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Review of  The Role of Semantic, Pragmatic, and Discourse Factors in the Development of Case

Reviewer: Danniel da Silva Carvalho
Book Title: The Role of Semantic, Pragmatic, and Discourse Factors in the Development of Case
Book Author: Johanna Barddal Shobhana Lakshmi Chelliah
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Faroese
Greek, Modern
Issue Number: 21.3431

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EDITORS: Barðdal, Jóhanna and Shobhanna L. Chelliah
TITLE: The Role of Semantic, Pragmatic, and Discourse Factors in the Development
of Case
SERIES: Studies in Language Companion Series 108
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2009

Danniel da Silva Carvalho, Department of Linguistics, Federal University of
Bahia, Brazil


Great efforts have been made to describe case systems throughout languages
(Anderson, 1971, 1977; Agud, 1980; Blake, 1994; Butt, 2006, Corbett and Noonan,
2008, among many others). Contributions to this discussion usually focus on
different aspects of case, such as case shape, semantics, or pragmatics, and
they come from various theoretical perspectives. Jóhanna Barðdal and Shobhanna
L. Chelliah’s volume, built from papers presented at the 17th International
Conference of Historical Linguistics (Madison, Wisconsin, 31 July to 5 August
2005), gathers some of those perspectives on case in an attempt to discuss the
development of case systems from different angles. The various topics are almost
exclusively presented from the historical perspective, but some articles also
focus on contemporary data.
The book starts with a comprehensive introduction by the editors, in which they
present the structure of the volume and provide a summary of the papers. The
volume consists of fifteen papers written by researchers from different areas of
specialization. The papers are divided into five thematic sections: (a)
semantically and aspectually motivated synchronic case variation, (b) discourse
motivated subject marking, (c) reduction or expansion of case marker
distribution, (d) case syncretism motivated by syntax, semantics, or language
contact, and (e) case split motivated by pragmatics, metonymy, and subjectification.

The opening paper of part I, Tonya Kim Dewey and Yasmin Syed’s “Case variation
in Gothic absolute construction,” examines the emergence of absolute
constructions in Gothic comparatively with Greek. The authors argue that this
type of construction is native to Gothic and not the result of the translation
from Greek. The paper also shows that Gothic syntax should be regarded as a
resource for the study of case systems. Quantitatively, it is shown that there
are over three times more absolute constructions from the Greek New Testament
translation than from Skeireins, a commentary on the Gospel of John (the authors
set aside the discussion of whether or not this is also a translation of the
Greek original).
In the second paper of part I, “Some semantic and pragmatic aspects of object
alternation in Early Vedic,” Eystein Dahl offers a rich synchronic overview of
the alternation of object case variation in Early Vedic, the earliest attested
stage of Indo-Aryan. Using a semantic prototype approach, the author examines
three object alternation patterns in this language and attests that these
patterns have a broad semantic and pragmatic correspondence, e.g. they “express
a definiteness distinction at the noun phrase level and a telicity distinction
at the verbal phrase level” (p. 53).

Part II deals with discursive motivations for changes in case marking. In the
first paper of this part, “The case of shifty ergative marker: A pragmatic shift
in the ergative marker of one Australian mixed language,” Felicity Meakins
discusses ergative marking in Gurindji Kriol, a language found in Australia and
derived from Gurindji, a Pama-Nyungan language, and Kriol, an English-lexifier
creole spoken in northern Australia. Based on word order data, the author shows
that the function of ergative case in Gunridji Kriol, which marks discourse
prominence (agentivity), differs from the ones this language is derived from.
The second paper in this section, “How useful is case morphology? The loss of
the Old French two-case system within a theory of Preferred Argument Structure,”
by Ulrich Detges, argues that case morphology cannot be connected with word
order flexibility. Discarding some theoretical attempts to explain the loss of
the Old French two-case system (Phonological Erosion, Natural Morphology,
Markedness Theory, and Functional Approach), the author applies Du Bois’s
Preferred Argument Structure Theory – a set of universal constraints concerning
the distribution of arguments in discourse – to diachronic data. The author
finishes the paper with a brief discussion of the relevance of morphological
case, advocating against the necessity of morphological case for the
interpretation of arguments. These conclusions are also reached by some studies
that deal with contemporary data, such as Bayer et al. (2001) and McFadden (2004).

The first paper of part III, “The development of case in Germanic,” by Jóhanna
Barðdal, also discusses approaches that deal with the loss of morphological case
(such as the theory of Phonological Erosion), but rejects them in favour of the
Usage-Based Constructional Approach, which takes into account frequency and
interpretation. One argument against the theory of Phonological Erosion is that
it seems to be very selective, i.e. in the examples shown it affects only
nominal endings, but not verbal ones.
The following article, “A usage-based approach to change: Old Russian possessive
constructions,” by Hanne Martine Eckhoff, also looks at case changes from a
frequency-based perspective. Eckhoff discusses a specific syntactic phenomenon
(change in possessive constructions) and focuses on the way class shape is
Sturla Berg-Olsen, in a paper called “Lacking in Latvian: Case variation from a
cognitive and construction perspective,” also applies Usage-Based Constructional
Approach in her study on case interpretation (genitive and nominative) of the
verb pietrūkt (‘lack’) in Modern Latvian.
Also in the third part, Jóhanes Gísli Jónsson presents an article on “Verb
classes and dative objects in Insular Scandinavian.” The paper is a description
of several contexts where dative objects appear, and discusses where these
arguments have been eroded.
The following paper, “Transitive adjectives in Japanese,” by Daniela Caluianu,
offers a description of the alternation between the nominative particles ‘–ga¬’
and the accusative particle ‘–wo’ in adjectives in contemporary Japanese. The
author argues that the rise of the accusative particle is motivated by syntactic
and semantic factors, such as animacy.

