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  • Adjective classes: A cross-linguistic typology
  • Andrew Spencer
Adjective classes: A cross-linguistic typology. Ed. by R. M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald. (Explorations in linguistic typology 1.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xxii, 370. ISBN 0199270937. $165 (Hb).

This book, the first of a series edited by Dixon and Aikhenvald devoted to typology, is a collection of fifteen chapters, [End Page 407] with separate author, language, and subject indices. Thirteen chapters are descriptive essays based on presentations to a conference in 2002 at La Trobe University. They are followed, by way of conclusion, by an overview chapter by John Hajek . The book opens with a detailed introduction by Dixon, and this sketches the basic descriptive schema used in the descriptive chapters. All thirteen studies discuss, as far as possible, phonological, morphological, and syntactic criteria for adjectivehood, as well as the typical semantic classes of adjectives or adjective-like words. The languages investigated are Japanese, Manange (Tibeto-Burman), Tariana (North Arawak), Mam (Mayan), Papantla Totonac (Totonac-Tepehuan), Jara-wara (Arawa3, Southern Amazonian), Russian, Korean, Wolof, North-East Ambae (Oceanic), Semelai (South Aslian, Mon-Khmer), Qiang (Tibeto-Burman), and Lao. I noticed one or two editorial lapses. Nora C. England ’s chapter on Mam seems to have a number of misprints (including in the Mam data) and several problems with formatting and glossing. There are a few misprints elsewhere, but generally this is a very useful and usable resource.

The variety of the grammatical systems explored serves as an impetus to further research. In some cases the descriptive issue is how many adjective classes there are, while in other languages the question arises as to whether there is a class of adjectives at all, and if so, how important it is in the grammar. The problem is that, even in languages that clearly distinguish nouns and verbs morphologically and syntactically, the adjective class may have relatively few properties unique to itself (other than those that plausibly are due solely to the lexical semantics) and may share a number of morphosyntactic properties with nouns or verbs or both.

Dixon has played a major role over the past thirty years or so in drawing typologists’ attention to the problem of adjectives, and his introductory chapter provides a historical and typological context for the individual studies, setting out a number of properties that can serve to distinguish adjectives from other parts of speech. First, the class should include words with the four prototypically adjectival meanings (dimension, age, value, and color). Second, the class should either (a) function as an intransitive predicate or as the complement to a copular verb, or (b) function as an attributive modifier to a noun with the NP. More controversially, he argues that all languages will turn out to have a distinct category of adjective if you look hard enough for it.

Anthony E. Backhouse (Japanese) and Carol Genetti and Kristine Hildebrandt (Manange) argue that their languages have more than one class of adjectives. Backhouse provides a very succinct and clear overview of a much-debated question, and offers persuasive arguments that there is a class of inflecting adjectives ending in -i in their citation form. The reason for the controversy is that these adjectives share much of their morphology and syntax with verbs, for instance, in distinguishing past/nonpast tense inflection. There is also a class of adjectives that has more in common with nouns. Backhouse argues that in both instances it makes sense to delineate these as subclasses (inflecting and noninflecting) of an adjective class. In Manange, one class of adjectives takes verb inflections. Its syntax, however, is rather different from that of true verbs: verb-like adjectives can appear as postnominal modifiers, while true verbs form prenominal relative clauses, and verb-like adjectives cannot function as complements to verbs. While verb-like adjectives share several properties with true verbs in the perfective aspect, they differ from verbs when in the imperfective aspect.

Ho -Min Sohn , likewise, argues that Korean has a clearly distinguishable class of adjectives, even though there is a large degree of morphological overlap with verbs. Thus, verbal...


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