24.4963, Review: Morphology; Syntax; Typology: Brown et al. (2013)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-24-4963. Thu Dec 05 2013. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 24.4963, Review: Morphology; Syntax; Typology: Brown et al. (2013)

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Date: Thu, 05 Dec 2013 13:20:17
From: Daniel Hieber [dhieber at umail.ucsb.edu]
Subject: Canonical Morphology and Syntax

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-756.html

EDITOR: Dunstan  Brown
EDITOR: Marina  Chumakina
EDITOR: Greville G. Corbett
TITLE: Canonical Morphology and Syntax
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Daniel William Hieber, University of California, Santa Barbara

This edited collection is the first book-length work on Canonical Typology
(henceforth CT), a methodology for typological research presented in Corbett
(2005) and since applied by various typologists (Baerman, Brown & Corbett
2005; Comrie 2003; Evans 2003; Polinsky 2003; Spencer 2005; Corbett 2006 is
also written entirely in the CT framework, though CT is not its focus). While
half the contributions come from the Surrey Morphology Group where CT has its
origins, the remainder come from worldwide, attesting to CT’s growing
reputation. Also included in this collection is a posthumous chapter by Anna
Siewierska in conjunction with Dik Bakker. This volume is xiv + 312 pages (261
without the back matter), with Oxford University Press’s dependably
high-quality construction and formatting.

Canonical Typology is a novel methodology in that it does not seek to
establish the essential or defining features of a linguistic phenomenon.
Instead, CT examines clusters of properties (‘criteria’) that converge on a
canonical point and strongly co-vary, and yet are logically independent of
each other. The typologist then maps out the ‘theoretical space of
possibilities’ (or ‘base’) by examining all the ways a phenomenon might
deviate from its canonical core along these dimensions. This method is useful
for presenting multidimensional typologies, or shifting the focus from an
epiphenomenal category to the components that interact to give that category
shape. The papers in this volume apply this methodology to the exploration of
a variety of disparate grammatical phenomena.

Dunstan Brown and Marina Chumakina begin with ‘What there is and what there
might be’, where they present CT as a methodology designed to address the
Correspondence Problem, i.e. “the issue of correspondence between similarly
named features in different languages” (1). CT handles this problem by
shifting the emphasis from definitions to the criteria that constitute those
definitions. Whenever a construction shares some, but not all, of the
properties of the canonical instance, CT forces the typologist to describe
precisely which features are present or absent in crosslinguistically viable
terms. After outlining CT’s basic terms and concepts, Brown & Chumakina
provide examples of CT in practice (e.g. the IPA vowel chart), and establish
historical precedents for CT, such as Sasse’s (2001) notion of ‘cardinal
points’ of reference in describing ‘category squish’.

In 'A base for canonical negation', Oliver Bond questions how typologists
should delimit the theoretical space (which he calls the ‘base’) for a given
linguistic phenomenon. What’s the scope of investigation, and how does one
determine what should be included in the typology? When typologists begin by
selecting or arguing for the ‘best’ definition for a construction of interest,
what makes these definitions the ‘best’? Bond suggests that instead of
endlessly debating the necessary and sufficient criteria for these
definitions, the base should include both the canonical and all the
non-canonical, borderline cases from the literature as well -- all the
variation known to exist for the phenomenon. Bond then applies this procedure
in outlining a base for negation. This chapter is interesting in that it lays
the framework for the crosslinguistic study of negation, but does not
undertake such a study itself. It instead establishes the canonical points of
reference that future studies of negation can calibrate to.

Greville Corbett’s chapter, ‘Canonical morphosyntactic features’, describes
the interaction of morphosyntactic features (e.g. number, case) and parts of
speech (Corbett’s preferred term, rather than ‘lexical category’ or ‘word
class’). The problem motivating this chapter is that perfectly canonical
morphosyntactic features would create parts of speech that are
indistinguishable from one another -- every feature would be represented in
every part of speech. This problem cannot be resolved by appeal to semantics,
since often the morphosyntactic encoding of a certain feature value will also
encode non-canonical meanings (e.g. the use of the second person plural
morpheme to encode politeness in French). Corbett notes that when one group of
lexemes lacks a certain morphosyntactic feature, or feature value, that set of
lexemes constitutes a distinct part of speech. This chapter neatly shows how
certain combinations of deviations from the canonical give rise to
commonly-known morphosyntactic phenomena or word classes, such as gender
(where certain lexemes may take only one feature value, depending on their
gender) or pronouns (a small set of lexemes that are the only ones to exhibit
the person feature). The chapter could however use more examples to illustrate
the abstract ideas involved. And it is not until later in the chapter that
Corbett mentions that one of his criteria for morphosyntactic features MUST be
met, and therefore is part of the definition / base, leaving one to wonder why
it wasn’t described as part of the base in the first place. Overall, though,
this chapter is an exciting addition to the literature on parts of speech,
suggesting that parts of speech are epiphenomenal in nature.

