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Review of  Grammaticalization from a Typological Perspective

Reviewer: Pierre-Yves Modicom
Book Title: Grammaticalization from a Typological Perspective
Book Author: Heiko Narrog Bernd Heine
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 31.67

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The first chapter is actually the introduction (“Introduction: typology and grammaticalization”, by Heiko Narrog and Bernd Heine, p. 1-15). The editors present the main question addressed by the volume: is there a definition of grammaticalization that could hold for all languages, independently of their language type?

Chapter 2 (“Grammaticalization in Africa: two contrasting hypotheses”, by Bernd Heine) follows two aims: on the one hand, it is a presentation of recurring grammaticalization paths in African languages; on the other hand, it is a plea for Heine’s “meaning-first hypothesis” about grammaticalization. Heine distinguishes between four stages of grammaticalization, and discusses several grammaticalization phenomena in African languages where items can reach stage 2 or 3 without any formal change: the rise of approximatives (aspectual markers meaning ‘nearly doing something’) out of verbs of volition; the grammaticalization of body-part nouns into reflexive markers; the rise of comparative markers from action verbs such as ‘to pass’, and the grammaticalization of an andative verb (‘go’) into a future marker.

Chapter 3 (by Mohssen Esseesy) is devoted to “typological features of grammaticalization in Semitic”. The author focuses on a few recurring grammaticalization phenomena. Esseesy shows that formal change does not parallel semantic change, using the example of body-part nouns that are grammaticalized into adpositions. He also depicts the grammaticalization of nouns meaning ‘property’ into analytic markers of possession. The third and last case study is the grammaticalization of independent pronouns into markers of verbal agreement, a better-known phenomenon involving strong formal reduction.

In Chapter 4, Geoffrey Haig examines “Grammaticalization and inflectionnalization in Iranian”. The first main part of the chapter is devoted to the fate of oblique personal clitics after the reorganization of the TAM system in Iranian languages: after the loss of older past tenses, new tenses emerged out of resultative participles taking these oblique clitics as subject markers. Non-past tenses retained accusative argument marking, and oblique pronouns basically remained pronominal object clitics. In past tenses, those former oblique clitics are now the obligatory grammatical markers for transitive subjects. The second part of the chapter presents the grammaticalization of a nominal postposition of cause into an object suffix, and the emergence of auxiliaries and aspectual markers.

In Chapter 5 (“Grammaticalization in Europe”), Östen Dahl addresses a central question of the volume: are the grammaticalization processes exhibited by Standard Average European (SAE) languages, which were instrumental for the first definitions of grammaticalization, actually different from what can be found in other regions? Dahl presents the characteristic features of grammaticalization in SAE languages. He then turns to ‘have’-perfects and draws a comparison between stative, possessive and “iamitive” source constructions for perfects in the languages of the world. This comparison makes the case for the notion of ‘persistence’ coined by Hopper. Finally, the author discusses claims by Ansaldo et al. (see below CIfhapter 11) about particulization and inflectionalization.

Chapter 6 (“Revisiting the anasynthetic spiral”, by Martin Haspelmath) is a discussion of a classical double hypothesis in diachronic typology: (i) that there is a path in language evolution leading from an isolating stage to a flective or fusional stage via an agglutinative stage, and that this path involves grammaticalization; (ii) that synthetic patterns are progressively replaced by analytic patterns (so that flective languages should finally become isolating). Haspelmath proposes a concept of analyticization that is located at the level of individual constructions. He sketches a four-stage model for the “anasynthetic spiral”. He also makes the case against the hypothesis that flectional features arise from reduction and fusion of agglutinated elements. In a further step, the author presents and discusses some plausible cases of “holistic anasynthesis”, i.e. consistent anasynthetic evolutions at a large level. The final part is devoted to possible explanations for the rise of analytic marking.

