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Review of  Variación Sintáctica en Español

Reviewer: Kim Schulte
Book Title: Variación Sintáctica en Español
Book Author: Gabriele Knauer Valeriano Bellosta von Colbe
Publisher: Max Niemeyer Verlag
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 17.383

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Date: Tue, 31 Jan 2006 19:50:45 +0000
From: Kim Schulte
Subject: Variación sintáctica en español: Un reto para las teorías de la

EDITORS: Knauer, Gabriele; Bellosta von Colbe, Valeriano
TITLE: Variación sintáctica en español
SUBTITLE: Un reto para las teorías de la sintaxis
SERIES: Linguistische Arbeiten 494
PUBLISHER: Max Niemeyer
YEAR: 2005

Kim Schulte, Department of Hispanic Studies, School of Modern
Languages, University of Exeter, UK


This book is an edited collection consisting of an introductory chapter
by the editors and contributions by twelve different authors, most of
which are based on conference papers presented at the 13th meeting
of the German Association of Hispanists that took place at the
University of Leipzig in March 2001. The book is written entirely in
Spanish; the English translation of the title is ''Syntactic variation in
Spanish: A challenge for syntactic theories.''

The stated aim of the book is to bring together a wide range of papers
on syntactic variation with different theoretical and methodological
approaches and backgrounds, in order to narrow the gap between
theoretical explanation and empirical description. The contributions
can be subdivided into two distinct groups. The introductory chapter
and the following three papers investigate theoretical issues such as
the compatibility of theoretical frameworks with corpus-based studies,
the notion of grammaticality, and the comparison of different methods
of analysis of variation present in corpora. The remaining papers
discuss specific instances of syntactic variation in Spanish, resorting
to a variety of different explanatory and methodological approaches.

In what follows, I will briefly summarize of each contribution to this
volume, providing English translations of the titles.

1. Gabriele Knauer and Valeriano Bellosta von Colbe: ''Syntactic
variation as a theoretical challenge: an introduction”
The editors begin their introductory chapter by contrasting two
approaches to linguistic analysis, the ‘anomalist’ and the ‘analogist’
approach. To the ‘anomalists’, languages is essentially irregular
despite some identifiable regular patterns; they view the abstract
system of language as the result of the sum of utterances in a
linguistic community, which in turn makes the use of corpora an
important prerequisite for a correct linguistic analysis. The ‘analogists’,
on the other hand, view language as essentially regular and are
concerned with the competence of the individual and how the speaker
generates language; their preferred methodological approach is
introspection by individual speakers.

Following this, the concept of linguistic variation is discussed in some
detail. The authors observe that most theoretical frameworks are
reluctant to accept the existence of syntactic variation, whilst it is
generally accepted that variation exists at other levels of linguistic
description, as shown by the presence of relatively uncontroversial
concepts such as allophony, allomorphy, synonymy and polysemy. A
crucial problem is the so-called 'theoretical paradox of variation',
caused by a clash between fundamentally different analyses of
absolute and partial synonymy.

The authors then discuss why theoretical frameworks have been
reluctant to accept or include syntactic variation in their analyses. An
exception to this trend is the neurocognitive approach of 'competing
motivations' (e.g. DuBois 1985); otherwise, it is almost exclusively the
field of sociolinguistics that has concerned itself with the phenomenon
over the past decades, leading to an increasing divide between
theoretical linguistics and sociolinguistics.

The final section of the introduction provides a brief overview and
summary of the papers in the volume.

2. Guido Mensching: ''Syntactic variation, corpus linguistics and
generative grammar: theories, methods and problems''
This paper discusses the role and usefulness of the study of syntactic
variation in a generative framework. Mensching argues that the
internal language of the individual (I-language) must be the object of
(generative) linguistic analysis. Corpora, representing the external
language of a speech community (E-language), are thus of very
limited use, as the only insight they provide is the presence of different
structures in the grammars of different members of a speech
community. Only if it can be shown that there is variation in the E-
language of individual speakers is variation of interest to the
generativist syntactician, who then has various options of analysis.
Such variation might be due to 'actuation phenomena' outside his I-
language, triggered by socio-linguistic factors etc., or to the availability
and choice of different lexical options.

