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  • An introduction to syntax by Robert D. Van Valin
  • Edward J. Vajda
An introduction to syntax. By Robert D. Van Valin, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 239. $65.00.

Written by a scholar known for his innovative analyses of genetically and typologically varied languages, this comprehensive introduction will not disappoint the student or teacher yearning for a more diverse sampling of languages. At the same time, the discussion is attentive to various competing syntactic formalisms and offers a firm grounding in contemporary linguistic theory along with exposure to a wide range of typological variation. Engaging and logical from beginning to end, it opens with the practical, yet intriguing question, ‘How does an Aborigine from central Australia, a Basque from Spain or an inhabitant of the island of Madagascar put a sentence together?’ (xiii). The answer to this deceptively simple question occupies the rest of the book.

The discussion is arranged in six chapters. Ch. 1, ‘Syntax, lexical categories, and morphology’ (1–20), introduces the book’s holistic approach to syntactic phenomena which includes as much attention to morphosyntax and semantic factors as to phrase structure per se. Ch. 2, ‘Grammatical relations’ (21–85), provides a crosslinguistic survey of the syntactic notions ‘subject’, ‘direct object’, and ‘indirect object’. Ch. 3, ‘Dependency relations’ (86–109), explores head and modifier relationships. This chapter also introduces the notion of valence, making a clear distinction between semantic roles such as agent or patient and purely syntactic categories such as subject and object. Ch. 4, ‘Constituent structure’ (110–43), discusses phrase structure and form classes across languages Ch. 5, ‘Grammar and lexicon’ (144–71), examines the relationship between syntax and lexeme. The final chapter, ‘Theories of syntax’ (172–226), provides a refreshingly balanced comparison of four important syntactic models of language: relational grammar, lexical-functional grammar, the government-binding version of principles and parameters theory, and, finally, the author’s own role and reference grammar. Each chapter closes with suggestions for further reading and a set of problems that test student comprehension.

The language index on pp. 234–35 contains reference to 60 languages from over three dozen families distributed on five continents—a mere fraction of the world’s linguistic diversity. Still, anyone tired of syntax descriptions limited to dueling formalisms, and applied mostly to simple English sentences, ought to be well satisfied. The book’s attention to morphosyntax, in particular, makes it of great practical value for anyone interested in typology. I used the book as an auxiliary text in a course on morphology and appreciated its clear differentiation between syntactic and semantic valence. The only significant defect is the lack of a glossary; my students often found it difficult to locate clear and concise definitions of key terms. However, the book’s pedagogical benefits far outweigh this single shortcoming.

Edward J. Vajda
Western Washington University


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