Chapter 7 is an overview of “Grammaticalization in North Caucasian languages” by Peter Arkadiev and Timur Maisak. The first part is devoted to its Western branch (Circassian languages). Peter Arkadiev presents and discusses several salient phenomena in this family, such as the grammaticalization of body-part nouns into applicative prefixes. Some verbs of motion also grammaticalized into directional affixes. The descriptive part is closed by a fine-grained analysis of auxiliaries in Circassian languages. One important claim of the author is that the grammaticalization of verbs in Circassian does not involve only a simple lexical item but a more complex morphosyntactic construction. The second half of the paper (by Timur Maisak) is devoted to Lezgic languages. Here also, auxiliation is used as a major example. But the author is also concerned with the polygrammaticalization of ‘say’ verbs, not only into markers of reported speech or in hearsay evidentials, but also into dependency markers expressing relations of causality or finality or even into derivational markers for ordinal numbers. The last section is centered on verificatives (verbal suffixes expressing the idea of ‘checking, finding out’). The author takes this example to cast doubt on whether grammaticalized suffixes of that kind arise from clause union (“a variety of clause reduction where the main predicate and the complement predicates share one set of grammatical relations”, Noonan 2007:83).

The following two chapters are both devoted to the “Transeurasian” group of languages, with Lars Johanson and Éva Csató presenting data on “Grammaticalization in Turkic” (ch.8) and Heiko Narrog, Seongha Rhee and John Whitman discussing “Grammaticalization in Japanese and Korean” (ch.9). Johanson and Csató mostly deal with the grammaticalization of converbs, defined as “non-finite verb forms typically functioning as predicates in non-main clauses having a modifying or non-modifying function in the matrix clause” (p.150). They show that converbs have grammaticalized into postpositions. They also gave birth to “postverbal constructions” by which the converb is combined with a grammaticalized finite verbs functioning as an auxiliary. This construction can mark phase specification, spatial orientations, beneficiency and modality. Converb constructions also play an eminent role in the paper on Japanese and Korean. Another important construction there involves the grammaticalization of nouns, optionally followed by a copula, as post-verbal markers expressing modal, spatial or causal meanings. Japanese and Korean have both developed deverbal postpositions as well as grammaticalized classifiers. Those two phenomena might be an original case of grammaticalization triggered or at least favored by written usage, crucially involving ritual translation from Chinese texts. Finally, honorifics and intersubjective sentence-final particles are taken as an argument for Dasher & Traugott’s (2001) claims on the link between intersubjectification and grammaticalization.

Contact-induced grammaticalization is at the heart of Alexander R. Coupe’s chapter on “grammaticalization in South Asia” (ch.10). The author presents a survey of recurring grammaticalization patterns in the area. Those patterns are: the grammaticalization of body-part nouns into postpositions, and eventually into markers for thematic roles; the rise of converb suffixes out of prepositions; verbs meaning ‘send, give’ that gave rise to morphological causatives; verbs meaning ‘eat’ that became passive or middle markers; ‘see’ or ‘look’ as sources for the grammatical expression of conativity; the emergence of the relative-correlative construction in Tibeto-Burman. Each time, the question of contact-induced grammaticalization is raised. While this hypothesis is convincingly ruled out in some cases (e.g. ‘eat’ as a passive/middle marker), the author shows that language contact is an indisputable factor for the adoption of the relative-correlative construction in South Asian Tibeto-Burman languages, or for the adoption of the ‘send’-causative in Khasi, an Austro-Asiatic island in Northeast India.

Compared with most other contributions to the volume, which are devoted to families or areas, Chapter 11 (“Grammaticalization in isolating languages”, by Umberto Ansaldo, Walter Bisang and Pui Yiu Szeto) takes a different perspective: although it is concerned with Eastern and Mainland South East Asian (EMSEA) languages, it is much rather a general reflection of the applicability of the notion of grammaticalization to isolating languages, and thus to the language- or type-specific dimension of grammaticalization. Four typological features of EMSEA languages play a key role in the paper: tone, syntactic structure and the role of particles, polyfunctionality, and the frequent optionality of grammatical marking. Using Lehmann’s (1982) parameters to measure the weight of items, the authors show that most grammaticalized items in EMSEA languages do not undergo any significant change of weight. This leads them to a further discussion of Dahl’s (2004) notion of “maturation”.

