Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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Editors: Auer, Peter and Pfänder, Stefan Title: Constructions: Emerging and Emergent Series Title: De Gruyter linguae & litterae / Publications of the School of Language and Literature Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies 6 Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton YEAR: 2011
Thomas Hoffmann, University of Osnabrück
Ever since Chomsky’s ''Aspects of the Theory of Syntax'' (1965), the competence-performance dichotomy has played a central role in syntactic research: On the one hand, mainstream generative grammarians claim that performance is influenced by “memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest and errors (random and characteristic)” (Chomsky 1965: 3) and they therefore focus only on competence (mainly by eliciting introspection data). On the other hand, several researchers have pointed out that performance is in fact much more systematic and rule-governed than mainstream generative grammarians assume (Aarts 1991; Sampson 2001). Indeed, as the papers of the present volume argue, there are a great number of syntactic phenomena that can only be adequately described and explained once their real, on-line use in actual discourse is taken into account.
''Constructions: Emerging and Emergent'' is a collection of papers that explicitly look at syntactic phenomena in interaction. All of the authors adopt an approach that treats language as a dynamic system and an adaptive resource in interaction. Moreover, central to the volume are Hopper’s notion of grammar as an emergent system as well as form-meaning pairings, i.e. constructions, as elementary building blocks of grammar.
In the first contribution, ''Constructions: Emergent or emerging'' (pp. 1-21), the editors, Peter Auer and Stefan Pfänder, provide an introduction to the central topics and themes of the volume. In particular, they give an overview of the concept of emergence outside the field of linguistics as well as Hopper’s notion of emergent grammar. As they point out, emergent grammar for Hopper (e.g. 1987, 1998, 2004) is not a stable system that exists outside of language use. Instead, speakers’ previous experiences are claimed to be constantly updated in and adapted to specific interactional encounters. Closely related are approaches that focus on the results of these online adaptations and on how these diachronically affect the speakers’ mental representations (an approach which Hopper calls ‘emerging grammar’). However, Auer and Pfänder argue that the differences between emergent and emerging grammar approaches might not be as great as suggested by Hopper. In particular, they stress that emerging structures are sedimented fragments that have been entrenched through emergent interaction. Auer and Pfänder outline the role of ‘constructions,’ i.e. pairings of form and meaning, which they treat as emergent gestalts (prefabricated syntactic templates that arise through interaction). Finally, Auer and Pfänder give an overview of the various chapters of the volume.
The first of these contributions is Paul Hopper’s ‘Emergent grammar and temporality in interactional linguistics’ (pp. 22-44). Hopper emphasises how temporality in interaction crucially shapes constructions. In particular, he looks at the ''such a/an'' construction (''Sam … has taken such an interest in this retirement bit … That it- it really surprises me'', p.31) and sluicing (''They argued but I don’t know what about.'') in emergent discourse. He explores ‘structuration’ (i.e. emergence) of constructions in context, particularly the creative and interactional meaningful blending of fixed formulae (which allow the hearer to project potentially following constructions at any point in time).
Simona Pekarek Doehler turns to left and right dislocation constructions in French in her article ‘Emergent grammar for all practical purposes’ (pp. 45-87). She shows the inadequacy of movement analyses, highlighting instead the different discourse management functions of these two structures in on-line syntax: left-dislocated elements can be used as try markers, i.e. attempts to elicit a response indicating recognition from the hearer before the speaker continues (A: ''l’acqua B: ouais A: …on sait que c’est de l’eau'' ‘A: water B: yeah A: …one knows that it's PARTITIVE water’; p. 59). Right-dislocated elements, on the other hand, reemphasise a turn-relevant point that the hearer did not pick up on (A: ''et tu le détestes'' (longer pause) … ''euh: ton: parent qui a- … dé vié'' ‘and you hate him (longer pause) … your parent who has gotten on the wrong track’; p. 70). Thus, right-dislocated elements can be added to utterances if a speaker wants to indicate that he or she requires feedback from the hearer. Consequently, it is the recurrent interactional needs that lead to the entrenchment of these constructional schemata.
Turn-taking also plays an important role in Arnulf Deppermann’s ‘Constructions vs. lexical items as sources of complex meanings’ (88-126). Deppermann investigates the interplay of lexical meaning potential and on-going adaptations within real-time conversations, focusing on two German constructions with ''verstehen'' ‘know/understand’ (''Verstehst du?'' ‘Do you understand?’ and ''(Noun Phrase) nicht verstehen (können) (Complement Clause)'' ‘can/do not understand (Noun Phrase/Complement Clause)’. He stresses that the instantiations of both constructions have a wide range of discourse functions (including signalling concern of insufficient hearer uptake, problems of formulation or refocusing in the case of ''Verstehst du?'' or pre-disagreement and reproach in the ''(Noun Phrase) nicht verstehen (können) (Complement Clause)'' construction). This, he argues, implies that constructions do not have a single, fixed meaning, but that they instead are flexible schemata with abstract meaning potentials.
