not expletive subjects, on the other; canonical and partial NSLs, which generally or partially permit non-overt referential subjects, fall in between. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to a theoretical discussion of the null-subject parameter, departing from Rizzi’s classical “macro” formulation, which ties the licensing of null subjects to rich (pronominal) INFL and postulates a number of syntactic correlates. Having outlined a number of empirical problems for this proposal and different responses to these complications, D’Alessandro homes in on the status of pro, presenting various proposals as to how it is licensed in the different types of NSLs, and how these differences could be captured in terms of ‘micro parameters’.

Chapter 10, by Ángel J. Gallego and Juan Uriagereka, discusses “Head movement in the clausal domain”. The chapter starts out with a succinct summary of the ideas that gave rise to the now-standard cascade of functional heads permitting variable verb placement via head raising. Gallego and Uriagereka then survey the theoretical developments in the conception of head movement, from the classical, GB-era implementation as successive head adjunction to Chomsky’s more recent suggestion that head movement is a post-syntactic, phonological operation, to various approaches attempting to subsume the relevant phenomena under (remnant-)XP-movement or Agree. This theoretical discussion is followed by a detailed discussion of variation in head movement: V-to-T movement and its relation to richness of INFL, and T-to-C accounting for full or residual verb-second effects, including a brief discussion of a possible connection between verb movement to C and illocutionary force. As Gallego and Uriagereka note, only V-to-T can be plausibly stated as a morphological parameter whereas T-to-C cannot, “which probably indicates that the latter is not a parameter in itself” (248).

Chapter 11, “Wh-movement”, by Željko Bošković, discusses cross-linguistic variation in the placement of wh-phrases in questions. Bošković organizes the discussion according to language types, starting with French-type ‘optional’ wh-in situ before moving on to genuine wh-in situ of the Japanese type, followed by an extensive discussion of the intricacies of variation found in multiple-fronting languages, with regard to superiority and other properties. The chapter then moves on to a discussion of variation in wh-islands, departing from Rizzi’s classical comparative discussion of English and Italian. Bošković reviews a number of proposals to capture the robustness of these effects in some languages vis-à-vis the selective permissiveness found in others. After a brief discussion of successive-cyclic wh-movement, Bošković proposes a technical implementation of the general wh-movement typology, based on the idea that movement is driven by uninterpretable features (uFs) of moving XPs. Multiple-fronting languages then have wh-phrases bearing uFs, whereas wh-phrases in in situ languages bear interpretable features, voiding the need for movement; wh-phrases in single-fronting languages optionally bear uFs.

Chapter 12, “Topic and focus”, by Jordi Fortuny, turns to the level of information structure, specifically the cross-linguistic realization of topic-comment and focus-background articulation. After a rough definition of the basic notions, the chapter shows that their relation to syntactic structure is quite variable across languages. Fortuny first discusses the dichotomy between topic-prominent and subject-prominent languages, but rejects a corresponding macro parameter on grounds of learnability, given certain assumptions about minimal learnability conditions: parameters must be atomic (they cannot regulate clusters of properties), and their setting must be revealed by surface properties of utterances. Instead, Fortuny argues for a bootstrapping approach based on morphological evidence. In the second half of the chapter, Fortuny develops a parametric system for focus-marking that yields a three-partite division of languages into boundary (focus-marking via prosodic phrasing), edge (focus-marking by movement to the periphery), and particle (focus-marking via a special morpheme). In conclusion, Fortuny argues that variation in topic and focus realization is necessarily syntactic and “cannot be attributed to the externalization systems of language” (298).

Chapter 13, by Asya Pereltsvaig, explores “The functional structure of N”, where ‘N’ is short for the nominal domain. Pereltsvaig begins by outlining the main dimensions of variation: presence or absence of functional categories such as articles and classifiers; order of functional elements and adjuncts relative to the head noun; realization of morphosyntactic features such as case and definiteness; and the expression of argument structure of nouns. In approaching these issues theoretically, Pereltsvaig contrasts two approaches: a macro-parametric ‘What You See Is What You Get’ (WYSIWYG) approach, which assumes that the functional constitution of nominals varies cross-linguistically, and a micro-parametric Universal Structure approach, which assumes that functional structure in the DP is essentially invariant, either by being universally projected with potentially null exponents (the strong version) or by making the same inventory of functional elements universally available (the weak version). Pereltsvaig argues that two chief representatives of the former view (Chierchia’s nominal-mapping parameter and Bošković’s parametrized-DP hypothesis) face a variety of problems, leading her to a more favorable though ultimately inconclusive discussion of the Universal Structure approach.

Two contributions grouped together as Part III, “Parameters beyond morphosyntax”, conclude the volume.