The following chapter (ch.12, by Marian Klamer) is concerned with “typology and grammaticalization in the Papuan languages of Timor, Alor, and Pantar” (235-262). The first part of the study is devoted to the grammaticalization of verbs the Timor-Alor-Pantar (TAP) family, with three case studies. The first is *mi ‘bei in, at’, which gave birth to a pervasive applicative prefix throughout the family. The second is *ma ‘come’, which has evolved into a postposition for oblique objects in three languages. It can also express future and/or hortativity in three languages. Finally, *med ‘take’ has grammaticalized into a light verb or a postposition, and in one language it became part of a univerbated ‘give’ form. The author contrasts these patterns of grammaticalization with what happened in neighboring Austronesian languages: grammaticalization in TAP is heavily determined by the original typological features of the family. The second part is devoted to sortal classifiers. No such classifiers can be reconstructed for the protolanguage, and the classifier inventory in TAP is quite diverse, suggesting that this pattern is an innovation. The rise of classifiers in TAP has been determined by two sorts of factors: first, there are some relevant language-internal features such as the fact that these nouns are number-neutral and that mere reanalysis was sufficient to trigger an interpretation as classifiers; second, neighboring Austronesian languages massively use sortal classifiers.

The next chapter, by Ilana Mushin, is devoted to “grammaticalization and typology in Australian Aboriginal languages” (ch. 13, p.263-281). The first part explains that given the lack of diachronic evidence and the fact that Australian Aboriginal languages have a long history of extensive language contact, the historical work that is necessary to identify language-specific grammaticalization phenomena appears to be quite difficult. The second part is mostly devoted to second-position clitics in North Central Australian languages. Pronominal clitics appear to have free cognates. However, it seems that the free form has not preceded the bound form in all of these languages. Using the case of the Jingulu language, the author subsequently shows that TAM markers in second position clitics may have been originally associated with the main verb, and that the current systems are clitic clusters determined by information-packaging, and originate from inflected verbs. Finally, the author discusses the role that pragmatic factors may have played in this grammaticalization process.

The last chapter devoted to the Pacific region is “Grammaticalization in Oceanic languages”, by Claire Moyse-Faurie (ch. 14, p. 282-308). This chapter is a survey of grammaticalization phenomena attested in various Oceanic languages. The first part deals with the grammaticalization of nouns as markers of aspect, benefactive, comparison, reflexivity or negation, as applicatives or reciprocals, as markers of discourse relations. Postural verbs, verbs of (deictic) movement, verbs meaning ‘give’, ‘take’, ‘return’, ‘follow’, ‘say’ or ‘(not) exist’ appear to be an important source for grammaticalization phenomena. As for nouns, the author mentions Tahitian mea ‘thing’ used to mark stative aspect. Other topics dealt with in the paper are possessive markers evolving into benefactive markers and the grammaticalization of former verbs into “verbal classifiers” whose combination produces compound verbs (p.303-304). The final part is devoted to degrammaticalization.

The same questions of reconstruction and language-contact that were central to Mushin’s paper on Australian Aboriginal languages are also at the heart of Chapter 15, ‘Shaping typology through grammaticalization: North America’, by Marianne Mithun (309-336). The author distinguishes three great sort of factors that can shape grammaticalization paths : (i) social, communicative and pragmatic factors; (ii) the relative order of the various aspects of grammaticalization; (iii) language-contact and “the point on a grammaticalization pathway at which contact enters in”. Factor (ii) determines the plan of the chapter. The first part is devoted to grammaticalization via auxiliation, i.e. grammaticalization processes where univerbation occurs at a late stage. Examples are provided from the Wintuan and Pomoan families as well as from Yuki and Wappo, all languages from Northern California. For the author, the pervasiveness of changes in the area must be due to language contact and the extensive copying of constructions, motivated by the need to ‘constantly […] renew the pragmatic force of negation’ (p.320). The second part of the paper is concerned with cases where univerbation occurs first, such as noun-verb and verb-verb compounds. Body-part nouns appear to be often incorporated. The author shows that in some languages, desemanticization has taken place, with the incorporated noun being used as a verbal classifier. Compound verbs similar to those described above for Oceanic also exist in Tonkawa (Texas).

