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Review of Syntax: Structure, Meaning, and Function
[Moderator's note: Due to an inexcusable mistake on are part of the LINGUIST list, the publication of this review has been delayed. Our sincere apologies to Drs Daniliuc and Drs. Van Valin and La Polla.]
Syntax. Structure, meaning and function by Robert D. Van Valin, Jr. & Randy J. LaPolla 1997 Cambridge University Press 714 pages
Reviewed by Laura and Radu Daniliuc
Conveying meanings a language involves a relationship between a stream of sounds and a meaning, and this relationship is mediated by grammar, a heart component of which is syntax. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics presents an introduction to syntactic theory written by Van Valin, Jr. and LaPolla.
Syntax. Structure, Meaning and Function offers an alternative to the standard generative view of the topic and is designed for both introductory and advanced courses in theoretical syntax. The structure of the book is largely based on Role and Reference Grammar and many parts of the theory are elaborated on the basis of the main RRG concepts, such as the layered structure of the clause, semantic macroroles, potential focus domain, pragmatic pivots, juncture and nexus. However, the two authors also present various theories and individual works that fall within this perspective; some of them are mentioned in the epilog: Rijkhoff's theory of noun phrase structure from Functional Grammar, the notion of constructional template adapted from Cognitive Grammar, Lambrecht's theory of information structure, Pustejovsky's theory of nominal qualia, the pragmatic analysis of Kuno, Bolinger and Bickerton, and Jackendoff's opinions on reflexivization.
The general perspective from which this book was written defends the view that the communicative functions of language are central to the analysis of its structure. Language is viewed as an abstract system, one which is nonetheless firmly grounded in human communication and cognition. One (but not the only) function of language is reference and predication, i.e. representing things that happen in the world and the participants involved in these situations. In this view, syntax is not the central aspect of language.
The result is a framework for the analysis of syntax from the communication-and-cognitive perspective. In the same spirit, Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla postulate that grammatical structures are stored as constructional templates, each with a specific set of morphosyntactic, semantic and pragmatic properties, which may be combined with other templates to form more complex structures. RRG assumes that there is a set of syntactic templates representing the possible syntactic structures in the language, which are stored in the 'syntactic inventory', and that there is a separate lexicon containing lexical items, morphemes and other types of lexical entities.
Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla present syntactic phenomena from a wide range of languages (Bambara, Italian, Dyirbal, Japanese, French, Turkish, Lakhota, Thai, Icelandic, Russian, Sama, Mparntwe Arreente, Croatian, and, of course, English). Their goal is two-folded: first, to present an explanatory theory of syntax which can address the major issues in contemporary syntactic theory; and second, to present a descriptive framework which can be used by field linguists for writing grammars.
Each chapter ends with a set of exercises providing practice with the concepts introduced in the text and with some suggestions for further reading. Chapter I deals with the goals of linguistic theory and lays out the theoretical background against which both theoretical and descriptive current work in syntax is carried out. It sketches a set of general goals which the majority of linguists would give assent to: describing linguistic phenomena, explaining linguistic phenomena, and understanding the cognitive basis of language. Chapter II investigates the structure of phrases and clauses in simple sentences. The two authors present a theory of morphosyntactic structure, very much semantically based, which elucidates the structure of simple sentences and noun phrases. Special attention is paid to predicates and their arguments. The universal aspects of the layered structure are based on two oppositions: first, between predicating and non-predicating elements, and second, between those noun phrases or prepositional phrases which are semantic arguments of the predicate and those which are not. Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla states that there are two types of structure: relational, dealing with the relations between one syntactic element and another, be they syntactic, semantic or pragmatic in nature, and non-relational, expressing the hierarchical organization of phrases, clauses and sentences.
Semantic representations are the focus of Chapters III and IV, whose framework is taken from Rispoli's RRG work on the acquisition of verbs in English and Japanese. The reader is presented a classification of the kinds of events, actions and situations that sentences express and of the roles that the participants in these states of affairs may play. Chapter III presents a system of lexical representation for verbs, other predicating elements and their arguments. The logical structures form the basis of the semantic representation for clauses and whole sentences. In this system, thematic relations play no direct role in lexical representation; the relevant semantic properties of verbs are expressed by the decompositional logical structure representations, not by thematic relations. The semantic representation of the predicate in the nucleus is the heart of the semantic representation of the clause as a whole. Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla base their system of lexical decomposition on the distinctions in 'Aktionsart' originally proposed by Vendler.
