The dynamics of language

The dynamics of language: An introduction. By Ronnie Cann, Ruth Kempson, and Lutz Marten. (Syntax and semantics 35.) San Diego: Academic Press, 2005. Pp. xiii, 440. ISBN 9780126135367. $71.95.

Reviewed by Katrin Hiietam, Manchester, United Kingdom

This book introduces the theoretical framework of dynamic syntax (DS). It is aimed at readers who are at an advanced undergraduate level to those who are professional linguists. The book further develops the framework presented in an article by Ruth Kempson et al. (‘On dialogue modelling, language processing, and linguistic knowledge’, 2001), which states that the knowledge of language comprises the ability to use a language in both speaking and understanding. In order to explain the structural properties of a language, one needs to define a formal model of how interpretation is built up from an utterance. This, according to the authors, is the syntax of a language. The DS approach can be called a modular framework, as every new piece of information connects to previous information and adds something to the context. The authors state that their stance enables a more accurate description of natural languages as it is ‘able to define processes of growth of information across sequences of expressions’ (x). They argue also that ‘natural language grammars, by definition, reflect the dynamics of real time processing in context’ (x).

In contrast to Kempson et al., this book aims to introduce the formal framework of DS to a wider audience and offer ample explanation of its premises; the authors also seek to apply this framework to a wide array of linguistic phenomena, including well-discussed examples from the English language, and, for contrast, examples from other languages. Some languages that pose problems for other theoretical approaches, such as Japanese, a verb-final language, or Bantu for its agreement systems, are analyzed. These languages are found to be as ‘natural as any other languages’ within the DS framework. The book offers several detailed linguistic analyses and illustrates how the novel approach gives old problems new answers. The authors claim that DS is a good starting point for modelling the interchange between speaking and understanding a language.

The content of each chapter is here summarized. Ch. 1 explains the problem around the gap between understanding and producing a language, as it is presented in other theories, and explains the proposed approach. Ch. 2 sketches the apparatus of the DS framework and discusses three linguistic problems: left dislocation structures, anaphora, and well-formedness and ungrammaticality. Ch. 3 deals with the relative clause construal, and Ch. 4 offers a relative clause typology. Ch. 5 discusses the right periphery, and Chs. 6 and 7 present an analysis of Japanese and Swahili agreement and conjunction, respectively. Ch. 8 offers an account of the English copula constructions, and Ch. 9 addresses the interface levels of a language: the correspondence between syntax and semantics, context and parsing, and context and well-formedness; it also looks at dialogue as an instance of production. The final chapter closes with a discussion of three areas that have proved problematic for theoretical linguistics: language acquisition, language change, and language evolution. For each of these areas, the DS model offers a solution by allowing for interaction between various components and mechanisms of language.