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Reviewed by:
  • Impersonal Constructions: A Cross-Linguistic Perspective ed. by Andrej Malchukov, Anna Siewierska
  • Alena Witzlack-Makarevich and Csilla Kász
Impersonal Constructions: A Cross-Linguistic Perspective. Edited by Andrej Malchukov and Anna Siewierska. Studies in Language Companion Series 124. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. Pp. x + 641. $158.00 (hardcover).

Impersonal constructions (such as Latin me pudet, lit., ‘me shames’, German mich friert, lit., ‘me freezes’, or Russian svetaet ‘[it] dawns’) have not figured as a prominent topic of cross-linguistic research outside of Indo-European studies. The volume under review contributes substantially to filling this research gap by addressing impersonal constructions in a range of typologically and genetically diverse languages.

The twenty chapters of the volume approach this topic from three different perspectives. The four chapters in part 1 treat general typological and theoretical aspects of impersonal constructions. Part 2 consists of three diachronic studies (all on Indo-European languages). Finally, part 3, the most extensive, presents thirteen case studies of impersonal constructions in individual languages or language families; these are ordered geographically. Not all the chapters can be discussed in detail here; we focus on a subset of them below.

In their introduction, the editors Andrej Malchukov and Anna Siewierska address the problems of identifying impersonal constructions on a cross-linguistic basis. They attribute the lack of comparative studies of impersonals in part to the difficulties of identifying impersonal constructions across languages. This is not surprising, as the term “impersonal” has been used to refer to a wide variety of phenomena. Semantically, impersonals cover weather and atmospheric expressions, experiential predicates, and presentational structures, among others. Structurally, impersonals include any construction lacking a referential subject; this includes both the so-called basic impersonals and impersonal passives. Finally, from the communicative-functional perspective, impersonals are understood as agent defocusing or backgrounding and their usage is sensitive to the effects of discourse. Most of the contributions of the volume adopt the structural definition of impersonals.

Part 1 begins with Malchukov and Akio Ogawa’s chapter on the typology of impersonal constructions. Acknowledging that the term impersonals encompasses different unrelated structures, the authors attempt to show that the domain of impersonal constructions has a certain structure. Focusing on impersonals as defined by structural criteria–i.e., constructions lacking a grammatical or referential subject–the authors first give an overview of the functional varieties of impersonal constructions and of their encoding. On the basis of this discussion, they propose a semantic map for the impersonal domain. Different functional varieties of impersonals are shown to display preferences for different coding strategies. Among them, T-impersonals (sensitive to topicality) provide a bridging domain between the domains of A-impersonals (sensitive to agentivity and animacy) and R-impersonals (sensitive to referentiality and definiteness). The authors’ choice of abbreviations is a little confusing, as A, R, and T also appear in the [End Page 226] volume in their more usual uses as abbreviations for the grammatical or thematic roles Agent, Recipient, and Theme (e.g., in the chapter on Central Alaskan Yupik). Malchukov and Ogawa pay less attention to meaning than could be desired; they do not discuss the semantic properties of the impersonal construction, and their examples of individual structural types are surprisingly homogenous semantically–for example, when they discuss constructions with nonreferential subjects, they adduce only expressions for weather and atmospheric phenomena. Finally, they do not explicitly discuss the empirical database from which their semantic map is derived, so that it remains unclear whether only the languages discussed in their section 3 were considered.

Siewierska’s chapter aims to establish the patterns of distribution of two kinds of so-called R-impersonals (impersonals sensitive to referentiality) found in the vast majority of European languages, namely, third-person plural impersonals and man constructions. The author found that the distribution of these two types of impersonals is affected by genetic, areal, and typological factors. In particular, the man construction is most strongly associated with the Germanic languages and French.

Part 2 consists of diachronic studies. The chapter by Michela Cennamo discusses the role of impersonal constructions in the rise of a split intransitive system in Late Latin. Anna Giacalone Ramat and Andrea Sansó analyze the development of...


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