As the object of generativist analysis is the I-language, and the
appropriate and preferred tool to identify grammatical structures is
introspection, the frequency with which a particular structure occurs is
of little importance: infrequent structures may be marked, but what
counts is only whether or not the speaker considers them to be
grammatical. However, as the tool of introspection is not available for
past stages of a language, Mensching defends the use of corpora and
their statistical analysis for diachronic syntactic studies: a decrease in
the frequency of a structure over time, eventually leading to its
complete disappearance, indicates that this structure has disappeared
from the speakers' I-language.

3. Josse De Kock: ''Corpus, frequency and grammaticality: thirty
competing constructions in three corpora''
In this paper, the author picks fifteen variable structures that can take
different syntactic forms but are semantically equivalent. By comparing
the frequency with which these alternants occur in a corpus of
informative prose texts, he establishes the degree to which each
structure is present in the linguistic system, i.e. the 'degree of
grammaticality' of each alternant. Based on their relative frequency,
structures can thus be positioned along a scale of grammaticality; the
author also observes a correspondence pattern between low relative
frequency of a structure and the degree of speakers' doubts
regarding its grammaticality.

A statistical analysis of the occurrence of the same variant structures
in corpora of spoken Madrid Spanish and spoken Buenos Aires
Spanish reveals that their relative frequencies differ from those in the
informative prose texts. The author analyzes this as evidence that
structures do not have a single, fixed 'degree of grammaticality', but
that it depends on factors such as medium and place. This means that
speakers' grammaticality judgements will always depend not only on
the environment in which they have acquired the language, but also
on the environment in which they are using it.

4. Nicole Delbecque: ''Corpus analysis as a tool for cognitive grammar:
towards an interpretation of the alternation between SV and VS order.''
This paper deals with different theoretical approaches to a specific
issue, the factors determining the position of the subject in Spanish.
To a certain extent, this contribution is an academic autobiography of
the author, who describes how and why her own approach has
changed over time.

Her initial analysis focuses primarily on the corpus-based
quantification of language-internal factors such as constituent length
or the thematic role of the argument, with the aim of setting up
probabilistic rules that link these factors with the choice of subject
position. This type of primarily formal analysis is, however, not fully
satisfactory because the statistical findings tend to become an end in
themselves, with little real explanatory value.

The next stage of development is a move towards a more functionalist
approach, based on the semantic features of the verb, on its relation
to the subject, and on ideas developed in text linguistics and
discourse analysis, such as thematic progression. Though a number
of patterns can be identified, the author nevertheless considers this
approach unsatisfactory, as it does not provide a global, uniform
explanation. She therefore moves on to a probabilistic cognitive
analysis, in which markedness plays a crucial part. She identifies
preverbal subjects as tending to be the point of departure for a 'flow of
energy', whilst postverbal subjects are typically associated with a more
stative perception of the event.

The paper concludes by emphasizing the advantages of combining
the findings of quantitative analysis, the identification of frequent
lexical and syntactic patterns, and the application of cognitive
parameters, to arrive at a more holistic understanding of syntactic

5. Alicia González de Sarralde: ''On the relation between subject
position and narrative structures''
This paper also deals with the variability of the subject position in
Spanish, choosing a cognitive-functional approach. The author's
corpus, consisting of 29 different speakers' descriptions of the exact
same sequence of events, allows for an onomasiological and
semasiological analysis. The onomasiological analysis reveals the
different strategies by which the same state of affairs, with the same
subject referent and the same degree of verbal agentivity, can be
expressed; the semasiological analysis provides insights into what it is
that is expressed by the choice between preverbal and postverbal
subject position. The analysis reveals that subject postposition is not
uniquely associated with a single function, but that four central
functions can be identified as typically associated with postverbal

