The Atoms of Language

LIN 2015 CoverArticle written by Bozhil Hristov based on an article in Journal of Linguistics 

In line with what is expected of this type of publication, my review article of Anna Kibort & Greville G. Corbett (eds.), Features: Perspectives on a key notion in linguistics (Oxford Linguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 333, sets itself several targets. The primary goal is to summarise and assess the book, while also seeking to take up and further develop some of the central ideas. In addition, it places the book in its wider linguistic context by drawing attention to some of the current debates and preoccupations of the field.

The opening sections summarise and evaluate the contents of the edited volume, attempting to do justice to the wealth of perspectives it offers. Its chapters deal with long-established linguistic features such as case, gender, tense, or animacy, which can be thought of as equivalent to the atoms of chemistry. The book considers various features (phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic) from the vantage points of approaches as diverse as typology (the study of the common properties and structural diversity in the languages of the world), computational linguistics, and formal theories like Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar or Minimalism, which normally provide competing explanations of observed linguistic phenomena.

The discussion section of the article then takes up several of the unifying threads that run through the volume, including how valid or real features are and how they correspond within a single language, as well as cross-linguistically. Another key issue concerns the boundaries between the traditional areas of morphology, syntax and semantics. I argue for a syntactic treatment of what has been referred to as periphrastic tense constructions in Bulgarian, including the future and the perfect, where a category is expressed with more than one word. I believe that the syntactic treatment of those structures ensures greater language-internal and cross-linguistic consistency in setting up features and assigning their values. After briefly examining animacy in Bulgarian, I conclude that it is sometimes especially difficult to draw boundaries between the fields of semantics and morphosyntax in view of the operation and classification of features. Finally, a case is made for treating tense at least as partly morphosyntactic in English, due to the so called backshift or sequence of tenses – essentially morphosyntactic agreement in tense. I take issue with the prevalent current assumptions about the strictly morphosemantic nature of tense across the board, as they relegate it to the ranks of the morphologically marked categories which only express semantic (i.e. meaning) distinctions, without participating in syntactic processes.

Throughout the article, we keep coming up against fuzzy boundaries which undermine neat classification. Nowhere is this pervasive reality of human language seen more clearly than in examining the ubiquitous and indispensable features that constitute its complex grid of atoms. And yet, the article and the book it reviews show equally clearly how linguists try to bring order out of chaos in a valiant attempt to improve our understanding of this challenging inherent complexity.

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