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Review of  Information Structure and Syntactic Change in the History of English

Reviewer: Aroldo Leal de Andrade
Book Title: Information Structure and Syntactic Change in the History of English
Book Author: Anneli Meurman-Solin María José López-Couso Bettelou Los
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.1460

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This volume grew from papers presented at the Workshop on Information Structure and Syntactic Change at the 15th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics held in Munich, August 2008, supplemented by articles from invited contributors.

The book has thirteen chapters, grouped into four parts, plus an editors’ introduction. Part one focuses on the change from Verb-Second and Object-Verb orders to Subject-Verb-Object (chapters 2-5). Part two gathers papers on the development of a grammar of prose after 1500 (chapters 6-8). Part three includes two chapters (9 and 10) on nonfinite clauses. Finally, part four develops on the internal structure of the English noun phrase (chapters 11-13).

Chapter 1, ‘On the Interplay of Syntax and Information Structure: Synchronic and Diachronic Considerations’ by Bettelou Los, María José López-Couso, and Anneli Meurman-Solin, presents an introduction to information structure, the way it relates to syntax, and an overview of the themes discussed in the book. In addition to defining some crucial terms, they consider both syntax and information structure to be constrained by language-particular templates whereby some linguistic level can override a requirement set up by another one. The type of historical linguistics involving these interactions is seen as a kind of touchstone to linguistic theories, once the researcher has to model the variation at hand, find plausible scenarios for the change of one stage into the next and, if possible, propose an explanation for it. The autonomy of syntax vis-à-vis information structure is clearly adopted, as a consequence of modeling scenarios of linguistic change.

In chapter 2, ‘The Loss of Verb-Second and the Switch from Bounded to Unbounded Systems’, Bettelou Los argues that the loss of Verb-Second (V2) affected English syntax and information structure in a pervasive way, in the sense that it affected the speakers' conceptualization of events. A V2 system expresses a bounded language, in which the speaker follows the event from within, and may locally anchor the event to a specific place and time (following Carroll & Lambert 2003), thanks to a multifunctional first position. With a typological switch to an unbounded system, syntactic innovations emerge, such as prepositional passives of the type ‘The doctor was sent for’, passive Exceptional Case-Marking constructions with to-infinitives (e.g. ‘John was said to be lying’) and stressed-focus clefts such as ‘Only after that did I realize that everyone was staring at me’). Evidence for this is the loss of adverbials referring back to the immediately preceding discourse and the tendency for the remaining first constituent topics to be new, contrastive in flavor. Los then analyzes ellipted subjects and topic shift strategies, claiming that Old English was a V2 system with local anchoring, similar to German, not only because of constituent movement to first position, but also due to an enriched system of pronominal adverbs and gendered demonstratives, which later became impoverished.

Chapter 3, ‘The Effect of Information Structure on Object Position in Old English: A Pilot Study’, by Ann Taylor and Susan Pintzuk, correlates the information status of objects with their position in the sentence, i.e. given/new and preverbal/postverbal. After observing that object weight overwhelms the effect of information status, their quantitative research focuses on light objects in subordinate clauses, where the object can be pre- or postverbal. As for syntactic change, the authors assume that both IP and VP may project head-initial or head-final in Old English, where information status plays a role in object position due to rightward movement; fixed VO order emerges as a result of gradual increase of underlying VO. The increasing fixity in object position is associated with a decrease in the way information structure plays a role in object positioning.

In chapter 4, ‘Word Order, Information Structure, and Discourse Relations: A Study in Old and Middle English Verb-Final Clauses’, Kristin Bech relates informational-structural properties of verb-final (SXV) clauses with the distinction between coordinating and subordinating discourse relations (Asher & Vieu 2005). She observes that SXV clauses correlate with coordinating discourse relations, i.e. those that move the narrative forward, instead of elaborating or commenting on already presented actions. Corroborating informational evidence is the newness of the X element and the dynamic status of the verb, which is in focus. Bech concludes, however, that once a typical correlation is not found (coordinating discourse relations do not pattern with a specific order), it is not possible to say that rhetorical relations on the text level determine word order, unlike the role of information value of the syntactic constituents.

