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Review of  Morphosyntactic Change

Reviewer: Christina Hoppermann
Book Title: Morphosyntactic Change
Book Author: Bettelou Los Corrien Blom Geert Booij Marion Elenbaas Ans van Kemenade
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 24.4216

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This monograph by Los et al. provides a comparative synchronic and diachronic analysis of particle verbs in English and Dutch, alongside other Germanic languages such as German and Gothic. Its main focus is on three related aspects: the morphological and syntactic behaviour of particle verbs, their emergence in the history of the respective language and their relation to inseparable prefix verbs. The book gives a comprehensive account of these points using corpus data. It includes both results of the research project “The diachrony of complex predicates in the West Germanic languages” conducted by the authors and parts of Corrien Blom’s (2005) and Marion Elenbaas’ (2007) dissertations.

Particle verbs are referred to here as “Separable Complex Verbs” (SCVs) for Dutch and German, for which particles are realized in preverbal position, whereas the expression “Verb Particle Combination” (VPC) is used for Present-Day English (PDE), where particles are always postverbal. By analogy to the convention for particle verbs, prefix verbs are termed “Inseparable Complex Verbs” (ICVs) due to their morphological behaviour as bound morphemes. With regard to whether SCVs should be treated as words or phrases, the authors see particles as optionally projecting words with the default option of being non-projecting. Further, they conclude that SCVs are both conventionalized and compositional. The concept of non-projection also bridges the gap between SCVs and ICVs, playing a crucial role in the grammaticalization cline for Dutch and English postulated by the authors, where the grammaticalization of particles is one source for the emergence of prefixes: The less projecting a preverb becomes, the more probable is its development into a prefix.

The book is divided into eight chapters that guide the readers through the analysis. The first two chapters introduce the topic and provide an overview of the relevant theoretical linguistic background. The other chapters are organized around three criteria: the mode of approach (synchronic vs. diachronic analysis), the language under investigation (i.e. Dutch, English, or West Germanic languages generally), and the particular (pre-)verb type (SCV, VPC, ICV).

Chapter 1 (“Separable complex verbs”) introduces the fundamentals of separable complex verbs and the challenges they pose in terms of analysing their relation in between syntax and morphology. Los et al. concentrate on West Germanic languages with a main focus on English and Dutch, as these two languages share certain characteristics as related languages and thereby provide a basis for both synchronic and diachronic comparison. Historically, Dutch and English complex verbs or, to be more precise, the two languages in general behaved more similar in their older stages than in their present-day counterparts, For instance, the authors demonstrate that both languages used to show characteristics of SOV word order and finite verb movement (V2, i.e. Verb Second) whereas PDE has lost both phenomena, leaving particles entirely postverbal in a syntactic environment of SVO word orders. Examples are also given for Present-Day Dutch (PDD) in comparison with Present-Day German (PDG), as their particles, sharing common origins (i.e. adpositions and adverbs), behave similarly: In contrast to inseparable prefixed verbs, Los et al. confirm that PDD and PDG particles are separable from the base verb and can be positioned in clause-final position in main clauses due to V-movement, infinitive markers (PDD: ‘te’, PDG: ‘zu’), or participial markers (PDD/PDG: ‘ge-’). However, by analogy with inseparable prefixes, particles may likewise influence the lexical aspect (Aktionsart) and the valency of verbs. On the basis of the established fundamentals of SCVs, the authors list the following main research questions:

(1) As SCVs/VPCs cross the line between syntax and morphology, “how can their syntactic, semantic and morphological properties be given a satisfactory account” (p. 5)?

(2) Why do English particle verbs behave differently from those in Dutch and German (cf. p. 6)?

(3) Focusing on the functional overlap between inseparable and separable prefix verbs, “what does the nature of this functional overlap […] tell us about the status of both elements? Are inseparable and separable prefixes historically related, and if so, do inseparable prefixes represent a particle that has been further grammaticalized to a bound morpheme? And why were inseparable prefixes quite comprehensively lost in the history of English?” (p. 6).

Explaining preverbs, Los et al. further hypothesize that the development of preverbs and prefixes was a case of the universal mechanism of grammaticalization. Refining this, they give a cross-linguistic overview of preverbs in Sanskrit, Latin, Gothic, and other Indo-European languages. The remainder of this chapter provides an outline of the book.

Chapter 2 (“The paradox of particle verbs”) discusses whether particles are words or phrases using the example of PDD and PDE and giving pro and contra arguments for both options. The authors start from the assumption that particles are both, i.e. words that optionally project a phrase (default option: non-projection). They come to the interim conclusion that particles can neither be analysed merely as words nor only as regular syntactic phrases, since they show hybrid characteristics (i.e. being lexical units while being constructed syntactically). Further, they illustrate that particles enable two different word orders: the particle order (adjacency of particle and verb) and the predicate order (particle and verb are separated from each other). Los et al. claim that particles are grammaticalized predicates that, in view of the grammaticalization cline, developed from a phrasal XP to an optionally projecting head. Independent of whether particles project a phrase or not, they are supposed to function mostly as secondary predicates. The chapter completes the picture by taking already existing approaches to the analysis of particles into account and touches on the concept of Information Structure (IS) on the choice of particle word order in English. According to IS, the particle order is chosen if the object is in focus (i.e. the object is in end-focused position) while the predicate order ensures that the particle is in focus (i.e. the particle is in end-focused position).

