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Review of  The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences

Reviewer: Luis Vicente
Book Title: The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences
Book Author: Enoch Oladé Aboh
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Book Announcement: 15.2565

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Date: Tue, 14 Sep 2004 10:21:47 +0200
From: Luis Vicente <>
Subject: The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences

AUTHOR: Aboh, Enoch Oladé
TITLE: The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences
SUBTITLE: Clause Structure and Word Order Patterns in Kwa
SERIES: Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax #13
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2003

Luis Vicente, University of Leiden Centre for Linguistics (ULCL)

In this book (a revision of his 1999 Geneva dissertation), Aboh
presents an analysis of the syntax of the Gbe languages. His main
concern is to develop a rather articulate phrase structure -- both in
the clausal and the nominal domains -- that can account for the surface
orders of this language family. Given that he takes Antisymmetry (Kayne
1994) as his framework of choice, such a rich structure must be coupled
with a number of movements to the left in order to derive certain
surface head final orders. Although at some points the analysis seems a
bit too far-fetched, Aboh always manages to give interesting empirical
evidence in its favour. On top of that, the book is also gives also a
description of the Gbe languages of quite an impressive width and
breadth. I believe it's certainly a piece of work worthy going through.

Ignoring the Introduction and the Conclusion, where not much is really
going on (the Introduction contains brief summaries of Minimalism,
Antisymmetry, and the split DP, IP and CP hypotheses; the Conclusion
consist of a mere three-page summary of the main results), the bulk of
the work is in chapters 2 through 8, which we will go through briefly
right below. Given the wealth of constructions examined by Aboh,
commenting on all of them would amount to little less than rewriting
the book. Therefore, I will only talk about what I consider are the
major attractions of each chapter.

Chapter 2 is an outline of the grammar of the Gbe family (a cluster of
languages within the Kwa group), spoken in various parts of Ghana and
Nigeria. As many other African languages, the Gbe languages are tonal.
Aboh argues that some of these tones are actually the realisation of
certain syntactic heads -remnants of an ancestral morpheme that has
been lost except for the tone. However, this will come later in the
book. The main part of ch 2 is devoted to an overview of the major word
order patterns of Gbe. One of the features that I find most fascinating
is the OV/VO alternation depending on the aspectual make up of the
clause. Aboh's hypothesis is that this alternation does not reflect a
mixed structure with both head final and head initial projections.
Rather, he argues (along the lines of Zwart 1993 for Dutch, though see
also Neeleman & Weerman 1999 and Vicente 2004) that Gbe languages are
uniformly head initial. His starting assumption is that Gbe objects
always raise overtly to a case position. Therefore, VO orders arise
from subsequent verb movement to the left of the raised object. OV
orders are the result of verb movement being blocked. The detailed
analysis of the aspectual layer necessary for this claim is developed
in chs 5 and 6.

Before getting to issues of clausal syntax, Aboh takes a detour through
the structure of the nominal domain. In chapter 3, he examines the Gbe
noun phrase, which displays the fixed order, with: the last two
categories being independent morphemes, rather than being included
inside a larger word.

noun > adjective > demonstrative > numeral > specificity > number

Aboh argues that this construction is derived by rolling up (''snowballing'' in his terminology) the different NP layers up to the numeral level. At this point, the numeral phrase undergoes spec-to-spec movement, first through the number phrase, and then to the specificity phrase. This derives the observed word order. Leaving aside the fine details of this derivation, I would like to mention two other aspects of this analysis. First, the parallelism that Aboh tries to establish between the nominal and the clausal domains. He argues that, in the same way as we have a left periphery and an inflectional layer for clauses, so have we for noun phrases. Specifically, he takes the Number Phrase to be the equivalent to an agreement projection in clauses, and the Specificity Phrase as the counterpart of clausal type markers. The second issue is the analysis in terms of roll-up movement. Aboh claims that head-to-head movement is banned in the Gbe nominal domain. In order to establish the spec-head checking relation, Gbe languages resort to XP movement, and this is what eventually leads to roll-up movement, and the consequent reversion in the surface order of constituents (see Pearson 2000 for similar argumentation in the clausal domain, this time bearing on Malagasy data).

Chapter 4 is dedicated to pronouns. Aboh proposes that the Gbe pronoun
system shows a tripartite structure in terms of strong, weak, and
clitic pronouns (a la Cardinaletti & Starke 1999). He attributes their
different behaviour and distribution to differences in the number
projections each class includes. Strong pronouns have the same
structure, and receive the same analysis in terms of movement as full
noun phrases in chapter 3. Weak pronouns lack some of this structure.
Specifically, he argues that they only project the nominal left
peripheral projections, NumberP and DP. Finally, clitic pronouns are
instantiations of the D head alone. This analysis is quite novel. As
Aboh notes at the end of the chapter (p. 152), ''contrary to
Cardinaletti & Starke 1999, the tripartition theory developed here is
not grounded on the hypothesis that structural deficiency automatically
leads to peeling off the topmost projection of the structure. Instead,
deficiency or weakness is interpreted from the perspective of less
articulated or missing internal structure, regardless of the level of
such lack''.