In chapter 5, ‘Syntax and Information Structure: Verb-Second Variation in Middle English’, Ans van Kemenade and Marit Westergaard investigate Verb-Second (V2) variation in declaratives in Middle English against the backdrop of similar variation in wh-questions in Present-Day Norwegian dialects. The authors recognize language acquisition as the driving force in change, noting the sensitivity of children to pragmatic information from their early years. At the same time, children would adopt a conservative strategy toward language acquisition, where they make finer syntactic distinctions than adults. In this sense, V2 word order in different contexts is the result of either informational-structural or syntactic factors (or both), which calls for a model of micro-cues. For instance, they identify two sources of potential variation in V2: verb movement and inversion of nominal subjects. Three developments are identified in the data: the syntacticization of the subject position, the generalization of V2 with pronominal and nominal subjects with auxiliaries and unaccusative verbs, and the loss of V2 in declaratives at the end of Middle English. Each shift is attributed to syntactic or informational-structural factors, or even both.

Opening Part II, Chapter 6, ‘Discourse Status and Syntax in the History of English: Some Explorations in Topicalization, Left-Dislocation and There-Construction’, by Javier Pérez-Guerra, presents the results of a research on informationally-marked constructions in Early Modern and the beginning of Late Modern English, on different genres, according to which topicalization and there-sentences, whenever they include anaphoric elements, present local discourse domains. He observes that the there-construction is stable across time and genre. Besides, topicalization cases would hold to the “given before new” principle in the unmarked cases, whereas left-dislocation would not present any clear informative characterization, which the author suggests to be a consequence of the left-dislocated phrase not fulfilling any syntactic function in the sentence.

In chapter 7, ‘Givenness and Word Order: A Study of Long Passives from Early Modern English to Present-Day English’, Elena Seoane compares two methodologies of measuring givenness: the one proposed by Prince (1981) which includes linguistic and extralinguistic factors, and the other proposed by Givón (1983, among others) which takes only textual criteria into account. By examining long passives, she argues that Prince’s approach is capable of explaining more data than Givón’s, based on cases where the analyses are wholly different with respect to the relative degree of givenness of subject and by-phrase. She concludes that one needs to consider a combination of factors to accurately measure givenness, including some knowledge of the specific topic being talked about and cultural references alluded to in the discourse.

Anneli Meurman-Solin presents a study on utterance linking strategies in chapter 8, ‘The Connectives And, For, But, and Only as Clause and Discourse Type Indicators in 16th- and 17th-Century Epistolary Prose.’ By using diplomatically edited letters from two tagged corpora, she bases her study on how connectives mark the beginning of utterances by disregarding the intervention of modern editors on texts with punctuation and capitalization. The evolution of four connectives regarding their co-occurrence with particular discourse types is presented and discussed. Among these, ‘and’ is the most frequent, and shows a downward s-curve; ‘for’ and ‘but’ usually introduce a first-person stance use; and ‘only’ is the less frequent of all. The general conclusion is that a “grammar of prose” would develop, among other things, through the transition from a looser to a semantically more explicit utterance linking. In this sense, Meurman-Solin argues that connectives such as ‘for’ and ‘only’ at some time point to a dialogic reading between writer and the addressee, and dismisses the analysis that assumes some connectors to be especially frequent in spoken mode.

An van Linden and Kristin Davidse’s contribution, ‘The Role of the Accessibility of the Subject in the Development of Adjectival Complementation from Old English to Present-Day English’ (chapter 9) opens Part III, on Nonfinite Clauses. It focuses on the role of accessibility of subjects in the development of extraposed complements depending on deontic adjectives, such as ‘it is important to honor those who have done honour to us’. The authors observe an informational shift according to which to-complements came to be favored over that-complements together with an increase in general and more accessible subjects inside the embedded domain, which took place in Middle English. A reversal of this general trend is observed in the Modern period, mainly due to the greater frequency of the complex transitive construction (for + NP + to-infinitive). At the same time, an extension of the use of less accessible subjects is observed even in contexts that do not usually provide the identity of the subject in a non-marked fashion. They give specific motivations for this change, such as stylistic factors and certain register bias, usually related to mandative constructions, which go beyond the tendency toward optimization of informational factors

