Syntactic Typology: Studies in the Phenomenology of Language

Winfred P. Lehmann

International Standard Book Number 0-292-77545-8
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 78-56377
Copyright © 1978 by the University of Texas Press
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America

Second Printing, 1981


    Preface ix
1.   The Great Underlying Ground-Plans
Winfred P. Lehmann
  1.1. The Bases of Linguistic Typology 3
  1.2. Characteristic Processes and Devices of Language 9
  1.3. Selected Patterns in VO and OV Languages 15
  1.4. Patterns and Processes 24
  1.5. Earlier Typological Studies 26
  1.6. Implications of Typological Study for the Description of Languages 30
  1.7. Implications of Typological Study for the History of Languages 37
  1.8. Typological Study and the Study of Universals 42
  1.9. Contributions of Typology 49
2.   Japanese: A Characteristic OV Language
Susumu Kuno
  2.0. Preface 57
  2.1. Structure of Simple Clauses 57
  2.2. Nominal Phrases 82
  2.3. Verbal Phrases 93
  2.4. Adverbs 117
  2.5. Compound and Complex Sentences 121
  2.6. Grammatical Processes 127
    Note 137
3.   Easter Island: A Characteristic VSO Language
Paul G. Chapin
  3.0. Introduction 139
  3.1. Simple Clauses 143
  3.2. Nominal Phrases 147
  3.3. Verbal Phrases 153
  3.4. Coordination and Subordination 160
  3.5. Grammatical Processes 166
4.   English: A Characteristic SVO Language
Winfred P. Lehmann
  4.0. Introduction 169
  4.1. The Structure of Simple Clauses 170
  4.2. Nominal Phrases 175
  4.3. Verbal Phrases 178
  4.4. Sentence Adverbials 192
  4.5. Compound and Complex Sentences 193
  4.6. Marking 198
  4.7. Grammatical Processes 200
  4.8. Morphological Characteristics 212
  4.9. Phonological Characteristics 218
5.   An Exploration of Mandarin Chinese
Charles N. Li & Sandra A. Thompson
  5.1. Introduction 223
  5.2. Tone and Syllable Structure 224
  5.3. Word Order 225
  5.4. Morphology 233
  5.5. Marked Subordination 252
  5.6. Paired Correlative Markers 259
  5.7. Pronominalization 262
  5.8. Conclusion 265
    Note 265
6.   The Syntax of Subject-Final Languages
Edward L. Keenan III
  6.0. Introduction 267
  6.1.0. Definition of Subject-Final Languages 267
  6.1.1. Distribution of Subject-Final Languages 269
  6.1.2. Some Subject-Final Languages 270
  6.2. Some General Properties of Subject-Final Languages 285
  6.3. Explaining the Scarcity of Subject-Final Languages 302
    Postscript 324
    Notes 325
7.   Ergativity
Bernard Comrie
  7.0. Introduction 329
  7.1. Morphological and Syntactic Ergativity 336
  7.2. Ergativity and Agentivity 355
  7.3. Ergative-Absolute and Nominative-Accusative Systems: Diachronic Relationships 368
  7.4. Synchronic Function of Ergative Case-Marking 379
  7.5. Conclusions 392
    Note 393
8.   Conclusion: Toward an Understanding of the Profound Unity Underlying Languages
Winfred P. Lehmann
  8.1. Principles Governing Language 395
  8.2. Inconsistency in Languages 400
  8.3. Change in Typological Patterning 404
  8.4. German, an Example of an Inconsistent Language 409
  8.5. Problems Resulting from Influences of Languages on Other Languages 413
  8.6. Identification of Further Typological Characteristics 417
  8.7. The Problem of Apparently Similar Patterns and Constructions in Different Languages 421
  8.8. Relations between Language Types and Other Cultural Systems: Linguistic Relativity 423
  8.9. Approaches to Language 426
    References 433
    Index 451


Language has been viewed by many linguists in the dominant tradition as a mechanism — in the words of Humboldt, as a "dead mass" (1836/1968: lxxviii). For de Laguna, "language, like the tool, is primarily an instrument to be used for the accomplishment of objective ends" (1927/1963: 244). Investigation of this instrument is then the linguist's primary task, as the widely influential Bloomfield put it: "The linguist deals only with the speech-signal" (1933: 32). And even though the dominant voice of the transformationalists departed from a mechanistic to a mentalistic approach, for it the "generative grammar internalized by someone who has acquired a language" is a "device" (Chomsky 1964: 915). Such conceptions represent only a partial understanding of language. For a more complete understanding, language and grammar must be viewed in Humboldt's fuller characterization as a "mass carrying within itself the living germ of a never ending definability" (1836/1968: lxxvii). To understand language fully then, we must find means to deal with that "living germ" as well as with the "dead mass."

This aim has been pursued by a small number of scholars who are acknowledged among the most brilliant linguists, Humboldt, Finck, Sapir among them. Besides grammars these linguists were concerned with rules for the structure of language. Their approach, in contrast with the descriptive-historical, is typological, a designation as inadequate as "descriptive" but equally installed in linguistic study.

Typology, pursued even before Humboldt, has gained in insights concerning language since his time, as the eight chapters of this book set out to show. Among these gains is deeper understanding of Humboldt's paradox that "language is objectively influential and independent to exactly the extent it influences in a subjective way and is dependent" (lxxix). Thus, while language fulfills certain functions, those functions and the rules of human discourse may also affect language. The approach to the typological study of language then does not simply seek out characteristic types but investigates language for the various roles it fulfills in meeting human needs for expression as well as communication.

