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Review of  Grammaticalization as Economy

Reviewer: Heiko Narrog
Book Title: Grammaticalization as Economy
Book Author: Elly van Gelderen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Book Announcement: 16.1218

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Date: Sun, 17 Apr 2005 18:56:21 +0900
From: Heiko Narrog <>
Subject: Grammaticalization as Economy

AUTHOR: van Gelderen, Elly
TITLE: Grammaticalization as Economy
SERIES: Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 71
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

Heiko Narrog, Tohoku University


In its development from the 1970s to the 1990s, grammaticalization theory
as part of cognitive and functional language theories was frequently used
as a cornerstone to demonstrate the (alleged) inadequacy of formal
theories for the explanation of grammar. The distinction between
synchronic structure and diachrony was called into question, as was, in
some approaches, the idea of grammatical structure altogether. In formal
frameworks, on the other hand, historical linguistics appears to lead a
marginal existence. The relevance of diachronic data for the core of
linguistic theory has always been disputed. Especially the validity of
grammaticalization as a concept in linguistic theory has been seriously
questioned (e.g. Newmeyer 1998). Formal studies of grammaticalization,
thus, sit on the fence so to speak, being the potential object of
suspicion from both camps in linguistic theory. Solid research, such as
presented in the book under review, is the best means to counter such
skepticism. Van Gelderen seeks to explain grammaticalization as being
driven structurally by two Economy Principles in Minimalist theory,
namely "Head over Spec" and "Late Merge." While the former might be
unfamiliar to many readers, the latter covers the most canonical examples
of grammaticalization including auxiliation. Van Gelderen manages to come
up with a fresh perspective on the phenomena she deals with in both cases,
as I hope will become clear in the following section.


The book consists of four parts divided into 13 chapters. The first part
(Chapters 1 and 2) is introductory, the second part (Chapters 3 to 6)
deals with grammaticalization in the complementizer phrase (CP), the third
part (Chapters 7 to 11) discusses grammaticalization in the inflection
phrase (IP) and verb phrase (VP), and the last part (Chapters 12 and 13)
offers some conclusions and a summary.

In Part 1, the author outlines some basic concepts for her study. She
introduces the concept of layers in Minimalism and relates them to clause
combining and grammaticalization. The above named CP in a minimalist
framework corresponds to an "outer or discourse layer" in functional
terms. In addition there are the IP layer, which contains functional
categories internal to the clause, such as tense, aspect, and mood, and
the VP layer, which mainly involves lexical verbs and their arguments.
Cross-clausal grammaticalization, then, is change towards higher
integration, or "increasing interdependence" of two clauses, proceeding
from the CP layer to the VP layer. The explanation of such change within
the minimalist framework is the goal of the book. Van Gelderen claims that
grammaticalization, as long as it is not externally motivated, is driven
by two Economy Principles. The first is the Head Preference or Spec to
Head Principle, saying "Be a head, rather than a phrase." Checking between
two heads is thought to be more economical than between a specifier (Spec)
and a head. Thus, pronouns, which unlike nouns have the ability to
function as heads, prefer to do just that, rather than being a full
phrase. With respect to diachronic change and grammaticalization, words go
from Spec to head and not vice versa. The second principle (Late Merge
Principle) says "Merge as late as possible." The reasoning behind this
principle is that it is less economical to merge early and then move than
to merge late. If, for instance, a verb does not contribute to argument
structure any more (that is, is auxiliarized), it will prefer to move up
the tree to a higher position rather than stay in place (merge early) and
move up later. The major part of the rest of the book is dedicated to
demonstrate how these two principles (allegedly) explain
grammaticalization, particularly cross-clausal grammaticalization.