In ‘Some problems in the typology of quotation: A canonical approach’,
Nicholas Evans takes CT beyond its traditional domain of morphology into the
realm of discourse, and in doing so illustrates the usefulness of positing
canonical ideals that may be completely unrealized in actual languages. Most
typologies divide the phenomenon of quotation into direct speech, indirect
speech, and other, which overlooks the diversity of the in-between cases.
Variations include shifting person but not tense to reflect the original
speaker’s speech (Russian), or coding some deictic spatial terms to the
original speaker and others to the current speaker (Nez Perce). Previously,
the coding perspective was treated as a binary choice between the original
speaker versus the reporting speaker. Evans asks whether it is possible for a
language to simultaneously represent the perspectives of both. Evans’
inspiration for this appears to have been “trirelational kin terms”, which
simultaneously calculate kin relationships from two perspectives at once (90).
While no known case of quotation is truly ‘biperspectival’, logophoric
pronouns do approximate this, where the third person subject in reported
speech is coreferential with the current speaker. The traditional direct vs.
indirect speech dichotomy fails to capture the unique nature of logophoricity,
demonstrating the usefulness of positing biperspectival speech as an only
partially-realized canonical point.

Irina Nikolaeva debunks a similar false dichotomy in ‘Unpacking finiteness’,
showing that finiteness is not a scalar notion from greater to lesser
syntactic independence, as is usually proposed. Finiteness instead requires a
multidimensional, canonical approach to capture its range and dimensions of
variation. If canonical finite clauses are independent clauses, then
finiteness is necessarily a language-specific concept, because different
criteria must be used to determine syntactic independence for each language.
Taking finiteness to be a property of clauses rather than verbs, Nikolaeva
examines the assorted criteria, separating them into morphology, syntax, and
semantics. Morphologically, (canonical) non-finite clauses show a reduction in
the realization of features or feature values; syntactically, they are
dependent on the main clause, and may be limited in licensing subjects; and
semantically, they do not show independent temporal anchoring or make
assertions. Nikolaeva shows that canonical non-finite clauses are those which
exhibit all or most of these features, and that non-canonical finite clauses
can be non-canonical in a variety of ways, depending on which criteria are
being violated. The result is a robust typology of the properties that make up

Andrew Spencer and Ana Luís present a typology of ‘The canonical clitic’.
Clitics are unusual in the history of typology in that they have long been
recognized to possess a mixture of the properties of affixes and function
words -- a clear intersection of criteria amenable to description in CT.
Spencer & Luís therefore define both canonical affixes and canonical function
words, and then show how clitics are an amalgamation of the non-canonical
properties from each. No study has yet successfully defined clitics as a
simple combination of properties of affixes and function words, i.e. a point
between affix and word. Spencer & Luís suggest that this is because the two
points do not lie on a single continuum, but are orthogonal to each other. Put
differently, a non-canonical affix is not necessarily a canonical function
word, and vice versa. Clitics may simply be non-canonical along both
dimensions at once. This chapter, like the previous two, again illustrates the
success of CT in breaking down false dichotomies in typology, in this case
through the use of ‘negative’ definitions. A small criticism of this chapter,
however, is that some of the criteria put forth seem arbitrary and unsupported
by the literature (whereas prior empirical research is an important part of
defining the canonical base, as pointed out by Bond). An example is the
proposition that the canonical affix is placed to the right of a word. This
may be true, but no literature is cited to support the claim, and no
explanation is given as to why this realization of suffixation should be
viewed as more canonical than others.

