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  • Syntax: An introduction by Talmy Givón
  • Edward J. Vajda
Syntax: An introduction. By Talmy Givón. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001. Vol. 1. Pp. xviii, 500; Vol. 2. Pp. x, 406. ISBN 1588110656. $99 (Hb).

These volumes are a thorough reworking of the author’s earlier functionalist treatment of syntax (Talmy Givón, Syntax, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, Vol. 1, 1984; Vol. 2, 1990). The main change is a calculated parallel emphasis on formal aspects of syntax such as grammatical relations, clause-union, constituency, and syntactic control. T regrets that his lack of attention to these and other formal syntactic patterns in the first edition led some functionalists to disregard their relevance altogether (Vol. 1, xv). In many instances, the expanded discussion of formalist syntax highlights the importance of the functional parameters being discussed, yielding a fundamentally improved presentation. The new edition is also enriched by data from recent investigations of ‘exotic’ languages, a feature most visible in an expansion of the book’s typologically and genetically diverse examples. An impressive subset of the total number of languages for which detailed and accessible descriptive grammars have been published is now somehow represented.

The book begins by discussing the history of the functionalist approach to grammar and arguing that typology can only be studied from a functional perspective (Ch. 1, 1–41). Subsequent chapters in the first volume cover the following individual topics: the nature of the lexicon (Ch. 2), simple verb clauses and argument structure (Ch. 3), grammatical relations and case marking (Ch. 4), word order (Ch. 5), tense, aspect, and modality (Chs. 6–7), negation (Ch. 8), and referential coherence (Chs. 9–10). Vol. 2 continues with the following topics: noun phrases (Ch. 11), verbal complements and clause union (Ch. 12), detransitive voice (Ch. 13), relative clauses (Ch. 14), contrastive focus constructions (Ch. 15), marked topic constructions (Ch. 16), nondeclarative speech acts [End Page 803] (Ch. 17), and finally, interclausal coherence (Ch. 18). There is a general index, but the volumes would have profited from the addition of a language index and a key to the numerous abbreviations used in the morpheme glosses, which are not always obvious. The writing throughout is brilliantly clear and engagingly down-to-earth (particularly for a book on syntactic theory). Typos are insignificant, easily understood, and almost too few to mention. One is ‘intransitive’ instead of the correct ‘transitive’ at the top of p. 162 (Vol. 1); another is the more amusing ‘dear-hunting’ for ‘deer-hunting’ (Vol. 1, p. 184, n. 1).

Readers interested in linguistic theory will perhaps find the author’s occasional direct criticisms of formalist approaches the most interesting. Specifically, G demonstrates (Vol. 1, 115–17) the limitations of phrase-structure tree diagrams in distinguishing between lexical and grammatical entities, in describing grammatical relations such as subject and object crosslinguistically, and in handling pragmatically-based syntactic patterns, especially in complex clauses and discourse. Most important, G argues convincingly that typology can only be understood from a diachronic vantage; although syntax is formally rule-governed from a synchronic perspective, the morphosyntax of every language demonstrates evolving patterns of grammaticalization that can be properly estimated only through careful consideration of their functional-historical development.

This book is a tour de force from both a heuristic and theoretical standpoint. It could—and probably should—be required reading in every undergraduate linguistics program.

Edward J. Vajda
Western Washington University
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 803-804
Launched on MUSE
2003-12-19
Open Access
No
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