LINGUIST List 14.224

Tue Jan 21 2003

Review: Pragmatics: Wallis, Otheguy, Stern (eds) (2002)

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  • Giampaolo Poletto, Wallis, Otheguy, Stern (eds) (2002), Signal, Meaning, and Message

    Message 1: Wallis, Otheguy, Stern (eds) (2002), Signal, Meaning, and Message

    Date: Tue, 21 Jan 2003 15:01:34 +0000
    From: Giampaolo Poletto <>
    Subject: Wallis, Otheguy, Stern (eds) (2002), Signal, Meaning, and Message

    Wallis, Reid; Otheguy, Ricardo; Stern, Nancy eds. (2002) Signal, Meaning and Message. Perspectives on sign-based linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia. SFSL 48. ISBN 90 272 1557 X (Eur.) - 1 5811 289 6 (US).

    Book Announcement on Linguist:

    Giampaolo Poletto, University of P�cs (HU), 2nd year Applied Linguistics PhD student.

    The comprehensive discussion of Columbia School Linguistics conferences, where the sign-based theory was exposed (see Contini-Morava and Goldberg 1995), lays the premises of this second volume, where a collection of sign-based inspired studies addresses specialists, aiming to frame the contribution to linguistics. The book is in three parts, bibliographical references are provided at the end of each paper, with tables, eventual appendixes and notes, indexes of names and subjects follow in conclusion. Contents cover two domains, familiarity with Columbia School sign-based theory and elaboration of themes connected to the papers, as specified in the introduction, where the conceptual axes along which the work unfolds are clearly defined, together with a brief on the papers below, not in the order they are presented in the volume.

    Part I Theoretical and Methodological Issues

    (What) do noun class markers mean? Ellen Contini-Morava, 3-64.

    Sign-oriented and cognitive-oriented approaches (see Langacker 1987, Reid 1991) to linguistic structures are integrated in the analysis of noun class markers in Swahili (see Dixon 1986, Contini-Morava 1996). Far more numerous than European gender classes, and each with internal semantic structure, Swahili noun class markers share no single set of defining semantic characteristics with associated classes of nouns. The metaphoric, metonymic and associative connections nouns form link them into a semantic network. Switching a marker may thus alterate the interpretation of a stem. Markers are impervious to analyses as straightforward meaning-bearing units, because the variable or intermittent effect does not allow to yield a consistent semantic value. They have meaning but class members have nothing in common. By analysing how three Swahili noun classes are structured semantically the cognitive perspective of the semantically related senses of a lexical item is envisioned. By focusing on their communicative function, they are discovered to maximize the use of pronouns instead of nouns. In the end, one out the four analytical options provided for the markers is chosen, because the semantic diversity of each class is recognized and each marker is posited a single value.

    Rethinking the Place of Statistics in Columbia School Analysis. Joseph Davis, 65-90.

    As to the role of statistics, Davis rejects chi-square test, often inappropriately used, due to the lack of statistical independence for observations in connected texts (see Woods et al. 1986). Inferences are not reliable because no ideal langue, no linguistic community, no population to randomically draw tokens from are envisioned. Furthermore, observations to be accounted for do not need to claim great generality, and the prevalence of a linguistic feature is of little or no interest in such studies. After providing tables, references and examples (see Davis 1992), the author concludes the role of statistics in Columbia School grammatical analysis to be relatively small, and occurring near the end of a definite modus operandi suitably supportive of a hypothesis, which may as well include analyzing a variety of genres or using inferential statistics.

    The Linguistic Sign in Its Paradigmatic Context: Autonomy Revisited. Mark J.Elson, 91-110.

    >From Bybee and Brewer's hypothesis (see 1980), and with other sign-based linguists' premise that the distribution of a form is a function of the meaning it bears, the issue of morphological change in verbal paradigm is here seen as distributional. The focus is on the autonomous feature of certain forms of verbal paradigms, supposed to serve as base to generate other forms, especially on the third, first and second person singular, in a scale of autonomy. Semantic complexity, opacity and frequency of occurrence are the factors the above hierarchy is based on. In a sign-based perspective, a member of verbal paradigm may be under-specified grammatically, given some circumstances; its expressive potential is superior to that of more specified forms, which makes it suitable as a word-level base for formal innovation, as with a dubbed 'first person singular' compatible with a first person plural. Part II Sign-Based Linguistic Analyses

    A Surpassingly Simple Analysis. Joseph Davis, 113-136.

