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Review of  Commands

Reviewer: Nicolas Ruytenbeek
Book Title: Commands
Book Author: Alexandra Y Aikhenvald R. M. W. Dixon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 29.3339

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In Chapter 1, “Imperatives and commands: a cross-linguistic view”, Aikhenvald and Dixon, the book editors, define the issues that are dealt with in the volume. These include the theoretical distinction between imperatives and directives, the notion of “command strategies”, the canonical vs. non-canonical imperative distinction, the cross-cultural tendencies to develop non-imperative forms instead of imperatives, the grammatical features of imperatives (person, number, grammatical relations, verbal categories, imperative specific categories) and their politeness overtones. Other important issues concern negated imperatives and the restrictions applying to imperatives, the variety of directive and non-directive speech acts that can be performed using imperatives, diversified command strategies, imperatives in language history and the formation of an imperative paradigm (archaic forms vs. enrichment). Another central question relates to the cultural practices reflected in the use and interpretation of imperatives.

This first chapter explains that the volume offers an overview of the cross-cultural diversity of imperatives and other command strategies. The common thread of the book is constituted by the issues listed in this chapter and the parameters that make world languages different. The book covers 14 languages, most of them being spoken by minorities. These 14 individual contributions are revised versions of conference papers, and their analyses are cast in the cumulative typological framework of “basic linguistic theory”.

Chapters 2 to 4 are devoted to South American languages.

In Chapter 2, “Imperatives and commands in Quechua”, Willem Adelaar provides general information concerning the grammar of Quechua (spoken in Western South America), including word classes, grammatical categories and clause types. He presents data from varieties of Quechua, consisting in fieldwork notes. The chapter addresses how imperatives are expressed in Quechua, the use of future, negative commands, copular constructions in the environment of an imperative, and the grammatical category of the imperative. There is also a discussion of politeness communicated by means of verbal derivational affixes, of pre-imperatives and special imperatives typical of Quechua, and of post-verbal clitics used to strengthen or attenuate directive illocutionary force. A section concerns non-imperative strategies used to command (present potential and deontic constructions).

Chapter 3, “The grammatical representation of commands and prohibitions in Aguaruna”, is based on written data from fieldwork on this language spoken in North Peru. First, an overview of Aguaruna grammar is provided, focusing on verbal morphology (aspect and tense). Then, Simon Overall discusses directives and negated directives in Aguaruna, the role of imperative markers and the pragmatic effects of imperative directives.

Chapter 4, “Imperatives in Ashaninka Satipo (Kampa Arawak) of Peru”, is about a language spoken in the Satipo province of Peru, and documented with data from recent fieldwork (recorded/filmed naturally occurring spoken exchanges). The author, Elena Mihas, offers a description of Ashaninka, focusing on verbal morphology, verbal categories and clause intonation. The chapter contains a discussion of restrictions on imperative formation, of prohibitives and preventives. It includes an overview of the morphological specification of action parameters, and of the enclitics used to attenuate or intensify directive force. Command strategies, verbal responses to commands, mock-up commands as disagreements, and commands specific for pets and spiritual entities are discussed. The chapter ends with a discussion of the linguistic modification of commands according to speaker and addressee status.

Chapter 5, “Commands in Zenzontepec Chatino (Otomanguean)”, is about an indigenous language spoken in Mexico. Eric Campbell illustrates this language with a corpus of transcribed texts created by himself and the Zenzontepec community. He provides an overview of the grammar of the language, addressing in turn constituent order, the morphology of pronouns, and tonal melody. Canonical imperatives are distinguished from non-canonical imperatives and prohibitives. In that language, imperatives are used in a variety of speech acts other than directives. Alternatives to imperatives in commands, such as potential mood, and their socio-cultural and communicative motivations, are also covered.

In Chapter 6, “What Dyirbal uses instead of commands”, Robert Dixon starts with an overview of the grammar of Dyirbal, an Australian Aboriginal language that is almost extinct. Focusing on potentiality and caution inflections, he addresses the imperative as one aspect of the semantic category of potentiality. Building on his extensive fieldwork on this language, he underlines the difficulty of applying concepts such as positive/negative imperatives to any culture or language.

An endangered language belonging to the Uto-Aztecan family is discussed in Chapter 7, “On the heterogeneity of Northern Paiute directives”. Tim Thorns describes the morphology, syntax, grammatical categories, verbal structures and grammatical relations of the language. Alongside simple imperative forms, other command strategies, such as a future and subjunctive, are mentioned. The author also includes a section about the possible origin of the constructions used in negative commands and the historical developments of directive constructions.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Imperatives and commands in Japanese”. After preliminary information about Japanese and Japanese verbs, Nerida Jarkey discusses the socio-cultural constraints on the use of imperatives and the performance of a variety of directive speech acts in Japanese. Then she turns to polite imperative forms, semantic constraints on imperatives, and their non-directive uses. Using authentic observation of workplace interactions, she reviews the varieties of directive strategies in Japanese (addressee oriented/speaker oriented).

Chapter 9, “Linguistic expressions of commands in Lao”, is about Lao, a tonal language spoken in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Nick Enfield illustrates this chapter with fieldwork data consisting in direct observation, elicitation and video recordings. A discussion of the grammatical expression of imperatives is proposed. This includes sentence-types, forms of address, verb serialization, imperative constructions and negative imperatives. The linguistic expression of commands (sentence-final particles) is also addressed, and the author compares the forms used as commands according to social status differences.

Chapters 10 to 13 are devoted to Papuan languages.