In ‘Online changes in syntactic gestalts in spoken German’ (pp. 127-155), Wolfgang Imo explores the question of how often garden-path sentences actually occur in everyday interaction and whether they cause any problems of understanding at all. He maintains that neither lexical nor syntactic ambiguity is a common phenomenon in modern German, potentially due to the disambiguating role of inflectional morphology. More importantly, real ambiguities do not seem to cause major communication problems since hearers always project multiple potential continuations that even allow the resolution of apokoinu/pivot structures in which two apparently independent constructions are merged into a single utterance (cf. e.g. the blend in [da hat se GSAGT,]A [ja SCHÖNheit muss leiden]B [hat die KUH zu mir gsagt]C ‘[then she said] A [well beauty has to suffer] B [this cow said to me]C’ (p. 144, in which the sequences A-B and B-C are both well-formed quotative strings).
Structures that combine entrenched and open parts are the topic of Susanne Günthner’s paper (‘Between emergence and sedimentation’; pp. 156-185). Günthner examines three ‘bi-clausal’ constructions in German, pseudo-clefts, ''Die Sache/das Ding ist …'' (‘the thing/point is …’) and extraposition with ''es'' (‘it’), all of which start out with a relatively fixed, sedimented part, which is followed by a fairly open schematic slot. These entrenched parts have a range of conventional functions, such as floor-keeping or the expression of speaker stance. On top of that, however, the first clause also has an important role in allowing the hearer to project the structure to come and helping the speaker in his temporal, on-line discourse management.
Thiemo Breyer, Oliver Ehmer and Stefan Pfänder look at ‘Improvisation, temporality and emergent constructions’ (pp. 186-217) in situated interaction. They are mainly concerned with the creative adaptation, aka improvisation, of pre-fabs in collaborative story-telling. As they point out, the specific temporality of discourse opens up the possibility of joint language play. Thus discourse participants can pick up on previous utterances in the conversation or common cultural background and together improvise on these structures. Means available to speakers for this include analogy and montage, i.e. the combination of different elements into new and unexpected entities by e.g. blending constructional templates.
The next paper, by Peter Auer and Jan Lindström, ‘Verb-first conditionals in German and Swedish: Convergence in writing, divergence in speaking’ (pp. 218-262) is the only one that contrasts constructions in spoken and written registers. Drawing on comparative corpus data of German and Swedish, they find that the conditional V1 construction is used frequently in written German, while it surfaces only rarely in spoken German. In contrast to this, the construction is widely used in both spoken and written registers in Swedish. As Auer and Lindström argue, this difference in distribution can be explained by the fact that V1 structures in German are used for a greater number of alternative structures and thus only allow for a weak projection of the conditional meaning. In Swedish, on the other hand, the construction is semantically much more focussed on the conditional interpretation and thus allows for a more reliable projection.
Dagmar Barth-Weingarten and Elisabeth Couper-Kuhlen take a close look at the interaction of ‘Action, prosody and emergent constructions’ (pp. 263-292). They contend that it is not only the frequency and syntactic / semantic cohesion of strings that leads to their entrenchment. They suggest that togetherness in action (as e.g. part of a turn-at-talk) and prosodic/phonetic form play a crucial role. Based on the findings on VP conjunction in a corpus of American telephone conversations, Barth-Weingarten and Couper-Kuhlen argue that the closer the prosodic unity of VP conjunctions (with respect to e.g. intonation and timing), the greater the ‘togetherness of action’ (p. 264) and consequently the more likely the entrenchment of a conjoined VP string will be.
‘On the emergence of adverbial connectives from Hebrew relative clause constructions’ (pp. 293-331) by Yael Maschler is the last contribution to the volume. Maschler notes that, according to prescriptive grammars, relative clauses in Modern Hebrew must be introduced by the proclitic complementizer ''she-'' and contain a resumptive element (pronoun, inflected preposition or verbal inflection, depending on the syntactic function that is relativized). Only in subject and object relative clauses is it considered acceptable to leave resumptive pronouns unrealised. Yet, in his corpus of casual Hebrew conversation, he finds that it is adverbial complements that exhibit the greatest proportion of such ‘empty’ pronouns. As a closer look at these tokens reveals, many contain a head noun that is fairly semantically empty (e.g. rega ‘minute’). According to Maschler, this, and the fact that ''she-'' is generally used as a subordinator in Hebrew, has lead to a reanalysis of the antecedent noun + relativizer ''she-'' sequence as a single temporal connective word that introduces a temporal adverbial clause.
