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Diachronic Syntax

Ian Roberts

Oxford Textbooks in Linguistics

Oxford: University Press, 2007

Hardcover. 508 pp. ISBN 978-0199283668. £100.00


Reviewed by Jean-Charles Khalifa

Université de Poitiers


Ian Roberts is one of the leading specialists in the field of comparative syntax and syntactic change, as is indeed suggested by the titles of two of his previous works (Comparative Syntax, Edward Arnold, 1996; Syntactic Change, CUP, 2003, with Anna Roussou). His 2007 book is not, as might be expected from the main title, just another Old- or Middle-English grammar, but a detailed study of parametric change as a key to syntactic change.

As the phrase Diachronic Syntax does not suggest (even though the series to which the book belongs does), the book is meant as a textbook, which as such does not make any major new claims or break new ground. It is, however, no less interesting, and even impressive: as a textbook, it undoubtedly provides stimulating reading not only for those discovering the field but also for those already familiar with it.

Roberts’ new textbook has 508 pages, including 3 indexes (which is the standard for such works), i.e. the traditional index of subjects, an index of proper names, and an index of languages, listing more than 100, including a large number of Creoles. Important technical terms are given in boldface and repeated in the 12-page glossary at the end of the book. There are 74 entries altogether with clear and concise definitions and examples. Last but not least, the reader is offered an impressive 32-page bibliography with upward of 400 references.

Roberts’ main aim, as stated in the Introduction, is “to illustrate how Chomsky's … ideas … can form the basis for the study of historical syntax” and, at the same time, to provide “a different perspective on the nature of Universal Grammar and first-language acquisition” [7]. As appears clearly, the general framework of the book is generative syntactic theory, more specifically the “Principles & Parameters” approach, the conception of grammar introduced in Chomsky (Lectures on Government and Binding, Foris, Dordrecht, 1981), which takes natural language, (i.e. our linguistic competence), to be a complex of subsystems of principles, each with one or more parameters of variation, and grammars of particular languages to be determined by fixing parameters in these (sub)systems.

The book is divided into 5 chapters, each of which features a final summary and an extensive annotated bibliography for further reading. Also to be noted is the use of special sections (“boxes”), materialised in grey, whose purpose is to develop certain theoretical points in greater detail. Most of these, however, are concentrated in chapter 1, for reasons which will be explained below.

Chapter 1, “Comparative and historical syntax in the principles-and-parameters approach” is a well-written and most useful introduction to the notion of syntactic variation within current generative syntactic theory; it could also be used, to a certain extent, as a kind of “advanced introduction” to the Principles & Parameters approach. Roberts starts by defining just what a parameter is, a definition which is refined in later chapters (especially Ch. 3), and then proceeds to discuss a number of them, showing how their setting (basically, on / off, or more precisely “marked” vs “unmarked”) can vary synchronically and diachronically: the null-subject parameter, verb-movement parameters (V-to-T and V-to-C), the negative concord parameter, the WH-movement parameter, and the parameter(s) determining head-complement order.

In chapter 2, “Types of syntactic change”, Dr Roberts focuses on different types of syntactic change and shows how these can be interpreted within a Principles & Parameters framework. The first type discussed is reanalysis, a process that has long been considered as central to syntactic change. For instance, Roberts discusses the loss of V-to-T movement in the history of English, showing that, during the Early Modern English period, finite verbs are reanalysed as occupying V rather than T as in Old and Middle English, and indeed in contemporary French and other Romance languages. The other cases discussed are grammaticalisation, change in argument structure and change in clausal complementation, all similarly shown to be analysable in terms of parametric change, which is quite convincingly related, in many cases, to morphological developments. The chapter ends on a discussion of word order change, illustrated with the well-known change from OV to VO in the history of English.