In Chapter 10, “Imperatives and commands strategies in Tayatuk”, Valérie Guérin provides an overview of the verbal morphology, verb classes and morphological structure of clauses in the Tayatuk language. She describes the morphology of canonical, non-canonical and negative imperatives. Directive strategies, which are numerous in Tayatuk, are ranked in terms of their relative coercive strength. The chapter ends with a note on the prosodic contours associated with the performance of commands in Tayatuk.

Chapter 11 concerns “Imperatives and commands in Nungon”. Building on transcribed texts, Hannah Sarvazy addresses imperative forms and imperative clauses, aspect in the imperative, and the morphology of prohibitives. An analysis of responses to commands is also offered. The author highlights the polite overtones of imperative forms and the use of imperatives in other clause types and as discourse markers. She draws attention to the various directive strategies, verbless directives, the origin of imperative forms, their politeness effects, and the special case of commands addressed to dogs.

In Chapter 12, “The imperative paradigm of Korowai, a greater Awyu language of West Papua”, Lourens de Vries describes the verbal system of Korowai, before turning to the imperative paradigm, imperative adverbs, considerations of tense and aspect, prohibitives and the connection between irrealis and imperative zero-forms. The chapter also deals with semantic constraints on imperatives and cultural aspects such as politeness.

Chapter 13 is entitled “Commands as a form of intimacy among the Karawari of Papua New Guinea”. Borut Telban provides a brief overview of the language. She then elaborates on the cultural significance of commands in Ambonwaki, and on their specific falling intonation and increased intensity. She also addresses non-verbal commands, verbal imperative/hortative constructions and the use of potentiality in mild directives.

Chapter 14, “Commands in Wolaitta”, introduces an Omotic language spoken in South West Ethiopia. After basic information about the Wolaitta language, Azeb Amha illustrates Wolaitta sentence-types and offers a review of previous studies on this language. The author addresses the specificity of person distinctions, negative imperatives, the polite overtones of imperative forms, and the pragmatic use of imperatives as directives, including a repertoire of directive expressions used for pets.

In Chapter 15, “Veiled commands: anthropological perspectives on directives”, Rosita Henry offers a critical discussion of the interpersonal dynamics of directives with a focus on the type of speech acts performed in Papua New Guinea. She discusses the concept of “veiling a command” in the context of egalitarian societies, and emphasises the discrepancy between speakers’ intentions and the active role of addressees/listeners in the performance of directives by the people of the Western Highlands.


In addressing the pragmatic uses of the imperative and the variety of forms used to perform directives in different languages, this book contributes to research on the semantics and pragmatics of sentence-types from a typological perspective. It achieves one of its main goals, providing a broad picture of the complex connections between imperatives and directives in typologically distinct languages. This is well explained by the editors in a substantial introductory chapter, where they also inform the reader of the issues they consider most important for the volume at hand.

The common theoretical framework adopted in the individual contributions makes the volume coherent. Systematic attention is drawn to the following aspects: imperative forms, canonical vs. non-canonical imperatives, the grammar of imperatives, the semantic restrictions on imperatives, non-directive uses of imperatives, non-imperative directive strategies, negative imperatives. Each chapter includes a short description of the language studied and of the data used to illustrate it.

Most contributions deal with endangered languages, which adds to the general coherence of the book. Data description is rigorous in all the chapters, and it is well-documented. In their data collection, the authors resort to relevant combinations of methodologies, such as field notes, video/audio recording of interactions, transcriptions of elicited written data.

A possible concern that has to do with coherence, however, is the presence of a chapter devoted to Japanese. I agree that the grammar of Japanese and its directive strategies is very interesting, but, unlike, the languages studied in the other chapters, Japanese is not spoken by a minority of people and there is already a considerable literature on the semantics and pragmatics of Japanese imperatives and directives. By contrast, the other chapters cover languages for which little documentation is available and/or on which few studies have been carried out. Another issue relates to the considerable space devoted to South American (Chapters 2 to 4) and Papuan (Chapters 11 to 15) languages. With the exception of an Omotic language, African languages are somewhat neglected, as are European languages; the volume would have benefitted from comparisons between these languages and other geographically distant languages.

The use of the terminology outlined is the first chapter is consistent throughout the book, with minor exceptions, such as the confusion arising from the term “imperative strategies” in Chapter 2 (on Page 58 the term either misleadingly refers to “command/directive strategies” or to the pragmatic uses of imperatives; a convenient and transparent terminology, i.e., “non-imperative directives” is only mentioned in a footnote on Page 25). In addition, there is a mismatch between the title of the volume, i.e., “A Cross-Linguistic Typology”, and its content, i.e., separate studies of imperatives and directives in different languages. The volume does not exactly provide a typology of imperatives or directive SAs across world languages. Furthermore, it is not made explicit which speech act typology is assumed, and it remains unclear whether “command” is a synonym for “directive” or actually refers to a particular subtype of directives, distinct from e.g., requests.

I have no doubt that this original and easy-to-read volume will appeal not only to typological linguists and sociolinguists, but also to many scholars in the fields of semantics and pragmatics, in particular those interested in the relationship between sentence-types and illocutionary forces. The individual chapters do not directly answer the question of what are the general cross-linguistic patterns in the use of imperatives as directive speech acts. That being said, it opens further perspectives for research on the forms used as directives in structurally different languages spoken in the same geographical areas, such as in diglossic linguistic contexts.
Nicolas Ruytenbeek holds a PhD in Linguistics from the Université libre de Bruxelles. He is interested in the study of utterance interpretation, both from a theoretical and an experimental perspective, and specifically addresses issues at the semantics-pragmatics interface.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780198803225
Pages: 352
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