    Skepticims about traditional categories and the notion of human language complexity (see Pinker 1994) nurture the author's study on pronominal reference in Italian, as to the third-person pronouns ess+, loro and s�, disjunctive demonstrative, reciprocal and reflexive respectively, characteristics reflected in grammatical categories which are found not matching the forms' use in texts, where they are all employed for both reflexive and non-reflexive reference. Davis then resorts to and tests the notion of information load: each pronoun signals an amount of - gender and number's information on its referent. Pronouns are therefore chosen according to what the reader needs to find their referent in the context.

    Serb-Croatian Deixis: Balancing Attention with Difficulty in Processing. Radmila J.Gorup, 137-156.

    The 2-tiered explanatory role of meaning underlies the analytical focus Radmila Gorup poses on the grammar-morphological issue of the 3-member Deixis (D) system of Serb-Croatian pronouns. They correspond to the English 'this' and 'that', and indicate a High, Mid and Low (HD, MD, LD) level of attention, depending on the pronoun referent appearance in discourse, as a speaker's specific signal (see Garcia 1975). It is part of a referent-finding strategy helping the hearer to locate the referent, with the formal-semantic correlate: HD, hard-to-find and difficult to process; MD, of medium difficulty and recently mentioned through a Noun; LD, with little or no difficulty and no particular communicative referent. Data are then statistically tested through contexts with deictic pronouns.

    Do's One Sign, One Meaning? Walter Hirtle, 157-170.

    Hirtle provides a further example of setting aside traditional distinctions, here syntactic, after Ruhl, lexical, and Davis, grammatical, through the analysis of the English do, in the search for semantic unity in its auxiliary, suppletive and main verb capacity. A progression of semantic specification is detected, as to duration, duration and change, duration, change and transitivity respectively. To capture this and maintain the sign unity, the author makes use of the concept of ideogenesis (see Guillaume 1984, 1987). A potential meaning links to operative conditions realizing portions of it in discourse, and turns out to delineate a semantic trajectory from minimal to maximal specification, along which the reader moves and stops, when the point for the degree of actualization of his mentally represented experience is found. Ideogenesis hence includes the word actual meanings observable in discourse.

    Data, Comprehensiveness, Monosemy. Charles Ruhl, 171-190.

    Aprioristic notions are here set aside in the lexical meaning area of a dictionary word multiple definitions, mainly borrowed from classical rethoric and philosophy. Wha alternatively emerges is the Comprehensiveness Principle, according to which the measure of a word's semantic contribution is not accuracy (in a single context) but comprehensiveness (in all contexts). The sign-based principle and dictionary tradition confrontation parallels monosemic- and polysemic-oriented research (see Fillmore 1970, Bolinger 1971, Ruhl 1989), with the latter definitely more plausible with a restricted data-base. When augmented with examples from language use, namely forty-nine, an interpretive continuum is created between the chosen items, breaking sticks and breaking in a new man, along with the idea of two discrete ''senses'' of break, whose following monosemic analysis, supported by further eighty-three examples, prove how information comes from the surrounding context and has been misattributed by the polysemic approach.

    Phonology As Human Behaviour: Initial Consonant Clusters Across Languages. Yishai Tobin, 191-256.

    With a thorough theoretical introduction, by means of detailed documentary tables (see Diver 1979, Davis 1984/1987, among the others) to support data provided for a variety of languages, Tobin deals with world languages as to some word-initial consonant clusters, classifiable as more frequent, less frequent or non-existent. One syllable words in English, for instance, have a frequent tr / sl combination of initial consonants, a rare - three cases - sf, a non-existent tl / sr. Such synchronic language facts are assumed to be due to diachronic pressures operating on speakers' selection of lexical items. Pressure originates from the difficulty of articulating either individual phonemes or sequences of phonemes in a language. Principles act over time up to a morphological natural selection which eliminates functionally less advantageous specimens, namely hard-to-pronounce words, excluded when lexical alternative exists. In phonological evolution there is an intrinsic articulatory advantage, lying on three principles: similar articulatory gestures are easier to pronounce; additional articulators increase pronounce difficulty; same articulator reuse in near phonetic environments is difficult. Predictions consequently to be tested on any language lay on data from these languages: thirty Indo-European, three Semitic, three Ugro-Finnic and one Caucasian. Sound changes occurred before completion of the evolutionary process may result in failures.

    Celtic Sense in Saxon Garb. Michael P. Wherrity, 257-272.

