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Review of  Rhythmic Grammar

Reviewer: Mark R. Campana
Book Title: Rhythmic Grammar
Book Author: Julia Schlüter
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 17.2981

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AUTHOR: Julia Schlüter
TITLE: Rhythmic Grammar
SUBTITLE: The influence of rhythm on grammatical variation and
changes in English
SERIES: Topics in English Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2005

Mark Campana, Department of English, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies


This book presents a corpus-based test of a simple idea, that English
favors an alternating pattern of stressed/non-stressed syllables in word
and phrase structure. The Principle of Rhythmic Alternation can be
discerned in texts dating from the 16th century to the present, and has
(the author argues) influenced the development of the language in subtle
ways. It begins by examining the distribution of competing forms, e.g.
'worse' and 'worser'. Although 'worse' has always been the suppleted form
of 'bad', most other comparatives had an –er ending (e.g. 'richer'), so
there was considerable pressure to fill out the paradigm. These two forms
competed with each other from late medieval times, but 'worser' persisted
longer than it should have in prenominal position before eventually dying
out. The reason is that 'worser' contains an extra (weak) syllable, which
the rhythmic grammar favors as a buffer between the stressed syllable of
the adjective itself and the typically stressed first syllable of the noun
it modifies. 'Worser' gave way to 'worse' much sooner in other syntactic
environments where the specter of a stress clash did not arise. In other
words, the preference for rhythmic alternation tipped the scales in favor
of one syntactic variant over another.

This book represents an expansion of ideas originating in previous and
ongoing work, in particular the author's dissertation. Chapter one lays
out the major issues and offers an outline of the book. Chapter two
presents some background information on the Principle of Rhythmic
Alternation (PRA), with discussion of some other phonological concepts and
their instantiation in natural language. Never is theory far below the
surface though, and right from the beginning the reader is reminded of the
kind of consequences that lie ahead: How can we ignore the impact of
sound-based phenomena on word and sentence-structure, as well as meaning?
Sooner or later, any theory must address this question, and the argument
leans towards functionalist accounts motivated by general forces of
cognition. In this regard, the PRA is considered as a prime candidate.

Chapter three is an outline of the methodology taken, and a description of
the texts used for the survey. These are all machine-readable and
represent various stages of British English from 1150 to the present. The
search for rhythmic patterns entails the exclusion of verse, so only prose
forms are considered: fictional and non-fictional, dramatic and
non-dramatic, written-to-be-spoken and even spoken (modern English only).
In total, the database contains many millions of words, statistically
sufficient for detecting the subtle effects of stress-timing on word and
sentence structure. To balance the results, special care is taken to
accommodate the idiosyncrasies of each text, including the social context
in which it was written.

Chapter four is the first of two chapters dealing with the results of the
survey, and evaluating them against the major predictions (i.e. given two
or more variants--lexical or syntactic--the rhythmically grammatical one
will win out). The story of 'worse'/'worser' typifies the situation in
noun phrases, along with other pairs of variants: so-called 'a-adjectives'
('ashamed', 'asleep'); the participles 'drunk'/'drunken', 'broke'/'broken',
'struck'/'stricken' 'knit'/'knitted' and 'lit'/'lighted'. The choice
between 'a quite' vs. 'quite a' is syntactic (the latter one persists), as
are combinations of color terms (e.g. 'red & yellow' vs. 'yellow & red').
In each case, the evidence shows a marked preference for the 'rhythmically
correct' alternant in attributive (pre-nominal) position, where stress
clashes are likely to occur. The same variants in post-copular position
show a more even (and predictable) distribution. In each case, the results
of the corpus-based survey are presented graphically through charts and
tables and explained in detail.

Chapter five extends the study of rhythmic effects on variation and
historical change to items within the verb phrase: multi-word S-adverbs
('not so unexpectedly'), monosyllabic V-adverbs ('scarce/scarcely'), and
-ing forms prefixed by an a-affix ('set a-going'). A similar scenario
unfolds in the case of 'marked' infinitival (to) complements of the verb
'make' vs. unmarked (bare) ones: if the infinitive verb has initial stress,
a potential stress clash ensues. In this environment, 'to' will function
as a rhythmic buffer. As before, the evidence gleaned from the survey
shows that 'to' was retained much longer than expected in the history of
English, before completely disappearing from the active construction ('make
him go'). Its retention in the passive ('made to go') has more to do with
syntactic stabilizing factors than with rhythm, according to the author.
Throughout this chapter, syntactic and prosodic environments are closely
controlled, owing to the ease with which stress clashes can be avoided by
other means. Semantic factors in particular obscure the PRA as the sole
arbiter of distribution. The sheer size of the database reveals some
plainly significant trends, which appear to have no reasonable explanation
beyond a rhythmic basis: potential stress clashes are avoided when an
extra-syllabic variant is available.

