Language usage and language structure

Language usage and language structure. Ed. by Kasper Boye and Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen. (Trends in linguistics. Studies and monographs 213.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2010. Pp. xiv, 354. ISBN 9783110219173. $140 (Hb).

Reviewed by Eitan Grossman, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This thematic volume, a Festschrift for Peter Harder, deals with one of the liveliest questions in contemporary linguistics, the nature of the relationship between usage and structure. While the authors work in a variety of frameworks, most adopt a usage-based approach in some form; only one contribution is written from a generative point of view. The studies in this volume reflect the growing acknowledgment of an intermediate position in which structure emerges from usage, which in turn presupposes and is constrained by structure. A common thread is the rejection of the radical ‘emergent grammar’ position that generative critics often take as representative of usage-based approaches as a whole.

Part 1 deals with clausal complementation. Frederick Newmeyer argues that Sandra Thompson’s treatment of complement-taking predicates is untenable and that the facts support a Chomskyan conception of grammar. Arie Verhagen responds to Newmeyer, proposing that the Chomskyan principles of autonomy and abstractness can be explained by a usage-based approach. On the basis of discourse prominence, Kasper Boye distinguishes between raising verbs and auxiliaries.
Part 2 is devoted to the emergence of structure. Ronald Langacker proposes a dynamic conception of structure and critiques ‘emergent grammar’. Lars Heltoft re-integrates the notions of paradigm and paradigmatic structure into usage-based approaches, providing a welcome bridge between structuralist and functionalist thought. Talmy Givón asks ‘Where do simple clauses come from?’ from an ontogenetic and phylogenetic point of view. He proposes that there are two co-existing language processing modes, the ‘grammatical’ and ‘pre-grammatical’, and that multi-word verbal clauses evolved out of one-word non-verbal clauses through the pervasive mechanism of transferring information from context to code.

The papers in Part 3 are concerned with the relationships between structure, usage, and variation. Elisabeth Engberg and Mads Poulsen deal with variation in the agreement (‘trigger-happy agreement’) of predicate adjectives, based on a corpus-based study and a reading-time experiment. They conclude that deviations from subject agreement are probably production errors that might serve as starting points for sociolinguistically or functionally motivated language change.

Dick Geeraerts emphasizes Harder’s recognition of social variation as a contribution to the usage-based model. Based on a study of spoken Dutch, he argues for a variationist model of language, with networks of lectal systems replacing ‘the’ language. J. Lachlan Mackenzie reacts to Harder’s reservations about the integration of processing notions like incrementality into language structure in functional discourse grammar. Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen attempts to reconcile structure and usage. She argues that this can be done by replacing the Saussurean conception of the linguistic sign with a Peircean one, which has the advantage of accounting for variation (and thus language change) by incorporating a pragmatic dimension into the sign itself.

In the final essay, William Croft exposes ‘Ten unwarranted assumptions in syntactic argumentation’ that syntacticians would be better off without.

The editors and authors have done an outstanding job of making a coherent and focused thematic volume with many excellent papers. The book is a fitting tribute and a significant contribution to the ongoing debate about the interrelationship between usage and structure.