Chapter IV deals with the notion of 'semantic macrorole' and investigate the semantic representation of non-derived nouns, deverbal derived nominals, possessive phrases and NP adjuncts, and NP operators. It also discusses the lexicon, focusing on what kind of information needs to be represented in lexical entries and in lexical rules. Macroroles are seen as generalizations across the argument-types found with particular verbs that have significant grammatical consequences. They are primarily referred to by grammatical rules. Languages vary as to whether the privileged syntactic argument must be a macrorole or not. Pragmatic relations are the main subject of Chapter V. The authors discuss different kinds of information structure, such as the pragmatic states of referents in the minds of the speech act participants and the pragmatic relations between these referents and the propositions in which they play the role of predicates or arguments. They also talk about focus structure in simple sentences, introducing a distinction between the potential focus domain (the syntactic domain in which the focus element(s) may occur) and the actual focus domain (the actual part of the sentence in focus) of a sentence.
Syntactic relational structure is the main topic of Chapter VI, which focuses on grammatical relations as primitives (underived from anything else) and as derived from other syntactic, semantic or pragmatic phenomenon. Following the distinction proposed by Keenan, the authors argue that grammatical relations have two distinct and in principle independent types of properties: coding properties (case and the other morphological properties, such as verb agreement) and behavioral properties (defining the role of the noun phrase in grammatical constructions). This chapter presents some of the conceptions of grammatical relations proposed by different linguistic theories and the implications for theory and analysis of each of the major conceptions. Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla investigate several languages from the point of view of the universality and comparability of grammatical relations. Their alternative theory of grammatical relations states that grammatical relations exist only where there is a restricted neutralization of semantic or pragmatic relations for syntactic purposes.
Taking into consideration all the information provided in the previous chapters, Chapter VII discusses in detail the linking between syntax and semantics in simple sentences, i.e. between semantic and syntactic representations, which are not derivational. Consequently, Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla examine a wide range of grammatical phenomena: voice, case marking, agreement, reflexivization (both as type of anaphoric phenomenon and as an operation on the argument structure of the verb) and WH-question formation.
The structure of complex sentences and noun phrases is discussed in Chapter VIII. In RRG, the theory of the units is referred to as the theory of juncture, while the theory of relations as the theory of nexus. In this perspective, there are three levels of juncture (nuclear, core and clausal), and three possible nexus relations (possible at all three levels of juncture) among the units in the juncture (coordination, cosubordination, subordination). Based on the data provided in this chapter, Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla state that languages have a category of what they call 'clause-linkage markers' which serve to express important aspects of the syntax and semantics of complex constructions. Based on chapters VII and VIII, Chapter IX investigates how semantic representations and syntactic representations are linked in complex sentences, i.e. linking in different juncture-nexus types, linking in complex noun phrases constructions, especially relative clause constructions, reflexivization in complex constructions. The heart of the grammar is the linking algorithm governing the mapping between semantic representation and syntactic representations. The authors propose an account of the restrictions on the so-called 'long-distance dependencies' involved in WH- question formation, topicalization and relativization.
The epilog, The Goals of Linguistics Revisited, presents a brief survey of issues in language acquisition, which shows that the theory of syntax presented by Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla can serve as an explanatory framework for the analysis of language acquisition and child language. The authors have found enough evidence to argue that the grammatical phenomena are learned on the basis of the initial cognitive endowment presented by Braine, Slobin, Bruner and others, together with the input received by the children from caregivers. This result confirms Van Valin's conviction that grammatical structure can only be understood with reference to its semantic and communicative functions, i.e. to semantics and pragmatics, opinion to which we open- heartedly subscribe.
- ------------ The reviewers - Laura and Radu Daniliuc - Iasi , ROMANIA - are BA in English Language (Linguistics) and Literature, members of SSA, authors of the first complete Romanian translation of F. de Saussure's "Courses" and of other articles on generativism and applied linguistics. Their main interests include: generativism (P&P theory, minimalist structures etc) and computational linguistics. [other info available on request]