Chapter 10, ‘Latin Absolute Constructions and Their Old English Equivalents: Interfaces between Form and Information Structure’ by Olga Timofeeva, examines how Latin absolute participial constructions are translated into Old English, by establishing relationships between the semantics of absolute constructions, their functional/thematic role in communication, the order of clauses in a sentence, and text cohesion. Her main conclusion is that translators distinguish the importance of text items depending on construction meaning: if discourse-old, they can be omitted; if discourse-new, they can be expressed in independent coordinate clauses, or even be incorporated into the structure of the superordinate clause as second predicates, if there is a thematic subject somehow bound to the main subject.

Beginning Part IV is Cynthia L. Allen’s contribution: ‘Why a Determiner? The Possessive + Determiner + Adjective Construction in Old English (chapter 11). She discusses possible explanations for a correlation found in Old English: a postnominal adjective must necessarily appear whenever a possessive precedes a determiner in the same noun phrase. For instance, Allen considers an “added information” hypothesis according to which the determiner would appear (more frequently) whenever it adds information on grammatical features, and a hypothesis according to which the nature of the adjective would affect the choice for this construction. She concludes in favor of the latter, and speculates on specific correlations to this end, as well as on a related problem, i.e. the disappearance of this construction, which may be the result of no clear function having been crystallized around the determiner.

Chapter 12, ‘Functional Shifts and the Development of English Determiners’, by Tine Breban, presents a proposal whereby the semantic and contextual generalization the articles ‘the’ and ‘a(n)’ are usually said to have went through would be the reflections of underlying functional shifts. For instance, Old English ‘an’ has lost the expression of features ‘new to the discourse and in focus’, ‘specific’ and ‘persistent’, which characterized it as a presentative marker, whereas ‘se’ lost its referential, deictic use, observed in terms of ‘topic shift’, ‘persistence’ and ‘boundary marker’, keeping only the expression of identifiability. With the change, these specialized functions were compensated for and expressed by more contentful determiners such as demonstratives and quantifiers which became formally distinct from the articles (‘the’ versus ‘that’; ‘a(n)’ versus ‘one’) or by the development of complex determiners formed by an article and a pre- or post-determiner (‘the same’, ‘a certain’). Breban then relates these developments to the creation of a complex hierarchical organization of the determiner zone, which has shifted with larger changes affecting the language system.

In chapter 13, ‘The Proximal and Distal Perspectives in Relation to the Position of Directional Modifiers in the English Noun Phrase’, Turo Vartiainen argues that if a directional modifier, such as a participle (e.g. ‘following’) or an adverb (e.g. ‘above’) may occur either in the prenominal or postnominal position, then this variation follows a general cognitive pattern whereby conceptualized proximity is expressed in the premodifying position, whereas conceptualized distance is usually expressed in the postmodifier position. He couches this correlation in terms of Givón’s (2001) proximity principle, that the closer two entities are notionally, the closer they will be structurally. Vartiainen describes of the synchronic behavior of five directional modifiers (‘coming’, ‘past’, ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘following’) together with a diachronic study of ‘following’, where semantic change has advanced from a mere spatial meaning to become used in either temporal or textual functions more frequently.

This book presents valuable studies that pave the way for a deeper understanding of the interface between syntax and information structure on the diachronic axis. The guiding principles shared across different contributions make up a research agenda where syntax and pragmatics preserve their independence, but have some “communication paths,” similar to other linguistic levels which information structure interacts with. The necessity of presenting motivated scenarios of linguistic change would be the driving reason to consider these interfaces.

This being so, the chapters cohere fundamentally, with minor differences related to the extent functional explanations figure in the individual contributions. The thematic progression goes from general aspects of syntax, such as word order and marked constructions, to smaller domains, such as nonfinite clauses and noun phrases. In this sense, the title of Part II is misleading, since the respective chapters do not share the variation in genres and the development of a grammar of prose as their gist. Ample cross-referencing also gives the reader a better sense of integration between the different themes within the book.

