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  • Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure ed. by Joan Bybee, Paul Hopper
  • Jean-Christophe Verstraete
Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure. Ed. by Joan Bybee and Paul Hopper. (Typological studies in language 45.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001. Pp. vii, 492. ISBN 1588110281. $55.95.

What can frequency data—and, more generally, usage data—tell us about linguistic structure? This classic question in linguistic theory has received answers ranging from distinctions like langue/parole or competence/performance that underline the distinctness and independence of usage and structure (see Newmeyer 2003 for a recent statement), to psycholinguistic and diachronic work that shows how usage feeds back into structure (see Zipf 1935 for an early statement). Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure takes up the fundamental problem of the relation between structure and usage, focusing on the role of frequency. The twenty contributions in this volume, subdivided into four sections, provide a convincing demonstration of the importance of frequency effects in phonology, lexicon, and syntax, using diachronic data, psycholinguistic experiments, and corpus-based methods.

After an introduction in which Bybee and Hopper give a brief overview of the history and various lines of research in usage-based work, the first section of this volume brings together three papers that deal with the frequency of grammatical features in particular genres, specifically face-to-face conversation. In a study following up on their classic article about the scalar definition of transitivity (1980), Paul J. Hopper and Sandra A. Thompson investigate the features of scalar transitivity in a small English conversational corpus. They come to the surprising conclusion that the large majority of clauses are either one-participant clauses or two-participant clauses with low transitivity, showing that the central clause type in the basic genre of conversation is rather different from the prototypical high transitive clause that is the focus of most grammatical studies. They also investigate the consequences of their findings for the traditional definition of argument structure. Joanne Scheibman uses a larger corpus of English conversational data to investigate patterns of subjectivity in conversation. In a study of the distribution of pronouns, tenses, and verb classes, she shows that 1st and 2nd person pronouns predominantly occur with verbs of cognition and verbalization in the present tense (with high-frequency combinations like I guess or do you think), and that 3rd person pronouns are mainly used in impersonal constructions with relational verbs (such as it is good). Scheibman argues that these patterns of pronoun-verb-tense combination reflect the fundamentally subjective nature of conversation, which focuses on the expression and exchange of opinions in the here-and-now of the speech event rather than on the description of past events. Although many linguists would agree with Scheibman that subjectivity is a fundamental aspect of language structure (see Wright & Stein 1995), I think it is something of an overstatement to conclude that ‘the prototypical structures of English clauses do not seem [End Page 498] geared to objective relating of events’ (86). Subjective types of structure like tense, mood, or person deixis do not replace more objective types of structure like transitivity or case systems; they simply coexist and interact with them, a standard assumption in many functional models of grammar (see e.g. Halliday 1994, Dik 1997).

In the final paper in this section, Naomi Hallan compares the frequency of nonspatial uses of the English ‘path morphemes’ on and over (e.g. in phrasal verbs like put on) with their spatial uses (e.g. on the sofa), the latter having traditionally been considered the prototypical use in semantic analyses. Using adult and child language corpora, Hallan shows convincingly that the apparent conceptual basicness of spatial uses is contradicted by the fact that nonspatial uses such as in phrasal verbs are more frequent in adult and child corpora and are acquired earlier by children. Unlike the other two papers in this section, which merely use frequency as a heuristic to explore the distribution of specific grammatical features in a particular genre, Hallan’s paper shows how frequency data can provide insight into structure, in this case the internal semantic structure of path morphemes...


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