Chapter 3 (“The synchronic analysis of Dutch SCVs”) gets back to the analysis of particles in SCVs as optionally projecting words using the example of Dutch. The authors identify those cases in which particles project (i.e. show phrase-like properties) and those in which they do not project (i.e. demonstrate word-like properties). They assume that the default option is that lexical heads do not project unless syntactic factors require them to do so (Structural Economy Principle). Another main aspect of this chapter concerns the semantic structure of SCVs. Los et al. found out that Dutch and also German particles have a wider semantic range than their English counterparts: They state that English particles are almost exclusively resultative whereas Dutch/German particles may be resultative, but also function as modifiers, relators, or Aktionsart particles. This diversity of particle functions is also used to infer that the mapping between syntax and semantics is more complex in Dutch/German than in English: Although there is such a semantic variety of particle functions, the particles still share the same syntactic patterns (i.e. SOV). The authors conclude that the status of the particle is responsible for the behaviour of the SCV and emphasize that SCVs are productive as well as both compositional and conventionalized.

On the basis of that synchronic approach, chapter 4 (“The diachronic analysis of Dutch SCVs”) offers a diachronic analysis of Dutch SCVs. The grammaticalization cline is addressed again, indicating that particles developed unidirectionally from phrases into optionally projecting words and ultimately into prefixes. In this context, Los et al. state that grammaticalization is accompanied by semantic change, which is often connected with univerbation. They suggest adjacency as a necessary condition for grammaticalization and perform a diachronic analysis of the different particle functions (i.e. resultative, modifying, relator, and continuative particles), which confirms the assumption that adjacency is given in all cases. Reanalysing combinations of phrases and verbs as SCVs, different sources are found for the aforementioned particles types: resultative phrases, modifier phrases and postpositions. Another general phenomenon, highlighted in view of grammaticalization, is the coexistence of old and new structures. The remainder of the chapter briefly outlines the diachrony of nominal and adjectival particle types, showing that -- apart from verbs -- elements of all major syntactic categories have the potential to develop into particles so that they enable a reanalysis as SCVs.

Chapter 5 (“The lexical decomposition of Present-Day English verb particle combinations”) shifts the focus from Dutch particles to VPCs in Present-Day English. According to the authors, English VPCs differ from Dutch SCVs in two main aspects: First, they take as a starting point that the separation of a particle from its base verb is not motivated by syntactic mechanisms (such as V2) but by means of Information Structure. Thereby, it is deduced that English enables its particles to be both projecting and non-projecting: They are defined as being non-projecting by default (particle order) and, in accordance with the Structural Economy Principle, projecting when modified (predicate order). Only idioms are given as an exception in that they only allow one word order (freezing). Second, the authors construct the argument that particles are almost exclusively resultative and thus do not dispose of such a large semantic variety of functions as in Dutch. As one source of these differences, Los et al. mention the general development of the two languages in language history, as they induced distinct basic word orders (English: SVO vs. Dutch: SOV).

Chapter 6 (“The diachrony of the English verb particle combination”) completes the treatment of VPCs in English with a diachronic analysis. The authors start from the Old English (OE) period in which particles behaved similarly to present-day SCVs in being used in preverbal position (default case) and occurring in postverbal position only due to V-movement. Further, the decline of the ICV system is mentioned and given as the result of functional overlaps between coexisting SCVs and ICVs in OE that were eventually taken over by particles. Los et al. analyse the status of particles as phrasal secondary predicates in origin undergoing a process of grammaticalization. They stress that the loss of SOV word order in the Middle English (ME) period, accompanied by a loss of V-movement, gave birth to the SVO word order, which is still used in PDE and which caused particles to become exclusively postverbal. Los et al. claim that it was possibly this loss of syntactic independence and increase in the syntactic bond between verb and particle that led to a change of VPCs into fixed morphosyntactic constructions.

After focusing exclusively on separable particle verbs, chapter 7 (“The diachrony of prefixes in West Germanic”) gives a comparative diachronic analysis of the productive and often cognate prefixes in ICVs in West Germanic, as well as in Gothic, an East Germanic language. Prefixes, as noted, constitute the final stage of the grammaticalization cline posited, although it is stressed that not every ICV needs to be derived from an SCV. ICVs can also be formed on the basis of derivational templates, accounting for the fact that prefixes are used in both types of ICVs, the old and the new system. Due to their common historical origin, it is highlighted that ICVs in the old system are functionally equivalent to SCVs when referring to complex events that entail a change of state in resultative structures. In this context, Los et al. assume that the resulting doublings of particles and prefixes in OE reinforce the assumption that OE prefixes lost their meanings as their functions could be taken over by the SCV system. This is given as one factor that may have led to the final loss of the ICV system. In contrast, the new system proposed is not resultative but, being adpositional in origin and multidirectional, similar to relator (path) particles and only licences Ground participants while unidirectional SCVs licence both Ground and Figure participants. Los et al. conclude that resultative and non-resultative preverbs show a divergent diachronic development and that semantic change precedes morphosyntactic change in terms of grammaticalization.