Chapter six considers the theoretical models that are necessary to
accommodate the observed effects of rhythm on nominal and verbal
structures. Generative (''syntactocentric'') theories are rejected, as their
modularity does not allow phonological rules, etc. to affect higher levels
of representation. Optimality Theory (OT) is given a better chance, where
rules with different functions can be ranked more-or-less as needed for any
given dialect. Still, it is ill-equipped to handle variation, which both
reflects synchronic reality and feeds the process of historical change.
Instead, the author opts for a spreading activation model based on language
processing. In it, rhythm can be traced to the behavior of neural clusters
in their cycle of activation and inhibition (stressed and unstressed,
respectively). These are represented by abstract nodes organized into
levels of increasing complexity: phonetic, phonemic, syllabic,
morphological, and semantic. The deep-seated rhythmic layer consists of
just two nodes, i.e. the stressed and unstressed. Information-sharing
between nodes at different levels is bidirectional, so that choices made at
one can be communicated up or down. Since processing involves stages of
both planning and execution, an imminent stress clash can be avoided via
feedback and 'feedforward.' Various arguments are given in support of such
a model, the most persuasive being that it reflects (what are thought to
be) verifiable cognitive properties. Chapter seven is a summary and

Following the conclusion, there is an appendix showing the typical stress
patterns of nouns, verbs and adjectives--useful information in
understanding the potential for stress clashes. The searchable sources on
which the survey was based are listed in a primary reference section; the
bibliography contains secondary references from other such studies, as well
as from the literature of historical linguistics (history of English),
neurolinguistics, psycholinguistics, language processing and more. The book
is indexed, which helps immensely in recalling the various principles that
periodically interact with (sometimes obscure) the PRA.


Generally speaking, I found this book a fascinating read, if only because
it draws together so many different strands of research. The PRA is not
new, but the emerging field of corpus studies offers a legitimate testing
ground for trends that might otherwise go undetected. Great care was taken
to eliminate any evidence that might prove inconclusive or obscure the
effect of the PRA. Caveats were plentiful, leaving little doubt as to the
correctness of interpretation. The graphs and tables were well-presented
and explained. This is good science.

At the same time, the argumentation was usually convincing, even when the
survey results were inconclusive. The author makes a good case for using
written texts as evidence for spoken forms—a hard sell, to say the least.
Nor was the author reluctant to offer alternative views of various
phenomena. In many cases, potential support of the PRA is compromised by
semantic, prescriptivist, or paradigmatic forces, which the author did a
good job of factoring out.

The style of writing is clear and well-organized, following the format of a
standard doctoral thesis. The topic of each chapter is presented in the
context of the big picture, and subsections are outlined in advance, later
summarized. There is some cross-referencing between subsections of
different chapters, as some issues cannot be resolved all at once. The
language is near-perfekt (!) and sometimes colorful, with a good balance of
technical terms and idiomatic expressions. Undergraduate students will
find this book to difficult to navigate unless they have a solid background
in at least one of the areas of research; graduate students have a better
chance. For general linguists, the book offers rare insight into other
disciplines, i.e. what other researchers are up to, and how to assimilate
their results and methodologies with their own work.

There isn't really much to say that's negative about the book: it has a
clear agenda and carries it out. The focus on rhythm may not seem terribly
exciting, but there are so many different subplots—from literature and
prescriptivism to neurology and theory—that anyone with the patience to
learn will find something in it. The fact that results are sometimes
difficult to discern can be frustrating, as when the impact of the PRA is
countenanced by other factors. The effort to tease them apart is slow and
meticulous. The discussion of spreading activation models could have been
expanded to anticipate counterarguments of, say, generativists—perhaps too
handily dismissed. At a deeper level, the synchronic (and possibly
diachronic) influence of rhythm on English must find its expression in
syllable-timed (and other) languages. This would be a direction for future
researchers, though.

Mark Campana is a professor of English and Linguistics at Kobe City
University of Foreign Studies. He has written on the morphology and syntax
of polysynthetic and ergative languages (Amerind, Austronesian) in the
generativist tradition. More recently, his interests lie in the field of
pragmatics, in particular intonation, discourse markers, and other audible
cues to intended meaning.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 3110186071
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: xi, 393 pages
Prices: U.S. $ 132.30