Monthly Archives: July 2011

A derivational syntax for information structure

A derivational syntax for information structure. By Luis López. (Oxford studies in theoretical linguistics 23.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 396. ISBN 9780199557417. $45.

Reviewed by Andrew Carnie, University of Arizona

Focus and topic are among the most useful terms in information structure and the syntax, pragmatics, and semantics of discourse, and yet at the same time they are among the most poorly or inconsistently defined technical notions we work with. Part of the problem is that no clear correspondence holds between these semantico-pragmatic concepts and the syntactic constructions that are supposed to realize them. Luis López provides us with an innovative way to think about the relationship between information structure and the syntactic and semantic interfaces. L asks us to abandon primitive notions of topic/focus and instead characterize various syntactic constructions in terms of features: [+a] for strongly anaphoric items, [+c] for contrastive items, and [+spec] for specifics. This innovation has important theoretical implications: e.g. pragmatic interpretation is interleaved with syntactic phase generation, and  the information structure status of syntactic terms is determined by their feature-triggered structural positions.

Primarily using data from Catalan, L argues that there is no one-to-one link between particular discourse-related constructions—such as clitic left dislocation (CLLD), clitic right dislocation (CLRD), focus fronting—and their discourse function. He argues instead that there is a clear correspondence between the construction, the [±a, ±c] features, syntactic positions, and the precise meaning of each expression. The [±a] and [±c] features are assigned by special pragmatic rules to items in the edges of phases: [+a] is assigned in the specifier of vP and [+c] is assigned in the specifier of FinP. L gives clever arguments from scope and bound variable interpretation for the syntactic position and value associated with each feature: CLLD constructions are [+a, +c], CLRD is [+a, -c], focus fronting is [-a, +c], and default rheme status is [-a, -c]. [±a, ±c] features are assigned derivationally through pragmatic rules at phase boundaries rather than being base generated.

L observes a pattern whereby the feature valuation of a constituent and any subconstituent extracted from it must be identical, but only when the movement crosses a phase boundary. Movement within phases does not obey this constraint. From this L concludes that the feature must have been assigned during the derivation (at the phase boundary) and not in the lexicon/numeration; otherwise we would expect no contrast in behavior as the critical feature would be present throughout the entire derivation. L extends these results to various phenomena using object movement.

This book is not for the layperson; it is highly technically sophisticated. It covers significant ground in syntactic and pragmatic theory. It is also highly innovative and challenges some very foundational assumptions people make both about information structure and syntactic structure. L’s book is lush with interesting data, and the argumentation effectively uses the clever interplay and interaction of grammatical processes. This results a work that belongs on the reading list of every linguist interested in the intersections of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

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Investigations in cognitive grammar

Investigations in cognitive grammar. By Ronald W. Langacker. (Mouton select.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2010. Pp. xiv, 396. ISBN 9783110214352. $39.95.

Reviewed by Adam Głaz, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin, Poland

This is the third volume on cognitive grammar by Ronald W. Langacker, the previous two having appeared in 1990 and 1999, consisting of articles either published or submitted for publication in various sources. (A notable exception in the present case is Ch. 8, written especially for the collection.) It is also L’s second book-length publication within the span of two years, following Cognitive grammar: A basic introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

The need for such works is hardly surprising, as cognitive grammar has been widely recognized and practiced throughout the globe since its beginnings in the early 1980’s. Coherent collections of articles by L are welcome to both practitioners and critics of the theory, if only to permit easier access to otherwise scattered pieces. The coherence of the present volume is achieved through slightly re-editing the individual contributions, omitting redundancies, and providing a single reference section, but above all through the treatment of ‘a number of overlapping topics’ viewed ‘from different perspectives and in relation to one another’ (v).

The volume includes: Ch. 1 ‘Constructions in cognitive grammar’ (1–39), Ch. 2 ‘Metonymy in grammar’ (40–59), Ch. 3 ‘A constructional approach to grammaticization’ (60–80), Ch. 4 ‘Possession, location, and existence’ (81–108), Ch. 5 ‘On the subject of impersonals’ (109–47), Ch. 6 ‘Enunciating the parallelism of nominal and clausal grounding’ (148–84), Ch. 7 ‘The English present: Temporal coincidence vs. epistemic immediacy’ (185–218), Ch. 8 ‘A functional account of the English auxiliary’ (219–58), Ch. 9 ‘Aspects of the grammar of finite clauses’ (259–89),  Ch. 10 ‘Finite complements in English’ (290–326), Ch. 11 ‘Subordination in cognitive grammar’ (327–40), and Ch. 12 ‘The conceptual basis of coordination’ (341–74). A recurrent motif applicable to several of these topics is that of ‘control’ or the ‘control cycle’, discussed in Chs. 5,  6, 7, 9, and 10.

The volume is a treat for cognitive grammar advocates. It presents in a succinct yet profound manner the theory’s present-day state of the art and sketches possible future developments. In doing so, it may be viewed as a continuation of the 2008 volume. If that volume systematically introduces L’s model to a new generation of linguists, then this collection builds upon it and traces a selection of topics in greater depth. Cognitive grammar continues to be one of the most fully developed models of language, if not the most fully developed, within the realm of cognitive linguistics. With the appearance of the present volume, one cannot help but be impressed by the model’s solid foundations, which remain basically unchanged since the launch of the project, and by its proven ability to account for ever new aspects of language use.

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