The results of such investigation might be presented in a philosophical literary essay like Humboldt's, sometimes identified as the most difficult comment on language. Yet, to simplify presentation of the approach, specific languages have been selected here as "consistent"; the bases for such selection are illustrated with examples. Such languages provide a key to the understanding of others, including those labeled inconsistent because of their contrasting structures. It would, however, be remarkable if any language were completely consistent, inasmuch as languages are always changing, partly as a result of influence by neighboring languages, partly as a result of the flux evident in all social conventions. Nonetheless one can point to languages like Japanese and Turkish which have relatively few inconsistent characteristics, possibly as a result of relative isolation, possibly for other reasons.

This book has been designed to provide an interpretation with examples first of consistent languages, and then of specific points of interest in typological study. For reasons of space the discussion has been restricted almost entirely to syntactic characterization, to the exclusion of semantic and phonological matters. Chapter 1 lists the structures which differ characteristically in languages with VO order as opposed to those with OV; it also sketches the background of the typological approach, and some of its implications.

Chapter 2 gives a detailed account of a highly consistent OV language, illustrating how the structures identified in Chapter 1 may be explored in any language. It also exemplifies how one may demonstrate that a language indeed belongs to a given type, and points out relationships between the occurrences of forms and their functions. Chapter 3 gives an account of a highly consistent VSO language, though without the detail of Chapter 2, for the language selected by the writer was accessible to him only in written texts. Chapter 3 then illustrates some of the problems encountered in the treatment of languages which cannot be studied with the help of native speakers. Chapter 4 deals with the third prominent type, SVO, using English as an example. Since Chapter 2 thoroughly illustrated the regular structures, the discussion of English turns to devices found in language which vary the monotony of rigidly preserved patterns. These devices relate to considerations of function, of discourse, and of style.

The next three chapters explore further implications of a typological approach. Chapter 5 in examining Chinese suggests that lack of inflection affects syntactic patterns. Chapter 6 deals with the relatively infrequent VOS type, exploring its problems and shortcomings from a functional and discourse point of view. Chapter 7 explores ergativity, that is, a patterning which blurs distinctions between S and O by aligning the objects of transitive verbs with the subjects of intransitive verbs. As with functional forces and the requirements of discourse, the effects of ergativity lead to richness in language patterning, so that efforts to find an underlying system for language may well be questioned. Yet underlying principles must be involved, as study of the basic structures of language and of language in change demonstrates. Implications of this view are sketched in the final chapter, which points out how the typological framework can lead to the understanding of problems as diverse as the dual word order patterning of standard, written German and the development of the Indo-European languages through five millennia. Concern with linguistic phenomena accordingly leads to an appreciation of the "living germ" recognized by Humboldt.

To distinguish the view of language exemplified here from that which has been dominant in linguistics, language here is examined as a phenomenon, not as an instrument, not as a structure centered on a speech-signal, not even as a system defined by a grammar which is a device. Its "living germ" regulates it in interesting though restricted ways which linguists have barely started to explore. When explored further, such "regulation" may be examined in hierarchies, as of animacy. Speakers may not introduce markers for nouns whose functions are obvious; for example, the three items of Children collect stones have only one interpretation regardless of their order or their inflection. A language may economically dispense with means to distinguish animate from inanimate nouns, or even subjects from objects, displaying in this way hierarchies of elements and categories while illustrating its "living germ." A logical system, by contrast, or an artificial language, would apply parallel distinctive markers to all categories of note.

The internal force may also be evident in similar patterning for similar processes, such as modification. Whether a modifier is expressed through an adjective: the lot neighboring this one, or a genitive: the lot of the neighbors, or a relative clause: the lot which the neighbors own, similarity of function between the three constructions might well lead toward similarity of location with regard to the noun which is head of the construction. Here too a hierarchy exists, but of constructions, with presumably the relative clause directing the genitive and adjective. The phenomenon, language, then is not simply an inert mass but in Humboldt's words (1836/1968: lxxviii) a "stock of words" and a "system of rules" with mutual interrelationships, determined in part by the patterning of human discourse.

To account even in part for such a phenomenon, analyses should deal with its patterning in discourse, with its presentation of meaning, with its central structure represented in syntactic rules and elements, with the shapes of its words, and with its sounds. This large task has been severely restricted here to syntactic structures, for in this area new insights have recently been made which are central to fuller accounts. Further, a more complete characterization of any one language would result in a book at least the size of this, though it would by no means be a "grammar." As more is learned about language as a phenomenon, such characterizations may indeed be produced; in contrast with descriptive grammars or historical grammars they might be viewed as biographies of a language.

This book grew out of a seminar of the 1976 Linguistic Institute arranged by the State University of New York at Oswego, New York. The authors were given the set of patterns included below in Chapter 1, section 3, with freedom to present their languages or their topics as they considered most effective. While minor editorial adjustments have been made, the authors are then responsible for their own chapters and no others.

The transcriptions and transliterations of examples cited in papers are taken directly from sources, from spellings of informants or representations of investigators; no attempt has been made to achieve complete accuracy and consistency.

Besides expressing my appreciation to the authors, I would like to thank especially Carol Justus, director of the institute, and her colleagues at SUNY, Oswego, and in the SUNY system. Helen-Jo Hewitt saved me a great deal of time by guiding my efforts on a CRT to combine bibliographical lists compiled with disparate stylistic practices. I am also grateful to Ruth Lehmann and Theodore Lightner, as well as students, for comments on earlier versions of these essays, and to James McCloskey for the Irish and Hundirapola Ratanajoti for the Sinhalese in the first chapter.

W. P. L.

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