After the excursus on the nominal domain, chapter 5 examines the syntax
of Tense, Aspect, and Mood preverbal markers. Gbe verbs are not
inflected in any way. Instead, inflectional features are realised as
markers that surface in different heads of an expanded IP layer. I will
ignore here the Mood markers and concentrate on the one Tense and three
Aspect heads Aboh proposes. The Tense head is phonetically realised
when it is specified as [+future]. In case it is [-future], it is
occupied by a null morpheme (the reason for the postulation of this
morpheme being to prevent head movement of the verb into T). As for the
three Aspect heads, they correspond to habitual (Asp1), perfective
(Asp2), and progressive (Asp3) aspect. Of interest here is the
distribution that Aboh proposes for the different heads. He argues that
Asp2 selects a nominalised small clause containing Asp3. Since
perfective sentences in Gbe involve a nominalisation and permit the
presence of the progressive marker, he proposes that the presence of
Asp3 and the nominaliser is parasitic on the presence of the
[+perfective] Asp2 head. This implies that perfective and imperfective
clauses are quite difference. In particular, Aboh argues that, while
imperfective sentences are monoclausal, the extra structure of
perfective sentences makes them biclausal.

Chapter 6 extends the investigation of the mid-lower part of the
clause, focusing of the different configurations of object and verb
movement as the cause behind the OV/VO alternations in Gbe: while
imperfective sentences are OV, non-imperfective ones are VO. Aboh
suggests that verb movement into T is impossible, since the T head is
always occupied (though sometimes only by a null morpheme). However,
lower heads (i.e., the Asp layer) is available for verb movement. He
refines the structure proposes in the previous chapter: Asp2 dominates
the nominalising phrase, which dominates Asp3, which dominates an AgrP,
which finally dominates VP. Object movement always takes place to
SpecAsp3 through SpecAgrP. Given this, the OV/VO alternation is a
consequence of whether the verb moves higher than AgrP or not. Aboh
argues that this is possible only in non-imperfective sentences, where
the verb moves to Asp2. Further, he argues that Asp3 moves into
SpecNomP for nominalisation purposes. Since the Nom head is represented
only by a tone, this hypothesis captures the extra sentence final tone
present in non-imperfective sentences.

In chapter 7, Aboh moves upwards and takes a look at the left periphery
of the clause, in particular, focus and wh- constructions. This chapter
is interesting in that it provides a quite clear-cut argument that
spec-head is a licit feature checking configuration (contra recent
proposals such as Hallman 2004 and Chomsky 2004). Both focalised
constituents and wh- phrases have to be strictly left-adjacent to the
marker ''wé'', without exceptions. Aboh proposes that this is a
consequence of ''wé'' being a focus head, and foci and wh- words both
carrying focus features that need to be checked against this head. Of
interest as well is the double focus construction, in which two foci
originating in an embedded clause can be licensed if one of them stays
in the lower SpecFocP and the other one raises to the matrix SpecFocP.
Given that double foci in a matrix clause are banned, Aboh assumes that
there is a unique FocP per clause, and that raising to the matrix FocP
involves an intermediate step not in the lower SpecFocP, but in the
Force phrase. Moreover, raising to the matrix FocP is not possible in
the case of adjuncts. This is an argument/adjunct asymmetry he analyses
along the lines of Rizzi (1990)

Finally, chapter 8 is dedicated to topics and yes/no questions. As for
topics, they are normally introduced by the topic marker ''yà'', with
which they enter a spec-head relationship. The presence of the topic
marker is optional. However, Aboh does not treat it as pure
optionality. Rather, he assumes that there are two different
instantiations of the topic head (namely, ''yà'' and a null morpheme),
differing in their feature make-up. The choice of either one of them
result in a different phenomenology of topics. Another important point
with regard to Gbe topics is that Aboh shows them to share
characteristics of both hanging topics and clitic left dislocation
(CLLD) structures (cf. Cinque 1990). In order to account for these
characteristics, he proposes an analysis in terms of movement, where a
resumptive pronoun is left in the base position. This allows us,
amongst other things, to account for the island insensitivity of
topics, and, at the same time, the impossibility of moving across
another topic (a standard Relativised Minimality effect). In the last
part of the chapter, Aboh turns to yes no questions, whose distinctive
mark is the presence of a falling tone at the right edge of the clause.
He argues that the tone is the instantiation of the yes/no C head, and
that it appears clause-finally because the whole clause moves to SpecCP
-another instance of roll-up movement. Evidence for this position comes
from the distribution of topic (''yà'') and focus (''wé'') markers. If they
co-occur in a declarative sentence, the topic marker precedes the focus
marker. However, in an interrogative sentence, the order is the
reverse. Aboh suggests that we can derive this difference is we assume
roll-up movement of TP to SpecFocP, then of the whole FocP to SpecTopP,
and finally of the entire TopP to the specifier of the interrogative