Part 2 first outlines the structure of the CP in Modern English, Old
English, and cross-linguistically, and then elaborates on changes in the
English CP that illustrate the two Economy Principles. The main evidence
for the diachronic operation of the Head Preference principle comes
from "that", which changed from what was probably a pure demonstrative
pronoun (that is Spec) to the generalized relative pronoun and
complementizer (that is head) in Middle English. As throughout the book,
Van Gelderen also shortly discusses how positions that have been
abandoned, so to speak, through the grammaticalization of elements
previously occupying them are filled by new elements. In the case of the
Spec position of the CP, no longer occupied by "that", the wh-pronouns
moved in starting at around the 12th century. This replenishing of
structural positions is explained as due to external influences, in this
case "language contact and possibly innovative tendencies" (p. 89), and is
not subject to the Economy Principles. The main example for Late Merge in
the CP is the rise of the split CP in Middle English, discussed in Chapter
5 (Van Gelderen argues that the Old English CP of embedded clauses is non-
split). This, according to Van Gelderen, was prompted on the one hand by
the complementizers "for", "till", and "that", climbing to higher
positions in the structure, and on the other hand by the incorporation of
(multiple) topics in the CP. In the last chapter of this part, Van
Gelderen lists a catalogue of grammaticalization of complementizers from
the lexical classes of nouns, verbs, adverbs and prepositions, and in
structural terms, from inflection, determiner, and lower ranking
complementizers in different languages.

In Part 3, a structural analysis of the VP and IP is provided and
diachronic change within these layers, mainly change in terms of the Late
Merge principle is discussed. Examples examined in some detail include the
grammaticalization of the English modals, the grammaticalization of
perception verbs (specifically "see") to ASP position, and the change from
inner aspect (located within the VP) to outer aspect (IP) from Old to
Modern English. Giving a detailed account of these chapters within the
limits of this review is not possible, but it should be mentioned that it
is hard not to be impressed by how Van Gelderen provides a fresh
perspective on some of these well-known historical facts, making use of a
large pool of language data from corpora, and referring to the most recent
developments in research. The grammaticalization of the English modals,
for instance, is a paradigm example for grammaticalization in general. The
relationship of modals with aspectuality in this context, however, is a
topic that, to my knowledge, has come to attention only rather recently
(e. g. Abraham 2002a). Van Gelderen convincingly argues that, within the
minimalist model, the English deontic modals have come to compete with
aspectual markers for the ASP structural position, while epistemic modals
must be base-generated in Mood (M). Chapter 10 somewhat differs from the
rest in that it contains an example of a so-called parameter switch. Again
quite convincingly, Van Gelderen shows that English switched from having
aspect as unmarked (i. e. the unmarked verb form having aspectual value),
like other Germanic languages, to tense as unmarked. Generative theory
demands that parameter "switches" occur abruptly in contrast to changes
motivated by principles, and accordingly Van Gelderen argues this "switch"
indeed occurred quite sudddenly in the 19th century. From the data she
presents, however, it rather appears that the change was a gradual one and
had in fact taken hundreds of years, going back to the 13th century and
the demise of the old aspectual system.

The last chapter of Part 4 sums up the data presented in the first three
parts. In addition, the preceding Chapter 12 discusses a question that
goes beyond the immediate scope of the book, namely how the "genius", so
to speak, of English has changed over the centuries. Van Gelderen suggests
that Old English and Modern English differ with the respect to the "Layer
Parameter." While in Old English, as, for instance, in Modern Chinese or
Navajo as well, the VP layer is more elaborate and more important to
grammatical structure, in Modern English the balance has shifted to the CP
and IP layer. She further proposes that the Layer Parameter may be only
derivative of another feature, namely whether a language is a Pronominal
Argument Language (PAL) or not. Old English, according to her, is a
partial PAL, and the concomitant characteristics, such as pro-drop,
minimal embedding etc. entail that Old English is a VP language.