The following two chapters are both concerned with the Amazonian area. Chapter 16 (p. 337-349), ‘Areal diffusion and the limits of grammaticalization: An Amazonian perspective’ by Alexandra Aikhenvald, is a snapshot on contact-induced grammaticalization Tariana language, an Arawak isolate surrounded by Tucano, in the Vaupés river basin area, which is characterized by both multilingualism and the refusal of language mixing. Aikhenvald shows that Tariana has developed bound morphology parallel to Tucano and different from what can be observed in related Arawak languages. Once again, patterns of verb compounding also seem to have given rise to aspect enclitics (such as -wasa, ‘jump’ > enclitic expressing sudden movement,) following a pattern existing in Tucano.

In Chapter 17 (‘Diachronic stories of body-part nouns in some language families of South America’ p. 350-371), Robert Zariquey focuses on one source domain in 17 languages from 9 families of Amazonian languages: body-part nouns. The chapter is organized into two main parts. First, Zariquey presents the target constructions of grammaticalized body-part nouns: (i) locative adpositions; (ii) classifiers; (iii) body-part prefixes. The second half of the paper is devoted to the source constructions. The author names: incorporation of body-part nouns; nominal compounds; generic genitives and locative compounds.

The final two chapters are both devoted to the specific questions raised by creole languages. In “Addressing questions of grammaticalization in creoles: It’s all about methodology” (ch. 18, p. 372-393), Hiram L. Smith takes notice of the difficulties raised by creoles for grammaticalization research and proposes a case study in form of a plea for quantitative variationist methods in creole language research. Focusing on the alleged habitual morpheme asé in Palenquero, Smith resorts to a series of tests: polarity sensitivity (newly grammaticalized morphemes are expected to be more frequent in affirmative contexts), marker deletion in negative contexts, habitual vs frequentative uses, repartition of roles with the concurring progressive-habitual marker ta, co-occurrence with main verb asé ‘do’, and frequency. Each time, the different hypotheses at stake concerning the emergence of asé lead to falsifiable predictions. The conclusion is that asé is only an incipient aspectual morpheme. Finally, John Mc Whorter asks the question “Is grammaticalization in Creoles different?” (ch. 19, p. 394-408). Grammaticalization has sometimes been regarded as less interesting in creole languages, because it is allegedly overdetermined by the substrate and/or because it is supposedly a reparative strategy. Mc Whorter argues against both claims. The focus of the chapter is on Saramaccan: while there are indices of substrate-induced grammaticalization, the grammaticalization of TAM markers, copulas, information markers and negation appears to be essentially a language-internal phenomenon. In the final part of the chapter, McWhorter claims that grammaticalization in creoles is more pervasive than in older languages, which supports the theory that creoles emerge from pidginization.


The merits of this collection are of two sorts: first, it delivers a broad panorama of grammaticalization phenomena across linguistic families and areas. As such, it is a very useful companion volume for scholars interested in cross-linguistic perspectives on the emergence of grammatical forms. We can expect this collection of papers to stay a reference work for many typologists and grammaticalization scholars for the years to come.

The other great merit of the book pertains to the theoretical debates that are dealt with in various papers. One major issue is the influence of great morphosyntactic types on the patterns of grammaticalization observed in different languages. This question is predominantly dealt with in the first half of the volume. Most crucially, the paper by Ansaldo, Bisang & Szeto (Chapter 11) is directly discussed and criticized in two other papers (Heine and Dahl), whereas the three authors also comment on other works by Dahl and Heine. It might have been interesting to open the volume with the paper on EMSEA and isolating languages and to go on directly with the chapters by Heine and Dahl in order to border the volume with a more detailed presentation of its theoretical relevance. Esseesy’s descriptive paper on Semitic should also be named as a part of this subgroup of chapters, since the question of the obligatoriness of formal reduction is central to his presentation. What is at stake is the definition of grammaticalization itself, as both Heine and Ansaldo, Bisang & Szeto point out. In their discussion of Dahl’s notion of “maturation”, the latters also insist on the impact of this debate for the definition of grammar. They also address the theoretical background of Lehmann’s (1982) parameters to underline the link between grammaticalization theory and the definition of the linguistic sign. Indeed, the classical Saussurean reflections on the arbitrariness of the sign are not so remote from the debate between “meaning first, form second” and “form and meaning” parallelism (to use Heine’s categories). Yet, one of the main advances made clear by this volume is precisely the fact that these two basic hypotheses presented by Heine don’t exhaust the debate. Ansaldo, Bisang & Szeto propose a third variant, in which formal change might even be absent, but where formal characteristics of the language do determine the paths of grammaticalization which are possible in that language.