In 'Passive agents: prototypical vs. canonical passives’, Anna Siewierska and
Dik Bakker ask how we determine what is canonical and non-canonical for a
given criterion. They investigate whether the expression of overt agents
should be considered canonical for passives. Frequency-based accounts suggest
that overt agents are not part of the canon, while exemplar-based accounts
claim that they are. The authors note that one principle for determining
canonical properties is whether those properties help to distinguish one type
of canonical phenomenon from another. In the case of passives, overt agents do
just that; a canonical property of anticausatives is that they do not exhibit
an overt agent. Therefore, the presence of an overt agent is a distinguishing
feature of the canonical passive. The authors also acknowledge that frequency
contributes to what we consider canonical, and so they conduct a survey of 279
languages to determine the frequency and realization of overt agents in
passives. They conclude that the overt expression of agents does correlate
with many of the other canonical properties of passives, and so overt agents
should be seen as part of the canonical passive. The chapter provides
excellent guidance for how to proceed when there isn’t yet enough data on a
phenomenon to determine what is canonical and what is not, and illustrates the
success of CT in pointing the way in such an investigation.

Martin Everaert provides a canonical typology of reflexivization in ‘The
criteria for reflexivization’. Like other chapters, the focus is on
establishing a framework for a descriptive analysis of reflexivization, rather
than a detailed empirical study. A problem with reflexivization is that
languages, contrary to what is often assumed, frequently have more than one
strategy for encoding reflexives. How can we describe these other than to
simply call them all ‘reflexives’? Which strategies are more canonical?
Everaert begins his answer by situating reflexivization as a type of anaphoric
dependency (including deictic pronouns, logophoric elements, etc.). The
distinguishing feature separating reflexives from other anaphors is the
existence of an identity relation between two co-arguments. With this as his
base, Everaert describes three sets of criteria for reflexivization:
properties of the ‘binder’, the morphosyntactic encoding of the identity
relationship, and the domain of the binder-bindee relation. He illustrates how
this multidimensional framework neatly captures the observed variation for
reflexivization, addressing the problem of multiple coding strategies. The
chapter is straightforward, clearly written, and insightful.

In ‘Possession and modification -- a perspective from Canonical Typology’,
Irina Nikolaeva and Andrew Spencer show how possession and modification,
typically thought to constitute two ends of a continuum, actually emerge from
the intersection of several semantic and morphosyntactic criteria.
Interestingly, the non-canonical cases of possession and modification turn out
to be other well-recognized phenomena, such as alienable possession or
modification-by-noun. While canonical possessees are semantically relational
nouns (kin terms, meronyms), and therefore constitute a type of inalienable
possession, non-relational possessees like ‘hat’ are less canonical, and
constitute alienable possession. Similarly, while canonical modifiers are
adjectives, it is also possible for nouns to serve as non-canonical modifiers,
creating modification-by-noun. Spencer and Nikolaeva’s is the first to relate
these four phenomena in a systematic way.

The book ends with 'An ontological approach to Canonical Typology: laying the
foundations for e-linguistics’ by Scott Farrar, advocating the use of the
General Ontology for Linguistic Description (GOLD) in describing linguistic
data, and pointing out parallels between CT and the principles for building an
ontology. Farrar provides suggestions for how CT might be implemented in an
ontology as part of a crosslinguistic database. An ontology-driven approach
allows entities to be members of a canonical class, without assuming an
identity between members of that class. In other words, the ontology could
address the problem of crosslinguistic classification and comparison.
Membership in a class is defeasible, so that the properties of that class are
violable. Canonicity could then be measured by determining how many properties
are violated by the specific linguistic construction under consideration. This
chapter lays the groundwork for implementing a crosslinguistic database
couched in canonical descriptions.

Many of these papers expand and refine the canonical approach in useful ways.
Bond’s chapter is the first to make explicit the method of establishing the
canonical base, while Evans’ illustrates the usefulness in describing
theoretically possible but empirically unattested phenomena as canonical
reference points for examining borderline or intermediate cases. The book does
not aim to provide a discussion of theoretical or methodological issues,
however. In fact, many of the authors, and Corbett especially, are oddly
silent on the issue of crosslinguistic categories versus comparative concepts
(Haspelmath 2010). When Corbett speaks of the Correspondence Problem, he is
primarily interested in terminological rather than linguistic correspondence.
This ambivalence is a potential merit of CT, in that any typologist can apply
the method regardless of their theoretical assumptions. At the same time,
throughout the book there is an implicit recognition of the need for
crosslinguistically viable comparative concepts, couched in language-general
rather than language-specific terms. I take this to be another merit of CT: in
shifting focus away from superordinate categories like Noun or Finiteness and
towards the criteria that constitute them, it encourages typologists to see
the criteria as ‘basic’, i.e. having real status as a manipulable piece of the
grammar of a language, and the superordinate categories as emergent. Despite
lacking any explicit acknowledgement of this stance, this is precisely the
position the authors in this volume appear to adopt.