Part IV of the book begins with Michael Noonan's article “Patterns of
development, patterns of syncretism of relational morphology in the Bodic
languages.'' The paper is an exhaustive description of 76 Tibeto-Burman
languages, focusing on similarities in their morphology. The work is a
documentation of syncretism in the evolution of this language family. The paper
also includes a rich appendix with a visual representation of this evolution.
The second paper is “The evolution of local cases and their grammatical
equivalent in Greek and Latin,” by Silvia Luraghi. The author describes the
development of spatial cases (e.g. locative) in both languages and concludes
that Ancient Greek preserved more characteristics from the Indo-European case
system than Latin, although both languages developed syncretism of some case forms.
Michela Cennamo’s paper, “Argument structure and alignment variations and
changes in Late Latin,” discusses the so-called extended accusative, which is
the use of the accusative forms in subject function, and its consequence for
voice distinction. The author concludes that this phenomenon is motivated by
semantic and syntactic factors, such as the thematic role of the subject
argument and the degree of syntactic cohesion between this argument and its
The last article of this section is “Case loss in Texas German: The influence of
semantic and pragmatic factors,” by Hans C. Boas. The author shows the decay of
dative case in Texas German within a generation. The syncretism of this case
form (that is, the rise of accusative form in dative contexts) has increased
since Gilbert’s (1972) Linguistic Atlas of Texas German, which can be explained,
according to Boas, by “internal factors” to the language, i.e. similarity in
phonological form, movement towards unmarked forms and similarity in semantic
contexts, instead of language contact, as assumed by others.
The last section of the volume consists of two articles that deal with the
relationship of case and discourse. In “Semantic role to new information in
Meithei,” Shobhana L. Chelliah discusses some thematic roles of homophonous case
marking in Meithei, a Tibeto-Birman language. The author shows that some
semantic (case) markers developed into pragmatic markers, for example marking
new information. Chelliah argues that the distribution of these homophonous
markers depends on the speaker’s background. The author explains that “states
and activities involving one participant usually constitute background
information” (p. 389).
The second paper of this section “From less personal to more personal:
Subjectification of 'ni-'marked NPs in Japanese discourse,” by Misuni Sadler,
gives a description of the meaning and use of the postposition particle ‘ni’ in
pre-modern and modern texts in Japanese. The author defends a semantic-pragmatic
approach to account for the gradually wider usage of the particle, which is
traditionally assumed as marking first person subject only. These two articles
suggest metonymic extension as a pragmatic resource to explain the phenomena
that are discussed.


The overall impression of the book is certainly positive. The book is a good
source of (in some cases, extensive) historical description of case behaviour
throughout different language families. The analyses presented are significant.
Some papers, such as Noonan's, deserve particular attention, since they make
important contributions to the general picture of case development on a wider
perspective. Another example is Boas’s paper, a valuable contribution to the
study of syncretism, since it shows that the evolution of the phenomenon can be
captured in a short period of time (it can even be attested even synchronically,
see Carvalho, 2008).
Case change, however, involves more than the change of case shape. It also
includes some other relationships within the clause. In all analyses of part III
of the volume, for instance, case variation and change are not just considered
changes of case shapes, as merely a morphological phenomenon, but also of
semantically different forms. A usage-based account, i.e. an account which
‘takes the frequency of constructions to be central to their status in the
language system’ (cf. Barðdal’s paper, p. 138), sounds like a mere stipulation
since it is based purely on description and has no sound explanatory basis.
Considering the general scope of the volume, the inclusion of even more
languages should have been contemplated. In fact, the volume propounds only a
diachronic description of some case roles, but the ''discussions of the
consequences to changes in case systems and the mechanism whereby such changes
are obtained'' (Introduction, p. ix) demands a greater base. Thus, a more
comprehensive description should bring along a more robust explanatory
mechanism, which is missing in some analyses (e.g., the whole part 3 of the
In sum, however, this collection of papers is a very valuable contribution to
the empirical study of the development of case across languages.


Agud, A. (1980). Historia y teoría de los casos. Madrid: Gredos.

Anderson, J. M. (1971) The grammar of case: Towards a localistic theory.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Anderson, J. M (1977). On case grammar. London: Croom Helm.

Bayer, J., M. Bader & M. Meng. (2001). Morphological underspecification meets
oblique case: Syntactic and processing effects in German. Lingua 111, 465-514.

Blake, B. J. (1994). Case. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butt, M. (2006). Theories of case. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carvalho, D. S. (2008). A estrutura interna dos pronomes pessoais em Português
Brasileiro. PhD. Dissertation, Universidade Federal de Alagoas.

Corbett, G.G. & Michael Noonan, eds. (2008). Case and grammatical relations:
Studies in honor of Bernard Comrie. Typological Studies in Language 81.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Gilbert, G. (1972). Linguistic Atlas of Texas German. Austin, Texas: University
of Texas Press.

McFadden, T. (2004). The position of morphological case in the derivation: A
study on the syntax-morphology interface. PhD. Dissertation. University of
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Danniel Carvalho is a professor of linguistics at the Federal University of Bahia (Bahia, Brazil). His research interests include syntax and morphology of Romance and Germanic languages.