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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AUTHORS: Baerman, Matthew; Brown, Dunstan; Corbett, Greville G. TITLE: The Syntax-Morphology Interface SUBTITLE: A Study of Syncretism SERIES: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 109 PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2005
Reviewed by Matthew L. Juge, Department of Modern Languages, Texas State University-San Marcos
This monograph, which is aimed at professional linguists working primarily in formal synchronic morphology, addresses the issue of syncretism, the phenomenon whereby one form serves where two or more might be expected, as in English, where ''cut~cut~cut'' contrasts with ''drive~drove~driven''. The authors explore the notion of syncretism, its history within linguistics, and how it is manifested cross-linguistically. They then move on to critically evaluate previous attempts at formalizing syncretism. Subsequently they propose their own analysis in the framework of Network Morphology. Finally they offer a brief conclusion. The book also features associated online materials.
The authors start from the premise that syncretism is a problem at the interface between syntax and morphology. In the introduction they lay out the scope of their investigation along a number of parameters, including what counts as syncretism and their typological methodology. The authors do not, however, address objections to the methodology of typological sampling, such as those raised by Newmeyer (1998: Ch. 6), who argues that uncertainty about the nature of areal influence, problems in sample construction, and difficulties in establishing significance renders typological research an uncertain affair. Chapter 1 also explains how the book relates to data available online in the thirty-language Surrey Syncretisms Database.
In Chapter 2, drawing heavily on Slavic data along with data from a variety of other languages, the authors present types of syncretic paradigms, starting with ''simple syncretism'', where ''two or more cells with different values for a feature are merged'' (p. 13). They contrast this with other types of syncretism, such as nested syncretism, which involves compounding simple syncretism in different contexts. They proceed to address the issue of comparison across paradigm types by offering an example of the interactions of person with morphological classes and feature values such as case, person, gender, number, tense-aspect-mood, voice, and negation. They next examine morphological characteristics of syncretism, focusing on regularity (whether the pattern appears in multiple contexts), directionality (whether the pattern of a syncretism depends on the values of other forms involved), and unmarkedness (whether the syncretism is related to morphologically unmarked forms). In exploring the typology of interpretation of syncretism, the authors identify neutralization, which they characterize as ''the irrelevance of the feature in question for syntax'' (p. 30). They also discuss uninflectedness, which ''involves total absence of distinctions for a given feature'' (p. 32). Having examined these two, they offer this formal definition of canonical syncretism (p. 34):
i. There is, in certain contexts, a loss of distinctions between some but not all values of a particular feature F. This loss may depend on the presence of a particular combination of values of one or more other features (the context).
ii. Other syntactic objects distinguish those values of feature F, and they are therefore syntactically relevant.
In the conclusion of Chapter 2, the authors emphasize the patterned nature of syncretism and provide a hint of what challenges a satisfactory analysis must meet.
Chapter 3 goes into substantially more detail, offering nearly 90 pages of discussion of syncretism in cross-linguistic typological perspective. The authors consider a range of features typical to nominal and verbal elements with analysis not only of Indo-European languages but also of languages from other families based on data from their own databases and the ''World Atlas of Language Structures'', along with supplementation by specific languages to illustrate particular points. In this chapter they explore the idea that case syncretism may reveal an underlying semantic network, which is part of their examination of the relationship between syncretism and semantics. For each feature the authors systematically consider types and patterns of syncretism within that feature.
Chapter 4 proceeds with an examination of the factors involved in establishing a satisfactory formal representation of syncretism. Starting somewhat abstractly, the authors move to an analysis of several earlier attempts to formalize syncretism, whose strengths and weaknesses they then discuss before finally pointing towards their approach.
They lay out their formal analysis in Chapter 5 using Network Morphology. They provide a brief discussion of this framework and then apply their model in some detail to three case studies. Finally Chapter 6 offers a very brief conclusion.
The authors are generally quite thorough in their presentation and analysis. One peculiarity, however, presents itself early on, viz. the small role of syntax in the discussion. In light of the book's title, it seems odd that the term ''syntax'' does not appear in the index and an informal count shows six instances of it. Perhaps some explanation for the lack of emphasis on syntax would have been appropriate towards the beginning of the book.
To a large extent the book's argument does not depend upon contradicting or developing the ideas of other scholars so much as gathering data and providing a framework for interpreting that data. This is especially so in Chapter 3, the longest in the book, although I do not mean to suggest that the authors disregard the work of other scholars. Quite to the contrary. The next two chapters, however, feature more of the traditional pattern of presenting ideas proposed by others, evaluating and critiquing them, and setting forth an alternative. That alternative depends on Network Morphology, to which they provide an introduction for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, however, they do not explain the system that they use to represent the networks used in their analysis. They present analyses in DATR, but do not explain whether this name is an acronym, how this notation relates to other methods of formal representation, or the history of this system. One of the keys to their analysis is that, unlike some other approaches, they do not treat affixes as having lexical entries, which they argue would require encoding the range of irregularity into the affixes themselves. The Network Morphology framework, with its system of default inheritance, avoids such difficulties.
The authors could have provided more rationale for their choice of Network Morphology for their analysis. While they make it clear that some other formalizations are inadequate, they do not explain why other well-developed frameworks employing inheritance, such as Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) or Construction Grammar, are inadequate to the task. This may be related to a broader fact about linguistic theories, namely that, given the complexity of language, it is difficult if not impossible to sufficiently specify aspects of a given theory so as to apply it to new data and be reasonably certain about the outcome.
