Contexts and constructions

Contexts and constructions. Ed. by Alexander Bergs and Gabriele Diewald. (Constructional approaches to language 9.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2009. Pp. v, 247. ISBN 9789027204318. $135 (Hb).

Reviewed by Don E. Walicek, University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras

This book examines the notion of context, distinguishing between language-external context and language-internal co-text, with special attention to construction grammar (CG), though a few of its contributions offer a pre-theoretical perspective. The volume consists of an introduction and eight contributions organized in three parts: context in constructional grammar, interactional approaches, and context and grammar. The languages discussed are Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Old Czech, and Swedish.

The editors’ introduction situates context as linking pragmatics and discourse, surveys CG and frame semantics (its ‘sister theory’), and suggests topics for future research.

Marina Terkourafi begins Part 1 with a chapter arguing that the pragmatic consequences of an utterance are realized early in its production. She establishes that linguistic and extralinguistic context act as cues in this process. Henri-José Deulofeu and Jeanne-Marie Debaisieux examine parce que ‘because’ clauses in spoken French, suggesting that certain parts of an utterance, while necessary for coherency, may act as contextual background. The authors hold that any pairing between form and meaning, including non-verbal communicative behaviors, can be conceptualized as part of a construction. Next, Mirjam Fried’s intriguing corpus-based case study of Old Czech investigates how context enters conventional linguistic patterning to become part of codified relationships. The chapter applies CG to interactions among traditional semantic structure, thematic and cultural context, and systematic morphosyntactic patterns.

Part 2 begins with Per Linell’s investigation of grammatical constructions in dialogue.  Aiming to counter the interactional deficit in CG, this chapter contrasts dynamic real usage events with the view of language as tokens of fixed abstract types. Camilla Wide’s article uses CG and interactional linguistics to show that features of context need to be included in formalist descriptions of spoken language. Examining a demonstrative construction from a Swedish dialect of Finland, the hybrid approach of this article sheds light on functional understandings of constructions.

Part 3 begins with Bert Cappelle’s discussion of particle placement in transitive phrasal verbs in English. His chapter investigates contextual factors associated with alternation, including focality, accessibility, and encyclopedic world knowledge. Ease of processing is identified as motivating divergent options. Ilona Vandergriff examines word order in wenn ‘if’-initial conditionals in German. Using CG and mental spaces theory, the article rejects the idea that integration marks content or predictive conditionality. Ronny Boogaart discusses modal verbs in the volume’s final chapter. He argues that the Dutch verb kunnen ‘can’ shows different forms, each with its own meaning, rather than one form with different meanings. Asserting that modal constructions are monosemous, not polysemous, the author calls for greater attention to pragmatics in CG.

This provocative book fruitfully examines context through integrative structural, pragmatic, and discourse-oriented approaches. Established scholars and students from a wide variety of fields, including those with little knowledge of CG, are likely to appreciate the volume.