    Another cognitive inspired treatment is displayed in a study of Irish influence on American usage of a frequently occurring on + personal pronoun or noun structure, for an event happening to the disadvantage of the party involved. This parallels Irish Gaelic usage, but neither loan translation nor calque are suitable explanations to something structurally innovative in the English of Irish Americans. There is no semantic change in usage, either. An alternative analysis is offered, then, following Otheguy's (see Otheguy 1995). Innovative for English speakers and commonplace for Irish Gaelic speakers, structure and meaning originate out of 'conceptual affinity', as an extension of already established on messages, such as to play a joke on someone. If English was systemically capable of expressing the Irish-inspired message, speakers were not until exposed to the Irish model.

    Problems of Aspirations in Modern Standard Urdu. Abdul Azim, 273-308.

    Aspiration in Urdu, rich in stop consonants, allows the author to ideally extend Tobin's functional phonology. The p - t - k phonemes, together with the retroflex t., a palatal c, a post-dursum q, have all but the last aspirated versions (ph - th - t.h - ch - kh) and voiced versions (b - d - d. - j - g), which on their turn have an aspirated version (bh - dh - d.h - jh - gh), a unique feature in Indic families. The four-way classification - in the paper fully displayed - differs as both to their positions within the morpheme and the frequency in the lexicon, accordingly to their articulatory complexity (see Perkins and Kent 1986) and the functional loads at the word beginning or end. At the level of a systemic and typological asymmetry of phonemic inventory, two anomalous facts manifest: no garden variety h phoneme, despite using aspiration as a 'complicating factor' in two sets; a typologically rare and articulatorally unnatural voiced h. Due to the ease of acquisition factor, Azim maintains, a phoneme whose acquisition facilitates other phonemes's acquisition rightly has an ecological niche; the complex reasons for simple h absence in Urdu are then given.

    Part III Columbia School in the Context of 20th Century Linguistics

    Cognitive and Semiotic Modes of Explanation in Functional Grammar. Alan Huffman, 311-338.

    Cognitive linguistics and sign-based theory modes of explanation find a synthesis by confronting the views on word order, whose use is ''iconic'' and ''natural'' or which is the signal of a meaning respectively. The full-verb inversion in English is not tackled in non-semantic, syntactic terms, consistent with paradigms in traditional linguistic analyses, treating the subject-verb order to attribute post-posed subjects to syntactic triggers. S-V and V-S are sequences to be viewed as signals of grammatical meanings relative to the discourse focus (see Birner 1992). The use of each hints at the speaker's desire precisely to signal the relevant meaning; consequently the desire hints at the meaning discourse function in the narrative structuring. That demonstrate the quantitative and qualitative analysis of 'Pioneers!' and 'Lord of the Flies'.

    The Future of a Minimalist Linguistics in a Maximalist World. Robert S.Kirsner, 339-372.

    Major criticisms of Columbia School, especially from cognitive linguists, are here examined: a too reductionist approach, for postulating sparse meanings for linguistic forms; unconvincing analyses, when pragmatic factors explain how they convey concrete messages; analytical control, not psychologically grounded. A first response is that meanings are as too sparse in Columbia School as too complex when precise out of massive polysemy for successful communication. A second one is that linguistic theories are not neurological structure, which is proved by other theories similar shortcomings in psychological guidance. A final one considers language not a self-contained representational system, rather a communicative tool knowledge experience and contextual factors enable to function. In the end, Columbia School can rightly contribute to linguistics as to its therapeutic function, in forcing others to look at problems and data from a different perspective, and its empirical methodology, involving genuinely experimental techniques to be continuously developed and refined.

    Saussurean Anti-Nomenclaturism in Grammatical Analysis: A Comparative Theoretical Perspective. Ricardo Otheguy, 373-404.

    Saussurean, Chomskyan, traditional and Columbia School positions are duly exemplified and confronted (see Chomsky 1957, Harris 1988, Nichols & Woodbury 1984, Reid 1991). The epistemological grondwork for the search for objectivity is here comparatively laid starting from Saussurean radical anti-nomenclaturism as to linguistic categories, to be discovered by linguistic principles, such as the linguistic sign. They are posited as not deriving from philosophy or logic, without the external motivation western tradition has been relying on, due to the fact that language is a system unto itself, thus discarding the concepts of meaning as reference and language as cognition, and that meaning and structure are both language internal and language particular. Given the signifiant and signifi� fixed association, a language is to be approached setting aside all traditional grammatical categories, whereas semantic and structural ones hold no privileged status, rather develop hypotheses to be tested out, and looking for categories in regular relation to form.