Two related positive aspects are the search for grounded explanations and the offer of independent evidence for claims made. For instance, some chapters present data from other Germanic languages, from psycholinguistic experiments or even from languages typologically related to English. The use of corpora and statistical analyses seems consistent with the goals.

It is worth noting three theoretical problems that could have been better treated. The first is model compatibility with the study of the syntax-information structure interface. Regarding this, the authors argue that a grounded explanation for change should not reduce to feature weakening/strengthening, as entailed in the cartographic approach proposed in Rizzi (1997), where semantic and pragmatic information is encoded in the realm of the syntax. However, the problem here is more connected to how pragmatic information has been generally disregarded in the cartographic approach, where the labels ‘Topic’ and ‘Focus’ are used as referring to “syntactic objects, putting aside their precise pragmatic values” (cf. Benincà 2006, p. 54). On the other hand, if a pairing between syntactic positions and pragmatic value is recognized, as in the typology of topics proposed by Frascarelli & Hinterhölzl (2007) and Bianchi & Frascarelli (2010), one can relate a meaning change to different syntactic positions. In sum, a “communication path” is ensured. Second, is the issue of motives for change. Quantitative reasons are invariably invoked in various chapters, including opacity in the Primary Linguistic Data in the language acquisition process (2, 5), extension or loss of linguistic functions (8, 12, 13), or “drift” created by the very skewing of data frequencies (Westergaard 2010) (5). However, further theoretical reflection is needed, as observed by van Linden and Davidse. A third problem would be accounting both for stable principles guiding variation and for the impact of distinct phenomena on another linguistic level in an integrated way. This would account for the creation, loss or just shift in information-based variation.

Some of the specific decisions throughout the book direct the reader to ad-hoc solutions and unanswered questions that challenge those interested in this area. In spite of this, some contributions may be helpful for those starting research on the topic, since hints on data selection, classification and quantification are provided. For this reason, the book is useful not only for those working on the history of English, but for any historical linguist.

Asher N. & Vieu, L. 2005. Subordinating and coordinating discourse relations. Lingua 115, 591-610.

Benincà, P. 2006. A Detailed Map of the Left Periphery of Medieval Romance. In Zanuttini, R. et al. (eds.), Crosslinguistic research in syntax and semantics: Negation, tense, and clausal architecture, 53-86. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Bianchi, P. & Frascarelli, M. 2010. Is Topic a Root Phenomenon? Iberia 2, 43-88.

Carroll, M. & Lambert, M. 2003. Information structure in narratives and the role of grammaticised knowledge: A study of adult French and German learners of English. In Dimroth, C. & Starren, M. (eds.), Information Structure and the Dynamics of Language Acquisition, 267-287. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Frascarelli, M. & Hinterhölzl, R. 2007. Types of Topics in German and Italian. In Winkler, S. & Schwabe, K. (eds.), On Information Structure, Meaning and Form, 87-116. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Givón, T. 1983. Topic continuity in discourse: An introduction. In Givón, T. (ed.), Topic Continuity in Discourse: A quantitative cross-language study, 1-41. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Givón, T. 2001. Syntax: an introduction. 2 vols. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Prince, E.F. 1981. Toward a taxonomy of given-new information. In Cole, P. (ed.), Radical Pragmatics, 223-255. New York: Academic Press.

Rizzi, L. 1997. The fine structure of the left periphery. In Haegeman, L. (ed.), Elements of Grammar: Handbook of Generative Syntax, 281-337. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Westergaard, M.R. 2010. Cue-based acquisition and information structure drift in diachronic language development. In Ferraresi, G. & Lühr, R. (eds.), Diachronic Studies on Information Structure: Language Acquisition and Change, 87-116. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Aroldo Andrade is a postdoctoral fellow at the State University of Campinas. His research focus is the relation between morphosyntactic change and information structure in Portuguese. For his PhD he studied the change in the realization of clitic climbing in European Portuguese with comparison to other Romance languages.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199860211
ISBN-13: 9780199860210
Pages: 352
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