zero-marked verbs

Tom Givon tgivon at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
Tue Jan 21 19:48:32 UTC 2003

Dear Joan,

Very nice discussion. A student of mine, Mark Post, is working on a comparison
between Thai and Mandarin Chinese. Superficially, they are supposedly very similar,
both with with serial-verb clauses of very similar type & functions. But while
serial construction (and others) in Mandarin grammaticalize copiously, in Thai the
very same S-V constructions, using the very same lexical verbs (and performing the
samediscourse functions) somehow don't undrego the last phases of
grammaticalization. Mark is testing a hypothesis about lexical replacement in
Mandarin, and the steady--indeed profuse--creation of compounds. In Mandarin, this
apparently leads to repeating waves of obsolescence of simplex lexical verbs (or,
at least, the obsolescence of the old lexical senses of those verbs). So that only
the grammaticalized senses survive. Mark  is doing comparative frequency-counts on
this, as one of his predictions, using Pear Story texts.

I am not sure this will explain the broader typological differences, tho. Virtually
all so-called "isolating" languages (I've always dloathed the term...) are
serial-verb languages (the only exception are true Plantation pidgins...). And I
think there are several factors that conspire against grammaticalization in this
typology. One factor that needs to be considered is the frequency of
operator-operand adjacency.  Serial-verb languages thend to have a much lower
probability of this in general, particularly the adjacency of modal/aspectual verbs
to their complement verbs. I discuss this in the GR chapter (#5) of  my
"Functionalism & Grammar" (1995), in terms of the two major typological strategies
for clause-union.

One way or another, the explanations we are likely to discover, are most likely to
involve multiple factors and their dynamic interaction(s). And what we need to
discover is not labels, but rather highly specific performance mechanisms that
motivate diachronic change. If all we can say about "isolating languages" is that
grammaticalization is retarded there, we have not explained much, yet. Best,  TG

Joan Bybee wrote:

> Dear Janet,
> I have also worried about what makes a category become obligatory in one
> language while a similar category may remain optional in another. Based on
> Garcia and van Putte's discussion (1989, 'Forms are silver, nothing is
> gold' Folia Linguistica Historica 8, 365-384) of the inferencing strategies
> that lead to the infusion of meaning in zeroes, I have proposed that
> different cultures utilize different inferencing strategies in interpreting
> discourse (in my paper in Bybee, Haiman and Thompson. 1997.  _Essays on
> Language Function and Language Type_ Benjamins). The absence of obligatory
> categories (say, in isolating languages) leaves all inferences open
> throughout a stretch of discourse. Obligatory categories close down certain
> options right away.
> Of course, it is also necessary for the overtly marked categories to gain a
> certain level of frequency and redundancy before the inference can be made
> that the zero signals the opposite of the overt member.
> Unfortunately I have found no way to test this hypothesis, as it very
> difficult to know what inferences are being made in an ongoing discourse.
> However, if my hypothesis is correct, then it would suggest that discourse
> strategies may be very stable over time explaining why languages without
> inflection, that is, isolating languages, tend to stay isolating over time,
> despite ongoing grammaticization. As we argued in Bybee, Perkins and
> Pagliuca 1994, some languages simply do not carry grammaticization as far
> as others do.
> Whether this is really a hypothesis or just a hunch, I hope you find it
> stimulating.
> Joan Bybee
> At 09:15 AM 1/21/03 -0600, jaw300t wrote:
> >Colleagues,
> >For the past couple of years I've been following a certain unmarked verb form
> >in Kuche (also known as Rukuba, listed in the Ethnologue as Che), a language
> >of Nigeria.  I had the feeling it ought to be the simple present tense.  In
> >elicitation sessions, informants never gave this form in response to an
> >English simple present tense sentence, although in conversation it would often
> >be used that way.  In discourse, it is the most common verb form of all,
> >seldom used as a simple present tense verb; there are about 20 different verb
> >markings that can be used, but the unmarked form is used in many texts more
> >than all the others combined.
> >
> >Fleischman's "Tense & Narrativity" and Bybee, Perkins, & Pagliuca's "The
> >Evolution of Grammar" opened up some possible explanations.  But what really
> >crystallized it for me was something in an earlier article by Bybee ("The
> >Grammaticization of Zero" in a volume edited by Pagliuca).  She says, "When a
> >grammaticizing OVERT morpheme becomes obligatory, it may happen that other
> >meanings within the same functional domain, which previously had no
> >grammatical expression, come to be expressed by a meaningful zero."
> >
> >It seems Kuche is at a point in its history where overt tense/aspect morphemes
> >are NOT obligatory.  What happens to the unmarked form, then, is that it has
> >NO SPECIFIC meaning--it means just about anything, depending on context.
> >Overt tense/aspect markers are used at the beginning of a discourse, and those
> >tense/aspect interpretations hold over long stretches of discourse.  This is
> >much like Longacre's "consecutive" tense, except that this unmarked form is
> >remarkably flexible.  It can even be used after an imperative with imperative
> >force--a second imperative verb would be even less marked, because the
> >unmarked form IS marked for subject agreement, while the imperative is not.
> >
> >I suppose Kuche is not unique among non-written languages in having a
> >flexible, relatively unmarked form.  I don't see them mentioned in Bybee,
> >Perkins, & Pagliuca.  Then, again, I suppose it's a matter of degree--in some
> >languages, the interpretation assigned to a zero-marked form might be a little
> >flexible, and in other languages, the interpretation of such a form might be
> >quite specific.
> >
> >What is it in a language community that causes OVERT TAM marking to become
> >obligatory?  Is it the transition to written literature?  Fleischman says
> >(quoting somebody else, if I remember correctly), that "The meaning of written
> >literature is in the text; the meaning of oral literature is in the context.)
> >
> >Janet Wilson
> Joan Bybee jbybee at               phone:  505-277-3827
> Department of Linguistics               fax:    505-277-6355
> Humanities 526
> University of New Mexico
> Albuquerque, NM 87131-1196
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