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Review of  Subordination in Conversation

Reviewer: Mark Brenchley
Book Title: Subordination in Conversation
Book Author: Ritva Laury Ryoko Suzuki
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 22.4860

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EDITORS: Laury, Ritva and Suzuki, Ryoko
TITLE: Subordination in Conversation
SUBTITLE: A Cross-Linguistic Perspective
SERIES: Studies in Language and Social Interaction 24
YEAR: 2011
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins

Mark Brenchley, PhD Candidate, Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter


Subordination in Conversation (SC, hereafter) comprises a cross-linguistic
collection of articles, each of which analyzes various ''subordination''
constructions as they appear within various corpora of informal conversation.
Utilizing this corpus-based methodology, the individual authors question the
traditional accounts of these constructions and, thereby, traditional approaches
to the nature of subordination more generally. The overall explanatory framework
is functional in nature, with the chosen ''subordinations'' all analyzed in terms
of the communicative purposes they serve within ongoing interactional and
conversational practices.

The first article is Susanne Günthner's 'N-Be-That- Constructions in Everyday
German Conversation'. This queries the classical bi-clausal account of German
''N-be-that-'' structures, which sees them as subordination constructions composed
of a main and complement clause. Focusing on the distribution of the
die-sache-ist/das-ding-ist (''the thing is...'') construction within a small
corpora of everyday conversation, Günthner uses both prosodic and syntactic
evidence - such as the presence/absence of the verb-final word order
characteristic of German subordination structures - to identify three distinct
patterns: (1) Die-sache/Das-ding-ist + subjunctor + subordinate clause; (2)
Die-sache/Das-ding-ist + main clause; and (3) Die-sache/Das-ding-ist + longer
stretch of discourse. As such, Günthner argues that die-sache/das-ding-ist is
actually more appropriately analyzed as a grammaticalized projector phrase. This
phrase serves to frame and focus the interlocutors' attention on the following
''complement'', be it a subordinate clause or a stretch of discourse. Indeed, it
is precisely this 'functional upgrading' (p. 11) of the complement that has
given rise to the three patterns, allowing the following segment to surface
without displaying the traditional syntactic and prosodic markers of dependence.

The second article is Leelo Keevallik's 'Interrogative ''Complements'' and
Question Design in Estonian'. This comprises an analysis of four Estonian
complement-taking predicates (CTPs): (1) ütle (''tell me''); (2) räägi (''tell
me''); (3) ei tea (''I wonder''); and (4) uvitav (''I wonder''). Based on their
patterning within two corpora of contemporary Estonian conversation, Keevallik
argues that the complements selected by these four predicates display syntactic
and prosodic markers of independence, not the dependence that would be
indicative of classical subordination. These markers include, for example, the
fact that the clause following ütle displays word order inversion with respect
to yes/no questions, something that Estonian prohibits within dependent
interrogative clauses. Instead, Keevallik argues that the four CTPs function as
epistemic particles. These are used by the speaker to project his/her
interrogative complements as the informational focus of an utterance. These
complements, in turn, reflect their status as the main information bearer by
surfacing as independent, rather than dependent, clauses.

The third article is Aino Koivisto, Ritva Laury & Eeva-Leena Seppänen's
'Syntactic and Actional Characteristics of Finnish Että-Clauses'. This consists
of a study of Finnish että, analyzed according to its three functions: (1)
complementizer; (2) utterance-initial particle; and (3) turn-final particle. All
three uses, the authors argue, can be unified through their highlighting of some
prior stretch of talk. Furthermore, they argue that their data do not justify
classifying että as a subordinator. Firstly, though subordination is clausal in
nature, the material projected by että often constitutes more a stretch of
discourse than a single clause. Secondly, it seems that what the participants
focus on is not että itself but the linguistic material immediately succeeding
it, something that should not be the case were että being used as a
subordinator. This does not mean that either että, or the CTPs within which it
appears, should thereby be construed as themselves subordinate to any subsequent
linguistic material, however. Rather, these elements carry out independent
metacommunicative actions that serve to strategically manage the framework of
the conversation.