The final chapter 8 (“Conclusions”) repeats the research questions initially posed by the authors and answers them by recapitulating the main findings of the study.

The book under review is mainly intended for historical or general linguists interested in the morphosyntactic study of particle and prefix verbs, whether monolingual or cross-linguistic, synchronic or diachronic, or types of (pre-)verb (SCV, VPC, ICV). Background knowledge in prefix/particle verbs or in the general history of West Germanic languages -- in particular of Dutch and English -- is advantageous for understanding the study’s overall context, but is not necessary. Thus, the book can be read by both more and less experienced scholars.

The volume is logically structured around the three criteria introduced at the beginning of this review: the mode of approach, the language under investigation, and the particular (pre-)verb type. Although the division into the respective chapters explicitly reflects this structure, it is not recommendable to read the chapters independently from each other: The individual chapters build upon another in terms of content and problems may arise due to the numerous cross and back references, which sometimes interrupt the reading flow. Consequently, the book is not suitable as a reference work.

The authors elaborately answer their research questions and thus fulfil their goals of exploring the morphosyntactic and functional behaviour of particle verbs, their historical development, and their relation to inseparable prefix verbs. They perform both synchronic and diachronic cross-linguistic analyses and present them in a coherent and comprehensible manner.

One of the strengths of the book is the wealth of details. Los et al. reach out to take various perspectives and dichotomies into account (i.e. synchronic vs. diachronic, English vs. Dutch, prefix vs. particle verb). For all focal points, they discuss existing approaches at great length and relate them to their own results. Still, from the reader’s point of view, such a wealth of details also risks losing the thread in view of identifying the authors’ assumptions and conclusions.

Another positive factor is that the authors base their findings on examples of actual language usage. They do not limit themselves to only collecting those examples, but also interpret them thoroughly so that they are able to draw relevant conclusions.

The book’s shortcomings mainly concern aspects of scientific practice. The authors do not explicitly specify the underlying data from which examples are taken or on which they base their conclusions. Instead, the corpora used in the study are only listed in the appendix. The only exceptions are example sentences quoted from other studies for which corresponding references are given. A separate chapter or an additional section in the introduction specifying both the method and the data used in the analysis would have been welcome. That would also have made it possible to extend the potential readership of the book by addressing corpus linguists or more data-oriented researchers in general. Furthermore, additional secondary literature should have been cited in some passages of the book. For instance, in dealing with locative alternations (e.g. p. 179, p. 190), Levin (1993) should have been quoted -- especially since Los et al. make explicit reference to alternations in English.

Apart from these aspects, there are only a few improvements that could have been made, all involving cross-linguistic comparisons. For instance, more analogies could have been drawn between Dutch and German (such as Dewell 2011) in the context of path particles (Figure, Ground). This also applies to the aspect of compositional semantics of prefix and particle verbs briefly dealt with in chapter 7. Although the chapter title suggests that this aspect would be contextualized with other Germanic data, the focus is on Dutch. As one of the main conclusions is that particles are both compositional and conventionalized, it would be helpful to elaborate on this aspect of compositionality, as comparable studies already exist for other languages (e.g. Mungan 1986, Stiebels 1999 for German). These minor points of criticism provide a significant potential for future research in terms of performing cross-linguistic comparisons in more detail on the basis of the authors’ results of the present study.

In conclusion, the book’s insights outweigh its weaknesses and I recommend this book to all scholars interested in the comparative, synchronic, or diachronic study of particles and prefixes from a morphosyntactic point of view.

Blom, Corrien (2005). Complex Predicates in Dutch: Synchrony and Diachrony. Utrecht: LOT Dissertation Series 111.

Dewell, Robert B. (2011). The Meaning of Particle/Prefix Constructions in German. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Elenbaas, Marion (2007). The Synchronic and Diachronic Syntax of the English Verb-Particle Combination. Utrecht: LOT.

Levin, Beth (1993). English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mungan, Güler (1986). Die semantische Interaktion zwischen dem präfigierenden Verbzusatz und dem Simplex bei deutschen Partikel- und Präfixverben. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Stiebels, Barbara (1999). Lexikalische Argumente und Adjunkte: Zum semantischen Beitrag von verbalen Präfixen und Partikeln. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
Christina Hoppermann is a PhD student and researcher working at the chair of General and Computational Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Tübingen. Her main research interests include (compositional) lexical-semantic phenomena at the syntax-semantics interface based on text-technological and data-driven methods (such as corpus analyses), German prefix and particle verbs, lexical-semantic networks and compound-internal lexical relations.

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