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  • The diachrony of grammar by T. Givón
  • Bernd Heine
The diachrony of grammar. By T. Givón. (2 vols.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015. Pp. xi, 818. ISBN 9789027212207. $225 (Hb).

The text cover describes this publication as containing case studies spanning a lifetime of research into the diachrony of grammar. This characterization strikes me as being largely, though not entirely, appropriate: the main focus of the publication, as I see it, is less on the diachrony of grammar and more on how to use diachronic linguistics in order to understand language structure.

The publication consists of two volumes with thirty-two chapters, and the chapters are grouped into six parts. Part I (‘Perspective’) relates mainly to Givón’s early contributions dating back to the 1970s. In Part II (‘Out of Africa’), an analysis of data mostly taken from Bantu and other languages of the Niger-Congo family, as well as from Biblical Hebrew, is provided. Part III (‘Voices’) presents diachronic accounts of passive constructions in a range of different languages, proposing a general typology of passives in the final Ch. 17.

Part IV (‘High up in the mountain’) introduces the second volume with a reconstruction of various grammatical patterns in the Uto-Aztecan language Ute—a language and a society that has accompanied the author throughout his personal and academic career. A topic that became a [End Page 727] major theme in the later phase of his work, namely linguistic complexity, is highlighted in Part V (‘Complexity’), which contains case studies on phrasal and clausal syntax. In the final Part VI (‘Prospective’), various threads of analysis surfacing in the preceding parts are combined in search of a general explanatory account—an account that G characterizes as ‘a frontal assault on F. de Saussure’s corrosive legacy in linguistics’ (x). This part of the publication also includes a chapter on internal reconstruction where G sketches a methodology based on general principles of grammaticalization.

The concluding part of the publication contains a thirty-two-page bibliography (unfortunately, no information on the page range of articles is provided) and two indices, namely a language and a topic index, the latter also including an author index.

Throughout the two volumes, the reader is exposed to data from languages from many parts of the world. Most of the languages discussed are taken from North America, in particular Ute and Tolowa Athapaskan; Central America, including a number of Chibchan languages of Panama and Costa Rica (Ch. 24); and Africa, with Bantu languages such as Swahili, Bemba, and Lunda from the southern half of Africa and a range of West African Niger-Congo languages such as Ijo, Yoruba, and Efik (especially in Ch. 7). In addition, G is also concerned with creole and pidgin languages such as Krio of Sierra Leone and Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea. The vast majority of languages covered are predominantly or exclusively spoken languages, but G’s analysis also includes languages with a long tradition of writing, most of all English, Spanish, and Biblical Hebrew.

The topics covered in the publication include most parts of language structure, showing in detail how features characterizing grammatical categories in modern languages can be traced back to earlier morphosyntactic constructions that may have served quite different functions from the ones they express in the modern languages. A topic that surfaces in many chapters is that of basic word order, especially shifts from one word-order type to another. This interest in the arrangement of clausal participants leads G to hypothesize that the earliest forms of languages must have been verb-final (SOV) (Ch. 4). This hypothesis, for which he also finds support in many languages that are not (or are no longer) verb-final, has been influential beyond linguistics in discussions on the genesis of human language or languages.

G not only has shaped much of functional linguistics as we know it today, but can also be considered to be the founder of modern grammaticalization studies. His ‘archaeologist’s field trip’ (Givón 1971), reprinted in Ch. 1, marked the beginning of work on the rise and development of grammatical (or functional) categories as a distinct field of research, and...


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