21.3180, Review: Syntax; General Linguistics: Giv ón and Shibatani (2009)

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Subject: 21.3180, Review: Syntax; General Linguistics: Givón and Shibatani (2009)

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Date: 03-Aug-2010
From: Paul Isambert < zappathustra at free.fr >
Subject: Syntactic Complexity: Diachrony, Acquisition, Neuro-Cognition, Evolution

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Date: Thu, 05 Aug 2010 11:27:46
From: Paul Isambert [zappathustra at free.fr]
Subject: Syntactic Complexity: Diachrony, Acquisition, Neuro-Cognition, Evolution

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Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/20/20-1789.html 

EDITORS: T. Givón; Masayoshi Shibatani 
TITLE: Syntactic Complexity 
SUBTITLE: Diachrony, Acquisition, Neuro-Cognition, Evolution 
SERIES: Typological Studies in Language 85 
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins 
YEAR: 2009  

Paul Isambert, University of Paris 3 - Sorbonne Nouvelle, France


This volume, based on a 2008 conference, addresses the issue of syntactic
complexity from a mostly functional perspective, with four main themes: the
historical evolution of complexity (diachrony), its development in children
(acquisition), its neural basis (neurology) and its manifestation in the human
species (evolution). Syntactic complexity here is mostly understood as, or at
least illustrated with, subordination. In many ways this volume is an overt
response to Hauser et al.'s (2002) speculation about recursion as an exclusively
human feature suddenly appearing out of the blue.  T. Givón's introduction
illustrates the concepts of complexity and recursion with relative and
complement clauses. It is also argued that diachronic change and language
acquisition may provide valid insights into language evolution.   

 In ''From nominal to clausal morphosyntax: Complexity via expansion,'' Bernd
Heine investigates the historical process by which full-fledged complement
clauses evolve out of nominal complements through a gradual extension of verbal
properties to nominal constituents, proposing a five-stage scenario, whose steps
are illustrated by examples from African languages.  Marianne Mithun's
''Re(e)volving complexity: Adding intonation'' stresses the importance of prosody
in the study of syntax. Using data from Mohawk, she shows that a focus on
syntactic and morphological form can't do justice to languages in some cases.
Mohawk seems to lack subordination; however, if intonation is taken into
account, prosodic continuity or the lack thereof is a marker of syntactic
subordination or coordination. This kind of construction is a possible precursor
to structures that are more overtly marked.  T. Givón's ''Multiple routes to
clause union: The diachrony of complex verb phrases'' is a study of how complex
verb phrases (e.g. causative constructions) emerge either from two chained
(conjoined) clauses or from a main clause and a nominalized object clause. In
both cases the process may lead to lexicalization.   Andrew Pawley's ''On the
origins of serial verb constructions in Kalam'' is a study of Kalam's compact
serial verb constructions, i.e. tightly integrated units equivalent to a complex
predicate, and narrative serial verb constructions that depict familiar
sequences of events by compressing VPs. The increase in complexity is not as
paradoxical as it seems at first sight, since narrative serial verb
constructions are formulaic.  In ''A quantitative approach to the development of
complex predicates: The case of Swedish Pseudo-Coordination with 'sitta,'''
Martin Hilpert and Christian Koops show how the Swedish verb 'sitta' ('to sit')
has evolved over five centuries to become a light verb that may be coordinated
with another verb to denote progressive aspect. They use corpora to
quantitatively assess the evolution of several features that are indicators of
this grammaticalization.  In ''Elements of complex structure, where recursion
isn't: The case of relativization,'' Masayoshi Shibatani argues against the
widespread idea that embedded clauses are sentences and shows that in many
instances relative clause are just nominalized constituents creating referring
expressions that do not  assert anything.  Guy Deutscher takes a similar stance
in ''Nominalization and the origin of subordination,'' where he argues that
Heine's model (in the same volume) misses the main point, which is to determine
when and how verbs turn into nominalized constituents. It is argued that
back-formation, where a noun is understood by speakers as deriving from a verb
(although it actually derives from another noun), is one possible answer. It is
also shown that relative clauses in Akkadian derived from genitive
constructions.  In ''The co-evolution of syntactic and pragmatic complexity:
Diachronic and cross-linguistic aspects of pseudoclefts,'' Christian Koops and
Martin Hilpert use corpora to investigate the rise of pseudocleft constructions
in English, German, and Swedish. They show that despite the idea that these
structures seem to be readily available in a language's grammar (by combining a
copular clause and a relative clause), they actually evolved gradually through
time, extending their presuppositional structure to less easily accomodable
propositions.  Östen Dahl, in ''Two pathways of grammatical evolution,'' observes
that, given Givón's three-stage grammaticalization path
(discourse>syntax>lexicon), inflectional morphology seems mostly restricted to
the syntax stage, since the formation of complex words suppresses inflections.
Dahl argues that the tightening into a grammatical construction and the
tightening into complex word are probably better viewed as distinct processes,
and not as a continuation. 