The very general questions raised by the study of grammaticalization in isolating EMSEA languages is not the only way to address the problem of how typological features may help determine the modalities of grammaticalization in various languages. It is also possible to ask this question at a micro-level, focusing on a specific typological feature and tracking down its role in the grammaticalization profile of a set of languages. For instance, the pervasiveness of converbs in “Transeurasian” languages is a major parameter in the description of grammaticalization in those languages in the papers by Johanson & Csató as well as Narrog, Rhee & Whitman. Quite unsurprisingly, noun-verb incorporation and polysynthesis are very salient features in the grammaticalization profiles presented by Mithun (on North American languages) and Mushin (on Australian Aboriginal languages). Other examples of typologically salient features relevant for grammaticalization research are compound verbs, serial verb constructions, classifiers, word order phenomena and the availability of adpositions (see the papers by Moyse-Faurie, Klamer, Mithun and Zariquey). The thorough discussion of the relevance of “clause union” as a parameter in the rise of some markers in Lezgic in the paper by Arkadiev & Maisak should not be left unmentioned, either. All in all, the detailed discussion of the link between the grammaticalization profile of a language and its main typological features rather seems to lead to a question that is symmetrical to the one raised by Ansaldo, Bisang & Szeto: shouldn’t we assume that the grammaticalization profile of a language helps shape its typological characteristics at least as much as its typological characteristics helps shape its grammaticalization profile? This question is addressed by Marianne Mithun, and it is also a logical follow-up of Haig’s analysis of the fate of personal clitics in Iranian and how their grammaticalization in association with participles helped shape the characteristic alignment of Iranian languages. But this issue is also at the heart of the Martin Haspelmath’s very broad, encompassing reflection on the “anasynthetic spiral” in a paper that is likely to be very discussed in the years to come.

Another important question has to do with the role of language contact in the rise of grammatical categories. This is a central issue in the remarkable papers by Coupe, Klamer, Aikhenvald, as well as in the two general contributions on creole languages. Even though it is not at the heart of the chapter by Mithun and Mushin, the phenomena at stake in those two papers also include language contact and areal diffusion. Whereas the chapters concerned with linguistic areas tend to confirm the major role that language contact can play in shaping the grammaticalization profile of languages, the two studies on creole seem to indicate that the role of language contact should not be overestimated in the case of creoles once the stage of pidginization is passed.

As a conclusion, there is little doubt that this volume is as a pivotal contribution to its field. As a companion to the study of grammaticalization across language families, it is here to stay. As a contribution to the debates on the nature and definition of grammaticalization, it delivers a considerable amount of new insights, puzzling questions and interesting hypotheses. It is too soon to know how influential these advances will be, but as for now, everyone interested in grammaticalization theory should benefit from reading this collection of papers.


Dahl, Östen. 2004. The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity. Amsterdam : John Benjamins.

Dasher, Richard & Elizabeth Closs Traugott. 2001. Regularity in semantic change. Cambridge (UK) : Cambridge University Press.

Lehmann, Christian. 1982/2015. Thoughts on Grammaticalization. Berlin: Language Science Press.
Pierre-Yves Modicom teaches Germanic Linguistics at Université Bordeaux-Montaigne (France). He holds a PhD in linguistics from U. Paris-Sorbonne. His works is devoted to the syntax-semantics interface in Germanic and to discourse particles in German.

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