Aboh's book makes an excellent contribution to the literature in that
it presents a superb overview of many properties of the syntax of Gbe
languages, which hadn't been given much publicity so far. In this
respect, its value is undoubtable. What I would like to focus on here
is in the kind of theory Aboh wants to construe. I must admit that he
makes a pretty strong case in favour of Antisymmetry, by showing that
Gbe languages can be optimally accommodated under a fully head initial
structure. As Baker & Kandybowicz (2002) point out ''grand theoretical
proposals like Antisymmetry must eventually live or die on the basis of
data from individual languages''. It is therefore laudable that, unlike
some analyses in this tradition (e.g., the (in)famous Koopman &
Szabolcsi 2000), Aboh always tries to give hard empirical evidence in
favour of the extra structure he needs to postulate. Moreover, he very
often considers alternative analysis and lies out very clearly the
reasons why he considers them not appropriate. One may not agree at
times with Aboh's proposals, but it is also true that most of the
times, if not always, alternative analyses (even if they are workable
and plausible), do not provide anything beyond what Aboh's own analysis

A theory based on Antisymmetry will eventually need massive leftward
movement so as to derive surface head final orders. One particularly
interesting such operation is the so-called roll-up movement (or
snowballing movement, in Aboh's terminology), where the complement YP
of a head X moves to SpecXP. In recent work (e.g., Abels 2003), this
kind of movement has been deemed impossible. Abels's reasoning is that
feature checking involves getting two features in a sufficiently local
relationship, the most local relationship being sisterhood. Thus,
whatever feature YP may check by movement to SpecXP, it can also be
checked in a head-complement configuration. Hence, roll-up movement is
unwarranted. Note though, that what Aboh is proposing is not that it is
YP as a whole that has a feature to check. It is only the head Y of YP,
which needs to check its relevant feature by head-to-head movement to
X. In cases where head movement is blocked (for whatever reason), one
can resort to roll-up movement to satisfy this feature (unfortunately,
Aboh implements this analysis in a pretty intuitive level, with little
formalisation). Thus, roll-up movement becomes in principle a licit
operation -not in Abels's system, though, since he analyses head-to-
head movement in Brody's 2000 terms, hence his objection could in
principle carry on even for Aboh. This is not the case in systems where
head-to-head movement still exists.To sum up, I believe that this book
is a very valuable contribution to the field. On top of its descriptive
work, it proposes bold and well argumented analysis that favours one
specific line of thought. If you are an adherent to this line of
thought, you will find here very strong support. If, as happens to me,
you aren't, you will find here good arguments against your position.
Either way, this book is highly recommended to anybody with an interest
in African/less studied languages, or in theories of clause structure
and word order

Abels, Klaus (2003), Successive cyclicity, anti-locality, and
adposition stranding, PhD dissertation, University of Connecticut

Aboh, Enoch (1999), From the syntax of Gungbe to the grammar of Gbe,
PhD dissertation, University of Geneva

Baker, Mark, and Jason Kandybowicz (2002), The structure of the verb
phrase in Nupe, Syntax 5

Brody, Michael (2000), Mirror Theory, Linguistic Inquiry 30

Cardinaletti, Anna, and Michal Starke (1999), The typology of
structural deficiency: a case study of three classes of pronouns, in
van Riemsdijk (ed.), Clitics in the languages of Europe, Mouton de
Gruyter, Berlin

Chomsky, Noam (2004), Questions about phases, talk at GLOW 27,

Cinque, Guglielmo (1990), Types of A-bar dependencies, MIT Press,

Hallman, Peter (2004), Symmetry in structure building, Syntax 7

Kayne, Richard (1994), The Antisymmetry of syntax, MIT Press,

Koopman, Hilda, and Anna Szabolcsi (2000), Verbal complexes, MIT Press,

Neeleman, Ad, and Fred Weerman (1999), Flexible syntax, Kluwer,

Pearson, Matthew (2000), The clause structure of Malagasy: a minimalist
approach, PhD dissertation UCLA

Rizzi, Luigi (1990), Relativised minimality, MIT Press, Massachusetts

Vicente, Luis (2004), Derived vs base generated OV, Leiden Working
Papers in Linguistics 1

Zwart, Jan Wouter (1993), Dutch syntax, a minimalist approach, PhD
dissertation University of Groningen
I am a 3rd year PhD student at Leiden University, specialising in
theoretical syntax. I have worked on relativisation, head movement, the
syntax-phonology interface, scrambling, and the structure of OV

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