While their formalization does appear to model the data better than the others that they analyze for the cases that they present, the dense text sometimes makes the argument difficult to follow, primarily because a number of passages offer rather few examples that the reader can use to evaluate their claims. For instance, the Dalabon case study in Chapter 5 includes only one example with both a lexical stem and affixes, although the other two case studies, especially the Russian one, are better in this regard. At 222 pages, the book is certainly not overly long and could benefit from further exemplification as well as more detailed sketches of the morphosyntactic systems of the languages analyzed to better contextualize the data presented. Some of this material, however, is included in the associated online material.
In addressing how syncretic patterns might be formalized, the authors seem to assume, as most of their readers might as well, that such formalization is inherently worthwhile. It would be interesting to have a discussion of how their model might apply to language processing—either by humans or machines—or to pedagogy. Another direction left largely unexplored is diachrony, which presumably could be examined in the case of some languages examined here, such as Latin and Russian. This aspect of their approach is amplified by their explicit discounting of what they call ''accidental homophony'', or syncretism resulting from phonological patterns. As an example, they provide Russian, where /a/ and /o/ are both realized as schwa when unstressed in word-final position, thus leading to phonologically different forms that are phonetically identical. However it seems clear that this type of pattern may be a precursor to what they call ''systematic homophony'', or canonical syncretism.
As syncretism can be thought of as a kind of overlap between parts of the system, it would be interesting to see how the authors would analyze what I have termed overlapping suppletion (Juge 1999). This is the phenomenon whereby forms of one lexeme are ''shared'' by another lexeme, as in the verbs meaning ''to go'' and ''to be'' in the Ibero-Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician) and in the verbs meaning ''to go'' and ''to come'' in the Rhaeto-Romance (RR) languages. Here several paradigms can overlap across two lexemes. For example Spanish ''fue'' can mean 'she was' or 'she went', while Surmeiran (RR) ''ia vign'' can mean 'I go' or 'I come'.
Though the title refers to the syntax-morphology interface, the phonology-morphology interface is also sometimes at issue, as mentioned above. In some cases the authors do not appear to have thoroughly worked out how these parts of the grammar interact. Consider their brief introduction to default inheritance in Chapter 5. They show a diagram of five English verbs, ''love'', ''do'', ''mow'', ''sew'', and ''be'', the last three of which they identify as members of the EN_VERB category. A quick search for the phrases ''had mowed'' and ''had mown'' on Google™ returned 23,700 and 571 results, respectively. The verb ''be'', furthermore, has different vowels in the base form and in the participle in some dialects. Both of these facts suggest that the authors have not adequately considered dialect variation. The category of ''-en'' verbs is further complicated by the existence of verbs like ''drive'' and ''rise'' on the one hand and ''give'' on the other, the first two showing different vowels in the base and participial forms, and the latter showing the same vowel in both.
Syncretism opens the door for a variety of questions about the nature of lexemes and paradigms that the authors touch on only briefly. Addressing issues like these would place their study in a broader context, making it appeal to a wider audience.
These concerns raise the question of how this research differs from puzzle solving and whether formalizing these patterns illustrates the nature of the model or better explains the data. In more general terms, we might ask what the difference is between accounting for the data and explaining it.
4. ONLINE MATERIAL
At the book refers the reader to a number of associated web sites. These materials vary in user-friendliness. The extensive annotated bibliography, listing 100 references on syncretism, is of immediate potential use. The more technical offerings would be more helpful with further explanation. The two databases have the potential to be quite useful.
5. MINOR ISSUES
In this section I pick a few nits that affect the usability of the book. Occasionally the authors use unexpected terminology without explanation. For example, they use the term ''two-place verb'' to denote not transitive verbs but rather verbs with both subject and object marking.
Unfortunately, aside from the occasional typo, there are a few surprising errors in the book. Perhaps most notable is the fact that Jerzy Kuryłowicz's surname is misspelled two different ways, one appearing in the text twice and the other once in the index of authors (it is spelled correctly in the references). One chart (p. 24) identifies the Latin noun ''stella'' 'star' as belonging to the second declension, rather than the first, while another chart (p. 46) labels singular forms as plural and an ablative form as locative. Some of these errors make the book harder to use, as when the reader is referred to §1.4.2 rather than §1.3.2 (p. 19) or when insufficient labeling of the words in the Ingush phrase 'big village' prevents the reader from knowing which is the noun and which the adjective (p. 53). Overall, these problems do not greatly distract the reader.
I recommend this book for formal morphologists interested in modeling specific morphological problems like syncretism. Such researchers will also likely benefit from the associated online materials. Those drawn to the book by the title's reference to the interaction between syntax and morphology will find little discussion on that topic. For linguists interested in language universals and linguistic typology in the broader sense, the narrow focus of the book may render it less appealing. Historical linguists interested in the development of irregularity will find relatively little along those lines here. However, the questions raised by the book, both explicitly and implicitly, suggest fruitful directions for future research. Finally, the generally meticulous research method employed by the authors serves as an example of the care with which linguists aspire to treat data.
Juge, Matthew L. 1999. On the rise of suppletion in verbal paradigms. In Chang, Steve S., Lily Liaw, and Josef Ruppenhofer, editors. Proceedings of the twenty-fifth annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Berkeley: BLS. 183-194.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1998. Language form and language function. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Matthew L. Juge is an Assistant Professor of Historical Linguistics in the Department of Modern Languages at Texas State University-San Marcos. His interests include the development of morphosyntax (especially verb systems), semantic change, typology, language contact, the relationship between diachrony and synchrony, and language attitudes.