In ''On the role of frequency and similarity in the acquisition of subject and
non-subject relative clauses,'' Holger Diessel presents an experiment run with
Michael Tomasello (see Diessel and Tomasello, 2005), which showed that subject
relative clauses are acquired by children before any other type of relative
clause. It is argued that subject relative clauses are easier for children to
learn since they have the same word order as simple sentences. Examining data
from the CHILDES database, Diessel then shows that subject relative clauses
display various verb types; on the other hand, while non-subject relatives are
harder to learn because of their structural dissimilarity to ordinary SVO
clauses, their acquisition is facilitated by the fact that they occur mostly
with prototypical transitive structures..  Cecilia Rojas-Nieto's '''Starting
small' effects in the acquisition of early relative constructions in Spanish''
shows that children have individual patterns in the development of relatives,
which indicates a non-linear, exemplar-based acquisition. She argues that
relative clauses start as non-embedded constituents depending on dialogical
interactions, not as full-fledged subordinate structures.  In ''The ontogeny of
complex verb phrases: How children learn to negotiate fact and desire,'' T. Givón
investigates the CHILDES database to show that complex verb phrases are first
spread over conversational turns with adults and then turn into a syntactic unit
with subordination proper. This goes against Diessel and Tomasello's (2005) idea
that those constructions are holistically acquired and then reanalyzed.  

Marjorie Barker and Eric Perderson's ''Syntactic complexity versus concatenation
in a verbal production task'' sets up an experiment that measures differences in
verbal behavior when subjects are asked 'what' or 'why' questions about a
narrative. Subordination was not affected, but 'what' questions elicited more
coordinations, suggesting that events are not chunked in the same way.  Brian
MacWhinney's ''The emergence of linguistic complexity'' describes six subsystems
(not modules) as part of linguistic analysis in the brain, from audition to
mental models. Words are recognized, then activate item-based constructions
whose open slots are instantiated by what follows (possibly temporarily stored),
and finally a mental representation is constructed. It is from the interplay of
those six subsystems that complexity emerges, thus precluding the possibility of
a sudden, spontaneous emergence in human evolution.  In ''Cognitive and neural
underpinnings of syntactic complexity,'' Diego Fernandez-Duque reviews the
differences in processing of object relative clauses and subject relative
clauses and argues that the greater processing difficulty of the former is not
due to any additional syntactic processing but to increased demands on general
cognitive resources, since the comprehension of object relative clauses displays
patterns of activation that are similar to those found in other non-verbal
tasks.  In ''Neural mechanisms of recursive processing in cognitive and
linguistic complexity,'' Don M. Tucker, Phan Luu, and Catherine Poulsen
investigate the neural architecture of language processing, emphasizing the role
of recursion and inhibition, and grounding language use in sensorimotor
operations.  Angela D. Friederici and Jens Brauer's ''Syntactic complexity in the
brain'' shows that syntactic processes rely on two separate networks in the
brain, depending on whether local phrase structure or complex hierarchical
structures are built. It is suggested that these networks are late developments
both phylogenetically and ontogenetically.  

In ''Neural plasticity: The driving force underlying the complexity of the
brain,'' Nathan Tublitz presents the concept of plasticity in molecules, cells,
systems, and finally in the brain, each time to perform a complex new function
(voluntary and involuntary laughter in the latter case), thus presenting a major
pathway for evolution.  Derek Bickerton's ''Recursion: Core of complexity or
artifact of analysis?'' takes a position contrary to Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch
(2002) by arguing that syntax is no more than a lexicon plus Merge (as defined
by the Minimalist Program), the latter in turn being not a recursive process but
an iterative one: Strings of words are incrementally built into larger
constituents. From an evolutionary point of view, this entails that symbols
appeared first and then the ability to concatenate them.   