Some readers might criticize this book for containing few exemplifying data.
But while criteria are based heavily on reviews of previous literature, the
aim of the chapters is not to provide comprehensive typologies based on
crosslinguistic surveys but to describe a theoretical space in which future
typological studies may be situated. Future studies of finiteness, for
example, may now describe the exact realization of finiteness in a given
language using the thirteen criteria set down by Nikolaeva.

To conclude, this volume successfully illustrates how Canonical Typology helps
resolve a number of debates in typological description. In many cases, the
canonical typologies presented expand the scope of investigation for a given
topic to include phenomena previously thought irrelevant (e.g. Nikolaeva &
Spencer’s links between alienable and inalienable possession and modification,
or Evans’ links between direct and indirect speech and logophor). In all
cases, these typologies pave the way for a much more robust and detailed
description of these phenomena, which future linguists should find invaluable.
The multidimensional nature of the criteria in CT is also highly amenable to
multivariate statistical approaches to typology (Bickel 2011), making this an
area ripe for exploration. I recommend this book to anyone seeking an
introduction to the Canonical approach in typology, as well as to practicing
typologists who are interested in ways they might improve or add more detail
to their typological descriptions.

Baerman, Matthew, Dunstan Brown & Greville G. Corbett. 2005. “The
syntax-morphology interface: a study of syncretism”. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Bickel, Balthasar. 2011. Statistical modeling of language universals.
“Linguistic Typology” 15(2). 401-414. doi:10.1515/LITY.2011.027.

Brown, Dunstan, Marina Chumakina & Greville G. Corbett (eds.). 2013.
“Canonical morphology and syntax”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Comrie, Bernard. 2003. When agreement gets trigger-happy. In Dunstan Brown,
Greville G. Corbett & Carole Tiberius (eds.), “Agreement: a typological
perspective” (Transactions of the Philological Society 101), 313–337. Oxford:

Corbett, Greville G. 2005. The canonical approach in typology. In Zygmunt
Frajzyngier, David Rood & Adam Hodges (eds.), “Linguistic diversity and
language theories”, 25-49. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Corbett, Greville G. 2006. “Agreement”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Nicholas. 2003. Typologies of agreement: some problems from Kayardild.
In Dunstan Brown, Greville G. Corbett & Carole Tiberius (eds.), “Agreement: a
typological perspective” (Transactions of the Philological Society 101),
203-234. Oxford: Blackwell.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in
crosslinguistic studies. “Language” 86(3). 663-687. doi:10.1353/lan.2010.0021.

Polinsky, Maria. 2003. Non-canonical agreement is canonical. In Dunstan Brown,
Greville G. Corbett & Carole Tiberius (eds.), “Agreement: a typological
perspective” (Transactions of the Philological Society 101), 279-312. Oxford:

Sasse, Hans-Jürgen. 2001. Scales between nouniness and verbiness. In Martin
Haspelmath & Ekkehard König (eds.), “Language typology and language
universals”, Vol. 1, 495-509. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Spencer, Andrew. 2005. Towards a typology of “mixed categories.” In C. Orhan
Orgun & Peter Sells (eds.), “Morphology and the web of grammar”, 95-138.
Stanford: CSLI.

Danny Hieber is a graduate student in linguistics at the University of
California, Santa Barbara. Prior to grad school, he worked in Rosetta Stone’s
Endangered Language Program to create language-learning software for the
Chitimacha, Iñupiaq, Navajo, and Inuttitut languages. His primary research
interests are language typology, documentary and descriptive linguistics, and
the economics and praxeology of language. He holds a B.A. in linguistics and
philosophy from The College of William & Mary. Learn more about his work at

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