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Review of Contrastive studies in construction grammar

posted January 31st, 2012

Contrastive studies in construction grammar. Ed. by Hans C. Boas. (Constructional approaches to language 10). Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. Pp. vii, 244. ISBN 9789027204325. $135 (Hb).

Reviewed by Natalia Levshina, University of Leuven

This book contains several contrastive analyses of constructions in English and other languages. Assuming a meaning-based (onomasiological) approach, the studies demonstrate similarities and differences in the encoding of the same meaning in contrasted languages. The volume is a significant milestone in the development of the constructionist theory and practice, which tends to focus on one language (most commonly English).

In the introductory chapter, the editor outlines the general aims and principles of this contrastive enterprise. The existing construction grammars have displayed a remarkable lack of interest in crosslinguistic comparisons and generalizations, probably as a reaction to formalist syntactic theories and the pursuit of a universal grammar. Questioning this, the editor proposes the detailed bottom-up meaning-based approach, which will ‘eventually allow scholars to systematically compile an inventory of constructions with equivalent semantic-functional counterparts in other languages’ (2). The ultimate goal of the approach is to identify crosslinguistic generalizations in the form of implicational universals and grammaticalization paths.

The first part of the volume contains a few articles that contrast English constructions with other Indo-European languages. The corpus-based study of English and Swedish comparatives by Martin Hilpert demonstrates that comparatives, though strikingly similar, display many surprising peculiarities at the phonological, morphosyntactic, semantic, and pragmatic levels. An article by Francisco Gonzálves-García compares the English and Spanish accusative-with-infinitive constructions and finds crosslinguistic differences in the division of labor between semantic and information structure factors, and also in the degree of productivity of the constructions. In her contribution ‘Conditional constructions in English and Russian’, Olga Gurevich demonstrates that the choice between two Russian conditional constructions allows for the encoding of the speaker’s viewpoint, whereas English conditionals can indicate different degrees of the epistemic stance.

In the second part of the book, the approach is extended to non-Indo-European languages. In his contribution ‘Results, cases, and constructions’, Jaakko Leino finds that the correspondences between the English and Finnish argument structure constructions are constrained by typological, cultural, construal-based, and idiomatic differences. In their empirical contrastive study of the caused-motion and ditransitive constructions in English and Thai, Napasri Timyam and Benjamin K. Bergen find that the constructions are marked by different semantic and pragmatic constraints, although the latter reflect the universal mechanisms of language. The article ‘On expressing measurement and comparison in English and Japanese’ by Yoko Hasegawa, Russell Lee-Goldman, Kyoko Hirose Ohara, Seiko Fujii, and Charles J. Fillmore investigates measurement expressions in English and Japanese. The tertium comparationis of the contrastive analysis is the semantic information from the English and Japanese FrameNet. The final article in the volume by William A. Croft, Jóhanna Barðdal, Willem Hollmann, Violeta Sotirova, and Chiaki Taoka revises the well-known typological classification of complex event constructions by Leonard Talmy. As a result of a fine-grained analysis of a few complex event exemplars in different languages (e.g. English, Dutch, Icelandic, Bulgarian, and Japanese), the authors devise a universal implication scale that constrains language variation in expressing these events.

The broad range of languages and constructions discussed make this book a valuable contribution to the descriptive and theoretical inventory of construction grammar. The studies also demonstrate convincingly that constructions as form-meaning pairings are viable units of analysis, which allow for crosslinguistic generalizations.