The fourth article is Simona Pekarek Doehler's 'Clause-Combining and the
Sequencing of Actions: Projector Constructions in French Talk-in-Interaction'.
This focuses on three French constructions: (1) je-veux-dire (''I want to say'' +
complement); (2) the il-y-a (''there is'') presentational cleft; and (3)
pseudo-clefts. Against the traditional bi-clausal analysis, Doehler argues that
these constructions are more a 'juxtaposition of two syntactically autonomous
pieces' that are linked prosodically rather than morphosyntactically (p. 125).
Indeed, they seem better understood as grammaticalized projector constructions,
serving to structure the on-going conversation by projecting forthcoming talk
and thereby guiding the participants through the conversation. As such, they
provide support for a view of grammar as emerging through habitualized, if
contingent, patterns of language use deployed in response to particular
communicative circumstances.

The fifth article is Ryoko Suzuki's 'A Note on the Emergence of Quotative
Constructions in Japanese Conversation'. This comprises a diachronic study of
the Japanese quotative particle tte, as found within conversations sampled from
Japanese novels originally written in both the early and late 1800s. In
present-day Japanese, tte surfaces in two ways: as part of a subordinate
complement clause and as an independent, utterance-final pragmatic particle.
Based on the work of Hopper & Traugott (2003), Suzuki notes that we might
therefore suppose the present-day independent use of tte to have developed from
its prior subordinate usage. However, the diachronic data argues this
supposition to be false since there are clear examples of both types of tte from
the outset. Instead, Suzuki suggests, both forms result from the interactional
practices with which tte is associated, with the dependent and independent
versions each allowing speakers to frame relevant information as appropriate
within the immediate communicative context.

The sixth article is Wolfgang Imo's 'Clines of Subordination -- Constructions
with the German ''Complement-Taking Predicate'' Glauben'. This comprises a study
of the specific forms ich-glaube/glaub(e)-ich (''I think'') by which glauben (''to
believe''/''to think'') appears in a corpus of conversational German. Imo uses his
data to query the standard classification of glauben as a classical CTP. If this
classification were accurate, we would expect glauben to be typically employed
as part of a matrix + subordinate clause construction. In fact, Imo's corpus
points to a cline of constructions: (1) a matrix clause followed by a
subordinate clause; (2) a pragmatic particle followed by a main clause; (3) a
modal particle or modal adverb; and (4) fully embedded within the surrounding
clause. According to Imo, these additional uses suggest glauben constructions to
be undergoing processes of re-analysis and grammaticalization, a feature which
he relates to the meaning potentials of the phrases in which glauben appears.
This is particularly so in the case of the inverted structure (that is,
glaub(e)-ich), which appears to be in a state of indeterminacy between different
constructions. Overall, Imo argues that his evidence points to the emergent and
fragmentary nature of language, with users continually reanalyzing various
constructions according to their communicative needs.

The seventh article is Yuko Higashiizumi's 'Are Kara 'Because'-clauses Causal
Subordinate Clauses in Present-Day Japanese?'. This focuses on the analysis of
542 kara-(''because-'') clauses in a corpus that covers around four hundred years
of conversational Japanese. Based on this analysis, Higashiizumi concludes that
the traditional subordinate-coordinate dichotomy of complex clause structures
fails to accurately capture the data at hand. Rather, what is needed, both
synchronically and diachronically, is Hopper & Traugott’s (2003) three-way
continuum of parataxis-hypotaxis-subordination. According to this continuum,
''subordination'' can be approached in terms of increasing degrees of clausal
integration, from the independence of the two clauses (parataxis), through one
of the clauses being dependent on but not embedded within the other (hypotaxis),
to one clause being both dependent on and embedded within the other
(subordination). With this in mind, Higashiizumi further argues that the
historical trend actually opposes the increased subordination that would be
expected according to current accounts, reflecting instead a shift from
subordination to an increasingly paratactic manifestation of kara-clauses.

The eighth, and final article, is Ritva Laury & Shigeko Okamoto's 'Teyuuka and
I-Mean as Pragmatic Parentheticals in Japanese and English'. This comprises a
comparative analysis of Japanese teyuuka and English I-mean, based on their
distributions within a corpus of English conversation and one of Japanese
conversation. Laury & Okamoto claim that, despite differing semantically and
syntactically, both forms operate as pragmatic parentheticals. As such, Japanese
and English seemingly make use of non-identical structural resources to serve
similar pragmatic functions. Moreover, the fact that these functions are not
strictly identical, however broadly similar they might be, can be related to the
specific syntactic and semantic qualities of the two forms within each language.
As such, teyuuka or I-mean cannot be easily subsumed within a single
'cross-linguistically valid, universal category label' (p. 235), a
state-of-affairs which points to the close matching of form and function that is
at work within individual languages.