''Constructions: Emerging and Emergent'' is a coherent, well-edited volume that should be of great interest to linguists working with usage-based frameworks, Construction and Cognitive Grammarians as well as researchers working on interaction and discourse analysis. All contributions show that a careful, qualitative analysis of authentic corpus data allows researchers to better understand the formal and functional properties of constructions as well as their use in discourse. This is particularly important since many Construction Grammarians, despite drawing on corpus data, still only analyse decontextualized sentences. As the results from the various articles of ''Constructions: Emerging and Emergent'' indicate, however, such an approach might fail to uncover crucial features of constructions such as e.g. their prosody or discourse management functions.
At the same time, the purely qualitative approach taken by more than half of the authors also has certain drawbacks. For example, Breyer, Ehmer and Pfänder’s contribution basically rests on the exemplary analysis of two conversation extracts, which obviously raises the question of whether or not one can generalize the findings from so small a database. Now, Breyer, Ehmer and Pfänder consider their paper to be an explorative one, which might justify their approach. Many of the other papers, however, also face the same problem. All the examples discussed do indeed seem to exhibit diverse functions such turn-taking and -yielding, eliciting hearer feedback, pre-disagreement and reproach or the expression of speaker stance. Yet, one wonders how many of these functions are statistically frequent enough to become sedimented. In order to answer this question, I would suggest supporting the findings with quantitative corpus studies. Note that this does not mean that I deny that single utterances can emerge by the creative assembly of constructions that have never been combined before. As Hopper points out (and Günther convincingly shows in her contribution), however, language use largely consists of combining existing pre-fabs (sedimented formulaic pieces with open slots and fixed expressions). Consequently, quantitative, statistical analyses would enable researchers to specify how much of their data can be explained by, for example, discourse management functions and how many tokens are in fact creative, one-off on-line constructs (this holds for the papers by Auer and Pfänder, Hopper, and Pekarek Doehler) or how frequent garden-path ambiguities are per construction type (cf. the contribution by Imo).
On the positive side, four contributions to the volume already take such an approach and also include quantitative data on their phenomenon under investigation (namely, Deppermann; Auer and Lindström; Barth-Weingarten and Couper-Kuhlen; Maschler). Of these, Auer and Lindström’s paper is probably the best example of how a careful combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches can yield insights into the use of a construction well beyond what the individual methods would have allowed. The only thing missing from their paper is a statistical analysis of their data. In fact, only one paper in the volume, the one by Barth-Weingarten and Couper-Kuhlen, reports statistical results (and these, unfortunately, seem flawed: for their Table 1 (p. 280), they find two significant factor combinations, yet a chi-square test of the analysable tokens in the table only gives an insignificant result of X-squared = 4.39, df = 2, p-value > 0.10). Overall, this is somewhat disappointing in that, as argued above, the great number of potentially relevant variables clearly warrant statistical investigation.
Despite these points of criticism, ''Constructions: Emerging and Emergent'' is an important volume that combines discourse and interactional approaches with a Construction Grammar perspective. It contains a great number of findings and raises many new questions that should spawn further research. Especially linguists working in the usage-based Construction Grammar framework should take great interest in the volume since it alerts them to the importance of formal and functional properties of constructions beyond the sentence-level.
Aarts, Jan. 1991. Intuition-based and observation-based grammars. In Karin Aijmer and Bengt Altenberg (eds.), English Corpus Linguistics. London/New York: Longman, 44-62.
Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Hopper, Paul. 1987. Emergent Grammar. Berkley Linguistic Society 13. 139-157.
Hopper, Paul. 1998. Emergent Grammar. In Michael Tomasello, ed. The new psychology of language. Mahwah, NJ. 155-175.
Hopper, Paul. 2004. The openness of grammatical constructions. Chicago Linguistic Society 40. 153-175.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Thomas Hoffmann is Assistant Professor at the University of Osnabrück. His
main research interests are usage-based Construction Grammar, synchronic
syntactic variation, and World Englishes. He has published articles in
international journals such as Cognitive Linguistics, English World-Wide
and Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory. His monograph 'Preposition
Placement in English' (2011) was published by Cambridge University Press
and the 'Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar' (co-edited with Graeme
Trousdale) will appear later this year. Currently, he is writing a textbook
on 'Construction Grammar: The Structure of English' for the Cambridge
Textbooks in Linguistics series.