Chapter 14, “Parameters in phonological analysis: Stress”, by Marc van Oostendorp, identifies stress as an ideal testing ground for models of variation, given that “the parametric space seems relatively simple”, so that “a small number of parameters … in interaction can describe it virtually completely” (335). An answer to the question of how variation in stress systems is best captured theoretically -- and, as van Oostendorp notes in the conclusion, WHY stress systems should exist in the first place -- remains elusive, however, as the ensuing discussion makes clear. Van Oostendorp first introduces a number of proposals due Hayes and others couched in terms of binary parameters that generate the stress systems found in the languages of the world, offering choices concerning left-/right-headedness of feet, (in)sensitivity to syllable weight, left-/right-alignment of stress, etc. After discussing different implementations of this idea and subsequent refinements, van Oostendorp turns to the now-dominant paradigm of Optimality Theory. He considers the approach “an alternative to Principles and Parameters Theory” (343), given that it dispenses with parametrized choices in favor of variable constraint rankings. In conclusion, van Oostendorp notes that a framework that naturally expresses the various generalizations about stress placement is still outstanding.

Chapter 15, jointly written by Nina Hyams, Victoria Mateu, Robyn Orfitelli, Michael Putnam, Jason Rothman and Liliana Sánchez, surveys “Parameters in language acquisition and language contact”. The empirical focus of the chapter is on null subjects and objects, which are discussed with regard to L1 acquisition, L2 acquisition, and contact and heritage grammars. Adopting the view that the parameters model “makes precise the claim that child grammars are not fundamentally different from adult grammars” (354), “provides a way to address the poverty-of-the-stimulus problem in adult L2” (sic), and can shed light on “grammatical outcomes (i) developing from sustained contact with another variety … and/or (ii) resulting from a lack of activation of an L1 grammar … later replaced by another L2” (367), the chapter discusses the possible role of parameters in the acquisition/learning trajectory of each type of learner with regard to argument omission.


Handbook-type publications like the present one perform an important service to the field in that they allow us to pause, take stock of what we’ve learned, and make the central results and controversies accessible to researchers regardless of specialization. Ideally, they also serve as sources of suitable reading materials for advanced-undergraduate and graduate classes. This volume is a particularly welcome addition to the ever-growing number of handbook publications since it represents the first such systematic appraisal of the state of the art in parametric theory. The editors have done an excellent job at compiling an impressive volume representing the current understanding against a generative backdrop.

The quality of the contributions is high without exception although the papers do vary quite a bit in the general approach they take. In my personal view, contributions to a volume of this kind are most useful when they assume as neutral a perspective as possible and aim for a representative illustration of the analytical approaches that have crystallized, leaving extended arguments for or against particular views to other venues. Most of the contributions to this volume take precisely this route, either by abstaining from judgments altogether or presenting individual views as a clearly demarcated add-ons to the general discussion. The contributions by Fábregas, Sheehan, D’Alessandro, Gallego and Uriagereka, and van Oostendorp in particular struck me as outstanding examples of accessible, comprehensive, and balanced surveys of the lay of the land. The contributions by Haider, Bošković, and Pereltsvaig are decidedly more explicit in their bias toward or against particular views, resulting in a somewhat one-sided presentation. To be sure, these contributions are valuable pieces of scholarship on their own terms, but in a still-nascent field where hardly anything can be considered definitive, and especially in the context of a handbook whose readership will likely be intent on getting the lay of the land, I feel that a more balanced presentation would have been preferable.

What can we take away from this volume? My impression, hardly surprising in view of the current state of understanding in linguistic theory (as opposed to description in technical terms), is that this volume shows, first and foremost, that an actual theory of parameters and indeed their general format is still a distant prospect; the contributions, while uniformly optimistic in their outlook, hardly try to conceal this fact. Consequently, details of variation in the surface data by far outweigh the discussion of parameters with any predictive power in this volume, with a few notable exceptions such as Rizzi’s (1982, 1986) seminal null-subject parameter. Proposals of this kind, which make a genuine attempt at cutting through the complexity of phenomenology rather than merely restating observations (e.g. in the guise of arbitrary morphosyntactic features or otherwise), remain few and far between; consequently, the empirical investigation of linguistic variation proceeds with little theoretical guidance. The volume under review is highly recommended as a sobering reminder of how much work still lies ahead.

A number of layout-related shortcomings should be reconsidered by the publisher for future editions: endnotes rather than footnotes, a consolidated bibliography rather than an individual reference section for each paper, and a format of bibliography entries that hampers efficient retrieval by linearly separating authors’ names and publication years, which will be perceived as minor annoyances by many readers.


Chomsky, N. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Rizzi, L. 1982. Issues in Italian syntax. Dordrecht: Foris.

Rizzi, L. 1986. Null objects in Italian and the theory of pro. Linguistic Inquiry 17(3), 501-557.
I'm an assistant professor of syntax at the University of Ottawa, Canada. My research interests include syntactic displacement, ellipsis, and the nature of words.

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