    The knowledge of the fist volume contents, here constantly recalled, is necessary to tie together and frame otherwise distant points. There is a unique methodological empirical perspective and many objects of investigation to support mainly comparative theoretical approaches. To embed all in a coherent framework is not an easy task: there are past linguistic theories, actual studies and the future of Columbia School. The scenario is diachronically wide and sinchronically complex, as each paper displaying the analysis of a specific issue shows. Just the gap from general premises to very particular insights may result hard to fill sometimes, unless basic notions provided are immediately clear. Accuracy and documentary thoroughness are on the other hand remarkable; that testifies - and is mostly to appreciate - how concreteness is extremely relevant in this functionalist approach, resulting in analyses which supply with a variety of valuable data, perspectives and suggestions.


    Birner, Bety j. 1992. The Discourse Function of Inversion in English. Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University.

    Bolinger, D. 1971. "Semantic overloading: a restudy of the verb remind" Language 47: 555-73.

    Bybee, J. and M. Brewer. 1980. "Explanation in Morphophonemics: Changes and Proven�al and Spanish preterite forms." Lingua 52(3/4): 201-242.

    Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton Publishers. Contini-Morava, Ellen and Barbara Sussman Goldsberg (eds). 1995. Meaning as Explanation: Advances in linguistic sign theory. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Contini-Morava, Ellen 1996 "Things - in a Noun Class Language: Semanic functions of grammatical agreement in Swahili". In Edna Andrews and Yishai Tobin (eds), Toward a Calculus of Meaning: Studies in markedness, distinctive features and deixis. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.

    Davis, Joseph. 1984/1987. "A Combinatory Phonology of Italian." Columbia University Working Papers in Linguistics 8: 1-99.

    Davis, Joseph. 1992. Italian egli and lui: Grammatical meaning and inference. Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University.

    Diver, William. 1979. "Phonology as Human Behavior." In D. Aaronson and P. Reiber (eds), Psycholinguistic Research: Implications and applications. Hillside NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 161-186.

    Dixon, R.M.W. 1986. "Noun classes and Noun Classification in Typological Perspective." In Colette Craig (ed), Noun classes and categorization. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 105-112.

    Fillmore, C. 1970. "The grammar of hitting and breaking." In R. Jacobs and P. Rosenbaum (eds), Readings in Transformational Grammar. Waltham, MA: Ginn, 120-33.

    Garcia, Erica. 1975. The Role of Theory in Linguistic Analysis: The Spanish Pronoun System. Amsterdam: North Holland. Guillaume, Gustave. 1984. Foundations for a Science of Language. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.

    Guillaume, Gustave. 1987. Le�ons de linguistique de Gustave Guillaume 1947-1948, s�rie C: Grammaire particuli�re du fran�ais et grammaire g�n�rale III. Quebec: Presses de la Universit� Laval et Lille, Presses Universitaires de Lille.

    Harris, Roy. 198. Language, Saussure, and Wittgenstein: How to pla games with words. London and New ork: Routledge.

    Langacker, Ronald. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Nichols, Johanna and Anthony Woodbury (eds). 1984. Grammar Inside and Outside the Clause: Some views of theory from the field. Cambridge University Press.

    Otheguy, R. 1995. "When Contact Speakers Talk, Linguistic Theory Listens." In E. Contini-Morava and B. Sussman Goldberg (eds), Meaning as Explanation: Advances in linguistic sign theory. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Perkins, William H. and Raymond D. Kent. 1986. Functional Anatomy of Speech, Language, and Hearing. San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.

    Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Istinct. New York: Harper Perennial.

    Reid, Wallis. 1991. Verb and Noun Number in English: A functional explanation. London and New ork: Longman Publishers.

    Ruhl, C. 1989. On Monosemy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

    Woods, Anthony, Paul Fletcher, and Arthur Hughes. 1986. Statistics in Language Studies. Cambridge University Press. 1993.


    Bachelor in Foreign Languages and Literature, English and Russian, and Humanities in Italy, Giampaolo Poletto is a second year PhD student in Applied Linguistics at the University of P�cs, in Hungary, with teaching qualifications for secondary schools in English and in Italian, taught in Italy and abroad for ten years, with a research project which, by focusing on humor, combines linguistics and teaching, with a pragmatic and semantic analysis of a corpus of texts and a didactic synthesis through the production of possibly multimedial material for Italian S/FL students; that should sort of collect past personal teaching experiences and studies, feed a linguistic and thematically oriented research programme, open new work and study perspectives.