6. Valeriano Bellosta von Colbe: ''Syntactic variation in 'Role and
Reference Grammar': object position in ditransitive clauses.''
This paper investigates the motivations underlying the varying position
of the direct and indirect object in ditransitive clauses, within a 'Role
and Reference Grammar' framework. Combining corpus analysis and
the grammaticality judgement of individuals, the author identifies a
number of competing semantic, syntactic and pragmatic factors that
are instrumental in determining the constituent order of such clauses.
In an analysis based on the principles of Optimality Theory, the author
comes to the conclusion that the competition between these factors is
resolved in different ways, depending on the context and
communicative situation at the moment of utterance.

7. Pedro Martín Butragueño: ''The prosodic construction of the focal
structure in Spanish''
Applying an autosegmental analysis of intonation to recordings of
Mexican Spanish speakers, this paper examines the highly complex
relations between prosodic, informative (pragmatic), and syntactic
focus. The author identifies a minimum of three different intonational
patterns that are used to mark the prosodic focus of a sentence, and
he also distinguishes two different types of informative focus: neutral
and contrastive.

Arguing that focus cannot be accounted for in purely syntactic terms,
and refining a proposed analysis by Zubizarreta (1998, 1999), he
convincingly shows that there is little syntactic predictability if
intonation and prosody are left out of the equation. Instead, it is a
combination of a constituent’s syntactic position and its prosodic
realization that allows the speaker to mark the focus of a sentence.

8. Amparo Morales: ''Language acquisition in Puerto Rican children:
on the null subject hypothesis''
This paper deals with the null-subject parameter. Whilst a binary
distinction between languages that do and don’t allow deletion of
pronominal subjects is usually taken for granted, this paper shows that
the situation can, in fact, be more complex.

Whilst standard Spanish is a typical case of a null-subject language,
Caribbean Spanish is far more permissive of variation between subject
pronoun deletion and retention. Considering that other syntactic
patterns which are normally characteristic of non-subject-deleting
languages are also optionally present in Caribbean Spanish, it would
appear that this variety lies somewhere between the two prototypes.

Analysing the use of pronominal subjects in the speech of children
during language acquisition, the author shows that statistically, there
are some subject pronouns that are more prone to deletion than
others. On the one hand, anaphorically used pronouns resist deletion
to a far greater extent than deictically used ones, which may be
attributed to a later acquisition of the concept of anaphora.

A clear distinction can be made in terms of grammatical person. The
1st and 2nd person singular pronouns tend to be retained to a far
greater extent than other pronouns, which the author interprets as a
pragmatic manifestation of children’s self-centred perception of the
world, in which the explicit emphasis of the contrast between
themselves and the other interlocutor is highlighted by frequent
explicit pronominal reference. This, the author suggests, may be
supported by the possibility of using subject pronouns as topicalization
markers in adult Caribbean Spanish.

9. Ulrich Detges: ''The grammaticalization of prepositional accusatives
in Ibero-Romance: a pragmatic hypothesis''
This paper investigates the historical motivation for the present-day
variation between direct objects with and without the 'prepositional'
marker ''a''. Generally speaking, prepositional marking of objects is
often pragmatically motivated, increasing the relevance of the
respective object. In medieval Ibero-Romance, ''a'' functions as a
focalizing particle for the rheme of a sentence, whilst it can have at
least three different functions in the theme of a sentence: contrastive
focus marker, non-contrastive focus marker, or non-focal thematic
linking element.

In modern Spanish, the marker 'a' has developed an important
discourse pragmatic function, being used by speakers as a strategy of
forcefully taking or retaining their turn in conversation. This usage has
its origin in the original focalizing function of ''a'' (i.e. contrastive focus
between the speaker and the other interlocutor(s)), but the focalizing
function has gradually been bleached away in favour of a purely
discourse pragmatic use.

