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  • The comment clause in English: Syntactic origins and pragmatic development
  • Andreas H. Jucker
The comment clause in English: Syntactic origins and pragmatic development. By Laurel J. Brinton. (Studies in English language.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xviii, 280. ISBN 9780521886734. $99 (Hb).

Laurel Brinton's new book deals with the origins and historical development of comment clauses in English. Comment clauses are sentence disjuncts based on verbs of perception or communication. Relevant examples are I see, (as) you see, I gather, you know, I say, I mean, and if you will. The feature they have in common is that they are used parenthetically; that is to say, they can occur at various places in an utterance without being syntactically integrated. In addition, they have little or no semantic meaning but function on a pragmatic level. In both respects, they are similar to discourse markers, or pragmatic markers as B calls them, but they differ from such prototypical pragmatic markers as well or oh in that they have a clausal origin. But the literature on the origins and the development of comment clauses is still scarce, and this book, therefore, constitutes a major and much-needed step forward. So far, synchronic studies of comment clauses have generally assumed that they originate in matrix clauses with sentential complements. For example, a construction like Max is a Martian, I feel (36) would have developed out of constructions of the type I feel (that) Max is a Martian. B calls this the MATRIX CLAUSE HYPOTHESIS, and her book, in fact, is an elaborate argument based on a broad range of empirical evidence that the matrix clause hypothesis is problematic and that the origins of comment clauses in English are more diverse and more complicated.

For its plausibility the matrix clause hypothesis relies on the right timing and on a sufficient number of ambiguous cases available for reanalysis. B argues that the matrix clause hypothesis fails on both counts. There are not enough ambiguous cases in which a matrix clause with a sentential complement looks indistinguishable from an unintegrated comment clause, and—what is perhaps even worse for the hypothesis—there are many parenthetical comment clauses that predate the corresponding matrix clauses from which they are supposed to have derived.

Instead of the matrix clause hypothesis, B suggests a variety of origins. A number of bare verb forms, such as say, see, look, hark, and listen, have their origins in imperative matrix clauses. Like thematrix clause hypothesis, this also requires a reversal of the originalmatrix clause and the original subordinate clause into a comment clause and a main clause. But imperative matrix clauses frequently take a that-less complement in the formof another imperative clause or an interrogative clause. Complement clauses such as if you will, as it were, or so you see are postulated to have their origins in syntactically incorporated adjunct adverbials. The complement clause if you will, for instance, developed from an adverbial adjunct meaning 'if you are willing [to do so]', which modifies the propositional content of the utterance, into a complement clause meaning 'if you are willing to call it so', which modifies the speech act itself. Complement clauses, such as (as) you say , (as) you see, and (as) I find, appear to have their origin in nonrestrictive relative clauses (which you say, which you see, which I find).And, finally, some comment clauses, according to B, may derive from interrogative clauses. The comment clause see, for instance, may go back to an imperative matrix clause, but it may also go back to an interrogative do you see?.

B provides a wealth of empirical evidence culled from a wide range of historical corpora for individual case studies that support her case. On the basis of these case studies she sketches out very specific trajectories of the origins and development of the individual complement clauses. It turns out that most of them originated in the late Middle English or Early Modern English period, spanning the mid-fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries.

In the literature on the development of pragmatic markers in English, the diachronic processes of these developments have usually been analyzed as cases of grammaticalization. In the...


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