Sadly, the first impression given by this is book is that it needs editing.
Among other things, references are erratic (as an example, four of the eight
references given at the bottom of p. 11 in T. Givón's ''Introduction'' do not show
up in the bibliography), and the index is unreliable (for instance, most -- but
not all -- references to Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) are indexed under the
''Chomsky'' entry, but only two under ''Fitch'' and one under ''Hauser''). It looks
like the individual papers, and the volume as a whole, never really underwent
solid copy-editing.  This carelessness in form finds some echo in the content.
Indeed, the title of the volume is very promising and the range of topics
indicated in the subtitle is very tempting. Unfortunately, I was mostly
disappointed by what I found. In particular, the section on evolution is almost
empty of content: While Nathan Tublitz offers a very interesting account of
plasticity in itself, he has nothing to say about language, and Derek Bickerton
engages in an almost ad hominem charge against Noam Chomsky and winds up
speculating that a lexicon (whose origin is left uninvestigated) enhanced with
Merge (taken for granted as far as syntax is concerned) suddenly gives you
language: ''the process of linking words with one another successively is
something that a primate brain, once equipped with a large lexicon, should be
able to do with little change beyond some additional wiring'' (p. 535).  The
other sections of the book have more to offer, but they are also uneven. There
are really good, solid papers: For instance, Diego Fernandez-Duque's review of
neuroimaging literature addresses a core issue in linguistics (the processing of
object-extracted relative clauses vs. subject-extracted relative clauses) and
brings fresh insights:  Resources required by object-extracted relatives are not
syntax-specific and, in particular, have nothing to do with any long movement. 
 Another example of what the book has to offer is Marianne Mithun's chapter,
which investigates prosody and demonstrates that it is a major component of
linguistic systems, although it is generally overlooked in syntactic studies.
Her work is concerned with Mohawk but extends nicely to any language, including
those that have already been investigated from countless theoretical stances:
For instance, it can be argued that French also uses prosody to create relative
clauses (e.g. 'J'ai acheté un livre il/qui est formidable', 'I've bought a book
it/that is wonderful,' the 'il'-version not being a concatenation of independent
clauses), not to mention English 'that'-less complement clauses. Still other
papers stand out with convincing methodologies (for instance, Christian Koops
and Martin Hilpert's quantitative studies or Cecilia Rojas-Nieto's developmental
study, among others).  On the other hand, several papers are far from what could
be expected from such a book: Masayoshi Shibatani for instance puzzles the
reader with an accumulation of examples from many different languages, thus
obfuscating his argumentation; the author claims that relative clauses are not
sentences but nominalized entities, but he defines nominalization as ''a
functional (not a morphological or formal) notion referring to creation of a
referring expression'' (p. 186 ), whereas ''whether or not a form in question has
a finite verb form is to a large extent irrelevant'' (p. 187), thereby rejecting
a widely spread misconception about subordinate clauses as sentences, and thus
challenging the concept of recursion. This is a valuable objective, but it
should not lead one to ignore data; as for the notion of nominalization, perhaps
it is important not to forget some important points made by Croft (2001) about
the generalization of linguistic categories.  As another example, Guy Deutscher
asks an interesting question and challenges Bernd Heine's theory (in the same
volume and elsewhere) on the evolution of subordination, or rather refocuses it,
claiming that what should be investigated is the leap from stage 0 (simple noun)
to stage 1 (noun phrase with an embedded non-finite verb). Unfortunately, his
defense of ''back-formation'' is sketchy and ''need[s] to be developed at much
greater depth'' (p. 206); one is left to wonder how a book chapter hasn't
required such depth.  Indeed, that might be the book's greatest flaw: It is made
out of a conference, and maybe it should not have been more than a proceedings
volume (the conference papers are available at
http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~eivs/sympo/program.html). An interesting talk does not
necessarily make an interesting chapter, as illustrated by Guy Deutscher's
contribution or T. Givón's ''The ontogeny of complex verb phrases,'' where the
author builds up a hasty corpus analysis that doesn't even support statistical
investigation (a fact that is acknowledged in the paper). Those might have been
excellent starting points for a discussion with an audience in a conference, but
as chapters of a published book they won't remain as unforgettable efforts.  I
can't do justice to the book's full scope, from field research to neuroimaging;
on the other hand, such a scope (and such claims on the book's sleeve) would
have required a concerted volume - a planned book with a common goal and above
all the strong hand of an editor. Perhaps it is no coincidence that T. Givón's
''Introduction'' does not try to introduce the chapters that follow and instead
keeps referring the reader to the author's own recent publication (Givón, 2008).
It affirms the impression that the papers assembled in this book were merely
collected and not united.   


Croft, W. (2001), Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in Typological
Perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Diessel, H. & M. Tomasello (2005), ''A new look at the acquisition of relative
clauses'', Language 81, 1-25.  

Givón, T. (2008), The Genesis of Syntactic Complexity, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.  

Hauser, M.D., N. Chomsky and W.T. Fitch (2002), ''The faculty of language: What
is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?'', Science 298, 1569-79. 


Paul Isambert is a PhD student at the University of Paris 3, France. He is
currently working on grammaticalization and discourse structure, especially
with regard to topic shifts and anaphora.

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