Expanding his analysis regarding strategies of turn-taking, the author
identifies a link between three superficially unrelated phenomena: left-
dislocation of direct objects, anaphoric reference to such objects by
means of a 'redundant' clitic, and the use of the 'prepositional' object
marker itself.

10. Eugeen Roegiest: ''Pronominal variation in Spanish: the dative
pronoun between syntax and semantics''
This paper investigates the phenomenon of 'leísmo', i.e. a loss of
opposition between direct and indirect object pronouns when referring
to human referents, with the originally indirect object pronoun ''le'' also
being used for direct objects. Based on a quantitative analysis of a
corpus of modern Spanish authors, it is shown that there is
considerable variation in the degree to which individual
authors/speakers retain the opposition for masculine referents, whilst
the frequency of the dative pronoun for feminine direct objects is
relatively low but stable among authors.

It is then examined which syntactic contexts favour the use of ''le'' for
direct objects. For constructions which can be either bivalent or
trivalent, there is a strong tendency to retain the indirect object
pronoun for the constituent that is the indirect object of the trivalent
construction, but the direct object of the bivalent one. A similar
phenomenon is identified for factitive infinitival constructions, in which
the strong semantic cohesion between the two predicates leads to
their syntactic fusion, effectively making the construction trivalent.
From a semantic point of view, the more active or agentive the
referent is perceived to be, the more likely it is that the dative pronoun
is chosen. This can be explained by the fact that indirect objects are
intermediate between prototypical agents and prototypical patients in
terms of their agentivity.

The second environment examined, bivalent constructions that can
have either a direct or an indirect object (verbs of perception or
expression of emotion), can be understood to be influenced by the
same agentivity parameter, with the direct object pronoun being the
preferred option when the focus is on the act of perception rather than
on the perceived action and its agent.

11. Rena Torres Cacoullos: ''Syntactic variation in diachronic
perspective: the intensifying dative''
This paper examines the non-argumental use of the indirect object
pronoun for pragmatic purposes in Mexico and New Mexico, e.g.
the ''le'' in ''ándale'', where the pronoun has no referent, but instead
functions as an intensifier of the action expressed by the verb. This
usage can be contrasted with the 'ethical dative', which does make
reference to a specific (evaluating) individual.

One important factor in the development of this pronominal usage is a
diachronic process in which ''le''-constructions have increasingly lost
their transitive value. This is reflected in the gradual decline of 'leísmo'
in Mexican Spanish between the 16th and the 19th centuries, for
which a diachronic frequency analysis is provided. The second factor
is the loss of the pronoun's referentiality, which is reflected in the co-
occurrence of an indirect object and ''le'' (originally itself an indirect
object pronoun) in the same clause.

12. Irania Malaver: ''A comparative analysis of adjectival expressions
of age in the speech of Seville and Caracas''
This paper examines the choice and variation of the copular verb
linking a (human referent) noun with an adjectival expression of age,
comparing the patterns found in Caracas and Seville.

In the Spanish of Caracas, the choice implies a semantico-pragmatic
distinction, with the copula ''ser'' being used to assign a person to an
age group, i.e. classifying that person, whilst the copula ''estar'' is
used for a more subjective characterization or judgment regarding the
person's behaviour or appearance. However, this opposition is only
present in the discourse foreground; in the discourse background it is
neutralized, leading to an indistinct use of either of the two copulas in
such contexts.

In the Spanish of Seville, on the other hand, adjectival expressions of
age are almost exclusively linked by ''ser'', both in fore- and
backgrounded contexts; the foreground distinction, made by means of
copula choice in Caracas, is achieved by other (e.g. lexical) means in
the speech of Seville.

13. Dexy Galué: '''Me acuerdo que...': pronominal verbs and
the 'queísmo' phenomenon''
This paper examines the variation between the presence and
absence of the preposition ''de'' before object clauses. The absence of
the preposition where it is normatively required is referred to
as 'queísmo'.