As might already have been inferred from the summaries above, there is a close
kinship marking the individual articles in SC, one that goes beyond the specific
domain of study itself. Thus, whilst all the articles represent studies of the
relationship between subordination and conversation, strong thematic
continuities also extend throughout (such themes are, to name a few:
''grammar-in-use'', ''grammaticalization'', ''projection'', ''profiling'', ''emergence'',
and ''subordination-as-continuum''), and all are characterized by what appears to
be a construction grammar-framed approach to linguistic analysis (though this is
not always explicitly noted). This is both a strength and weakness of the book.
It is a definite strength in that it allows a holistic sensibility to be built
up as the reader progresses through the various articles, enabling him/her to
see how the arguments might apply cross-linguistically and to get a nuanced feel
for both the overall approach and the individual arguments themselves. It is a
weakness, however, in that SC at times gives the impression of being somewhat
inward-looking, with all the authors singing from the same hymn sheet. As such,
the book would have definitely benefited from the inclusion of critical voices
from alternative, non-construction-based frameworks, perhaps in the form of an
extended commentary section at the back.

This notion of “flipside” strength and weakness can be further extended to SC's
general corpus-based methodology. The natural strength of such a methodology is
the focus it gives to actual language use. This strength is amply on show
throughout the book, as the various articles' analysis of actual conversation
allows them to provide cogent critiques of traditional accounts of individual
''subordinate'' forms, and thereby question the traditional approach to
subordination as a whole. Unfortunately, a reliance on corpora can also be
arbitrarily (and unnecessarily) limiting. Thus, the absence of phrase-internal
use of ''I mean'' in Laury and Okamoto's data is a contributory factor to their
overall argument; yet, such a manifestation was exactly something I caught
myself using several times only recently. As always with corpora, the old adage
would seem applicable here: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Moreover, it is not always clear how genuinely representative the individual
data sets are. For example, Suzuki's corpus is composed of conversations found
within nineteenth century Japanese novels, a corpus which is prima-facie more
one of contrived, rather than actual, conversation. In the case of Günthner's
corpus, this comprises only ninety-one interactions collected over a period of
seventeen years. Whilst the shallow coverage of the corpus is less problematic
for her analysis, in that she provides good evidence that
die-sache-ist/das-ding-ist is actually used in the manner proposed, it is
nevertheless difficult to ascertain how endemic to present-day German such usage
might be.

Finally, there is the ''low key'' nature of the articles, with each focusing on
(at most) a few specific constructions within (mostly) one language. The virtue
of such an approach is clear, particularly given the generally strong individual
analyses through which the articles provide detailed accounts of some extremely
interesting data. However, the specific nature of the studies means that,
despite the thematic similarities, it is tricky to fully situate each
construction within the overall context of the language under study (which is
surely more than one construction). Hence, it is also difficult to get an
insight into the pervasiveness and full import of these kinds of structures
(together with their full implications for understanding subordination), either
within that specific language or across several languages.

Nevertheless, this discussion, though couched in terms of the counterbalanced
strengths and weaknesses of SC, is not intended to undermine the general value
of the book, which I would recommend. As already noted, the analyses presented
are both interesting and insightful, and all highlight the value of studying
actual language use in its specific context of use. Moreover, in their
questioning of traditional accounts and provision of alternative analyses, the
authors clearly highlight the need for giving further empirical thought to the
nature and place of subordination within grammatical systems. Subordination,
simply put, remains a central and yet to be fully understood topic within
linguistic theory.

In terms of readership, SC will be of interest to those seeking a more
comprehensive and critical view of subordination based on cross-linguistic data,
particularly those inclined to treat grammatical phenomena as emerging from the
way language is put to use. It will also be of interest to anyone concerned with
the implications of modality for analyzing language, and specifically, the
manner in which language-users combine clauses in order to frame and structure
ongoing conversations.


Hopper, P. J. & Traugott, E. C. (2003) Grammaticalization (2nd edition).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mark Brenchley is a beginning PhD student at the University of Exeter. His research comprises a study of the developmental relationship between spoken and written syntax during the secondary phase of the English national curriculum.