Chapter 3, “Acquisition, learnability, and syntactic change”, explores the hypothesis that syntactic / parametric change is driven by language acquisition; here, a number of key concepts are discussed such as learnability, defined as “the property of the grammar which makes it attainable by a learning algorithm on the basis of plausible primary linguistic data”, or the “logical problem of language change” (i.e., how can syntactic structure change in spite of what Roberts calls “the Inertia Principle”?). Especially stimulating to French-speaking readers is the analysis of contact as a trigger to parameter setting, illustrated by Prince Edward Island (PEI) French, a dialect that, contrary to standard French, does allow preposition stranding : *Qui as-tu parlé à ? is ungrammatical in Standard French, but Où est-ce qu’elle vient de ?, Robert a été beaucoup parlé de au meeting are standard in PEI French. Finally, Roberts argues that parameters involve the formal feature specifications of functional heads. More precisely, they determine whether some syntactic head does or does not have a certain feature F.

Chapter 4, “The dynamics of syntactic change” introduces such concepts as gradualness, the spread of syntactic change, drift (i.e. the question of the direction of change), and reconstruction. Each of these raises thorny theoretical issues. To take one example, how can the idea that change is gradual (see the famous “S-curve” discussed on p. 296) possibly be reconciled with the theoretical assumption that the discrete nature of grammars, and especially of parameter setting? “…gradual change from one value of a parameter to another is simply impossible: a parameter must be in one state or the other; it cannot be in between” [295]. Parameters are also key to the understanding of the directionality of change, and even reconstruction (the description of assumed primitive forms of unrecorded languages on the basis of attested ones).

In the 5th and final chapter of the book, “Contact, creoles, and change”, Roberts returns to language contact, a phenomenon that is already mentioned in earlier chapters as an important trigger of parameter resetting. The illustrations are provided by specific contact situations and their possible syntactic consequences, (e.g. contact of English with Scandinavian and Celtic). In the former case, there is extensive discussion of the role played by Scandinavian-speaking immigrants in the change from OV to VO in English. In the latter case, and amongst many other examples, fronting constructions like Coal they’re getting out, mostly, or Singing they were, which are perfectly acceptable in Welsh English but odd in standard English, are attributed to the Welsh substratum. There is also a most interesting discussion of what has often been considered as an extreme case of contact, i.e. the development of pidgins and creoles. Roberts also explores a much less documented issue, the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language. The main observation is that the basic mechanisms of language acquisition and change are also at work in all of these contexts. The author suggests that these examples may “simply reveal with greater clarity what happens in all cases of language acquisition and change: that each individual creates a grammar afresh on the basis of fragmentary, impoverished, and noisy experience” [439].

Even though Diachronic Syntax is meant as a textbook, and even though Roberts’ style is clear and easy to read, this is by no means an easy book to digest, but one that will takes some time and effort to work one’s way through. Even though, as already mentioned, the author does not make any new theoretical claims, he does, however, defend, quite convincingly, a number of theoretical stances on many of the abstract issues described above; all in all, the reading is highly stimulating, and there are very few—even minor—reservations for the author of this review to express.

Example (48a) on p. 163 is perhaps not the best illustration of the general phenomenon under discussion, i.e. the loss of ut/ne + subjunctive. Indeed, while the French sentence is perfectly good, there is a subjunctive alternative (Les Ubii supplient César qu’il les épargne), which, if less frequent and more literary, remains quite productive in modern French; similarly, (48d), without “parce” (because), is frankly unacceptable to the author of this review. Indeed, the present subjunctive would be obligatory : …que tu sois fâché. The Haitian Creole example in (11d) [410] is in fact to be interpreted as a perfect (has already ironed) and not as a present (which would normally be Bouki ap pase rad yo, with the imperfective particle ap). Therefore, contrary to example (12c) involving negation, it can hardly be indicative of the lack of V-to-T movement, since in standard French, the adverb would indeed precede the main verb, and follow the auxiliary (…a déjà repassé…), which is notoriously nonexistent in Haitian Creole. This, of course, does not void the author’s demonstration at all. Finally, transplant, apparently one of the author’s favourite verbs, is probably not the purest illustration [445] of a two-argument verb…

On a purely formal level, the book is generally well edited and pleasant to read; try as we might, there was only one imperfection (misprint, in fact) we managed to find in the 508 pages: p. 169, 4th line from top: a missing space between “as” and “complements”.

In conclusion, this is a most important and stimulating book, and to the best of our knowledge the first textbook on diachronic syntax to be published to date, and no doubt an important contribution towards further research in this field.



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