Van Gelderen's book comes with a clear agenda. The author is out to prove
that grammaticalization, as far as language-internal change is concerned,
is unidirectional and is driven by two Economy Principles, Spec to Head
and Late Merge. The book is structured very consequentially with the goal
to bring home these points. Van Gelderen makes use of an impressive range
of language data. Both synchronically and diachronically she frequently
presents statistics from corpora, such as the British National Corpus and
the Helsinki Corpus, in addition to various Old English and Middle English
text sources. She displays an impressive knowledge and understanding of
not only of the current discussion in generative theory but also of some
important functional-typological contributions to grammaticalization
studies (e. g. Heine and Kuteva 2002), and of the accompanying cross-
linguistic data as well. Everybody working with historical data knows how
fuzzy and elusive they can be (and most often are). Thus it is unavoidable
that many of the author's interpretations are open to contention. However,
Van Gelderen always makes a valid effort to provide the best possible
evidence for her analyses. In summary, as a historical linguist, it is
hard not to be enthusiastic about this book. In fact, having finished
reading this book, the present reviewer almost felt elated by so much fine

The evaluation of the relevance of this book to grammaticalization theory,
on the other hand, will largely depend on the theoretical perspective. To
accept the two Economy Principles as "explanations" for grammatical change
presupposes firm formalist convictions. Functionalists will see here
nothing more than a good description of the linguistic facts in terms of a
specific framework and will demand to know the motivations behind these
principles. Also, to functionalists the fact that "internal"
and "external" change are being treated separately, and that the theory
only takes responsibility for the former type of change will seem
unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Van Gelderen's
study offers a lot to learn for everyone interested in grammaticalization

However, it is to be feared that the book may not be appreciated to the
extent that it deserves. The main reason is that it is not quite as reader-
friendly as one would wish it to be, particularly for readers with a
different theoretical background (which constitute the majority of
the "grammaticalization community"). Some minimalist concepts referred to
in the book are explained for the general readership, some aren't. Perhaps
this is unavoidable. Then, I feel that, in light of the goals and the
general theoretical orientation of the book, the author is unnecessarily
parsimonious with structural analyses (be it in linear form or in the
shape of trees), particularly analyses of the example sentences given.
This tendency is especially conspicuous in Part 2, that part of the book
which discusses data presumably less familiar to the readership. There are
frequent cross-references between the chapters, but they are only given in
terms of chapter and section instead of the concrete number of the example
referred to, which I feel would have been more appropriate in many cases.
Sometimes, one would have wished that examples from an earlier chapter
were repeated later at the place where they become relevant to the
discussion again, instead of being abstractly referred to a previous
chapter or section. Perhaps this parsimony with respect to structural
analyses and examples was due to real-life economic constraints. Overall,
I feel that the book might have been more accessible if Parts 2 and 3 were
transposed, starting with the well-known canonical cases of VP/IP
grammaticalization described in Part 3, and then moving on to the less
familiar data in Part 2. There are a limited number of typos and stylistic
errors which are perhaps not worth mentioning here one by one. The
glossing of the Old English data appears to be inconsequential. One finds
a recurrent switch between redundant glossing for person and number as
in "hath" - "has-3S" (pl. 86) and correct glossing as in "loveth" - "love-
3S" (same page), or in "wite" - "knows" (p. 85).

Of course, these are all really minor quibbles. Overall, this is a most
admirable piece of scholarship. Together with Roberts and Roussou (2003),
Van Gelderen's book may usher in a new era of interest in
grammaticalization from a formal perspective. Functional research on
grammaticalization would definitely profit from this as well.


Abraham, Werner (2002a) Modal Verbs: Epistemics in English and German. In
Barbiers et al. (2002b), 19-50..

Barbiers, Sjef et al. (eds.) (2002b) Modality and its Interaction with the
Verbal System. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Heine, Bernd and Tania Kuteva (2002) World Lexicon of Grammaticalization.
Cambrige: Cambridge University Press.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. (1998) Language Form and Language Function.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Bradford Books.

Roberts, Ian and Anna Roussou (2003) Syntactic Change: A Minimalist
Approach to Grammaticalization, Cambridge University Press.


Heiko Narrog is an associate professor at Tohoku University, Japan. His
research interests include historical linguistics, syntax and semantics,
modality, linguistic typology, and the Japanese language.