The analysis is based on a sociolinguistic corpus of Caracas speech.
In a probabilistic approach, the author examines the degree to which
four different variables influence this variation: (1) the syntactic
structure of the main clause, (2) linguistic material separating main
verb and subordinate clause, (3) presence/absence of phonological
sequences similar to ''de'' preceding the subordinate clause, and (4)
whether the referent of the main clause subject is the speaker, and
whether he identifies with, or disassociates himself from, the content
of the subordinate clause. The statistical analysis reveals that only (1)
and (3), as well as the speakers' socio-economic background, are
relevant variables. In particular, the nature of the main verb is
identified to be relevant; reflexive verbs, which normatively require the
presence of ''de'', are subject to 'queísmo' particularly frequently. This
is viewed as a possible analogical extension of the non-reflexive
subordination pattern without 'de', and it is analyzed as a syntactic
reorganization of the construction: where ''de'' is omitted, the
conjunction ''que'' is, according to the author, reanalyzed as taking the
place of the preposition separating the two clauses.


This volume clearly achieves its main aim of bringing together a wide
variety of approaches and methodologies used in the analysis of
syntactic variation. It has a good balance between primarily theoretical
papers and more specific case studies.

The main insight that can be gleaned from this book is the fact that
syntactic variation cannot be explained or accounted for if syntax is
viewed on its own; other variables such as pragmatic and
sociolinguistic factors, but also formal elements such as prosodic
structure, have to be factored into the equation to understand the
mechanisms at work. In particular, the many different variables
identified as relevant in this volume show how complex and multi-
faceted the interaction between syntax and other levels of linguistic
analysis is. In this respect, the contribution by Guido Mensching is
perhaps of particular value, as it shows why formal syntactic
approaches such as generativism/minimalism are of little value for the
analysis of syntactic variation: By excluding most factors that can
determine the choice between syntactic structures from the domain of
the analysis, such models have little explanatory value. WHY a
speaker makes a particular choice, and what it is that triggers this
choice of one syntactic structure over another in a particular
utterance, is a crucial question that, as shown by this volume, requires
an analysis that goes beyond the purely syntactic domain.

Many papers in this volume are characterized by the extensive use of
corpora and probabilistic analyses of which contexts are more likely
than others to trigger the use of one syntactic variant rather than
another. One great strength of this methodological approach is that it
can identify patterns of syntactic variation even where the speaker
has a genuine choice between competing structures; it can identify
tendencies even where the choice in any individual utterance is
unpredictable. In a diachronic perspective, such tendencies or
statistical preferences are, of course, a likely starting point for a
subsequent entrenchment of the more likely or 'preferred' structure in
a particular context. Synchronically, it casts some doubt on the view
that grammaticality is a binary property, as shown in the contribution
by Josse De Kock, who argues that a syntactic structure's degree of
grammaticality can be variable, even for a single speaker.

Though some of the more data-based papers in this volume could
have done with a more extensive theoretical discussion of their
findings, and in some cases of existing work dealing with the
respective phenomenon, the standard of the contributions is generally
high, and they provide genuinely new insights into the range of factors
underlying the phenomenon of syntactic variation.


DuBois, John, 1985. 'Competing Motivations', in ''Iconicity in Syntax:
Proceedings of a Symposium on Iconicity in Syntax, Stanford, June 24-
26, 1983'' ed. by J. Haiman, 343-365. Amsterdam/Philadelphia:

Zubizarreta, María Luisa, 1998. ''Prosody, Focus and Word Order.''
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Zubizarreta, Maria Luisa, 1999. 'Las funciones informativas: tema y
foco', in ''Gramática descriptiva de la lengua española, Vol.3: Entre la
oración y el discurso. Morfología'', ed. by I. Bosque and V. Demonte,
4215-4244. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe.

Kim Schulte is lecturer at the University of Exeter, UK, where he
teaches Spanish, Portuguese and Romance linguistics. His research
interests include pragmatic causation in syntactic change in a
comparative Romance perspective, the evolution and emergence of
non-finite structures, and contact-induced language change.