Oblique predicative constructions in English

by Bas Aarts (University College London)

English allows for a predicative phrase to occur after the prepositions for and as in constructions like the following:

(1) We took her for a friend.
(2) They left her for dead.

(3) I regarded her as a genius.
(4) She rates his work as excellent.

The phrases introduced by for and as in these constructions introduce either a noun phrase or adjective phrase constituent that is predicated of the postverbal noun phrase in each case. I will call the V + NP + [PP P+NP/AdjP] construction the oblique predicative construction, and the complement of the preposition an oblique predicative complement. The construction with for is the older one, and is found in many unrelated languages, including Gothic, Greek, Latin, Russian, Spanish, Dutch and German, as Jespersen (1909-49, IV: 386) has shown.

In this paper I will trace the history of predicative oblique constructions involving for and as and a number of additional prepositions from Old English onwards. I will then discuss the huge range of constructions in which predicative for appears, and how these differ from constructions with as, which gradually became dominant in Present-Day English. By looking at a range of data I will investigate whether the claim that for and as are interchangeable, made by the OED, Jespersen and Poutsma, is valid. I will argue that for a number of reasons it is unsustainable. I will look at one of these reasons in detail, namely the observation that for has acquired a subtly specialised meaning which has come to differentiate it from as.


This paper will be read at the Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society in Cambridge, Murray Edwards College, Buckingham House Seminar Room, on Saturday, 15 June 2019, 4.15pm.

Functions of Vowel Length in Language: Phonological, Grammatical, & Pragmatic Consequences

by Larry Hyman (University of California, Berkeley)

In this talk my starting point is to frame the different functions of vowel length (lexical, morphological, syntactic, pragmatic) in terms of how they compare with other phonological properties, in particular tone, which has been claimed to be able to do things that “nobody” else can do (Hyman 2011). Rather than providing a cross-linguistic typology, I focus on the different functions of vowel length in Bantu—as well as how these functions have changed. Although Proto-Bantu had a vowel length contrast on roots which survives in many daughter languages today, many other Bantu languages have modified the inherited system. In this talk I distinguish between four types of Bantu languages:

  1. Those which maintain the free occurrence of the vowel length contrast inherited from the proto language;
  2. Those which maintain the contrast, but have added restrictions which shorten long vowels in pre-(ante-)penultimate word position and/or on head nouns and verbs that are not final in their XP;
  3. Those which have lost the contrast with or without creating new long vowels (e.g. from the loss of an intervocalic consonant flanked by identical vowels);
  4. Those which have lost the contrast but have added phrase-level penultimate lengthening.

I will propose that the positional restrictions fed into the ultimate loss of the contrast in types (3) and (4), with a concomitant shift from root prominence (at the word level) to penultimate prominence (at the intonational and phrase level). In the course of covering the above typology and historical developments in Bantu, I will show that there are some rather interesting Bantu vowel length systems that may or may not be duplicated elsewhere in the world and that vowel length is probably second only
to tone in what it can do.


This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting at SOAS, University of London, Djam Lecture Theatre (DLT, Main SOAS Building), on Friday, 15 February, 4.15pm.

Continue reading “Functions of Vowel Length in Language: Phonological, Grammatical, & Pragmatic Consequences”

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 5

Syntax and semantics of modal predicates in Indo‐European

by Carlotta Viti (University of Zurich)

This paper discusses the syntactic variation of modal predicates between structures with a nominative primary argument and those with an oblique primary argument. In the literature, this variation is related to a change from deontic to epistemic meanings, whereby epistemicity seems to be more commonly expressed by highly grammaticalized impersonal constructions. After having shown the weakness of this relationship, I suggest a new explanation for the variation of modal predicates on the basis of diverse ancient Indo‐European languages, such as Vedic, Ancient Greek and Latin, as well as of some of their modern descendants, especially Hindi, Modern Greek, and standard and colloquial Italian. I argue that modal predicates with an oblique primary argument are favoured for functions of necessity, while modal predicates with a nominative primary argument preferably express functions of possibility. This reflects the different meanings of the lexical sources of these predicates, that is, capacity or power for predicates of possibility, and lack or obligation for predicates of necessity, which also imply different degrees of agentivity and control.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12116

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 3

Syntactic Echoes of Pronominal Cliticization and Grammaticalization: The Case of Old High German First‐Person Plural ‐mes

by Katerina Somers (Queen Mary University of London), Mary Allison, Matthew Boutilier, Robert Howell (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

The origin of first person plural (1PL) ‘long’ forms of the type faramês/‐mes ‘(we) go’ in Old High German (OHG) is one of the most intractable problems in the history of the Germanic languages. Because these forms are confined only to OHG and have no obvious parallel elsewhere in Germanic or Indo‐European, most of the tools of the comparative method are of little use, with the result that the many accounts put forward over the past two centuries rely on a series of unlikely and ad hoc assumptions. What is more, previous work has focused on the one aspect of the problem that scholars are least likely to solve given the array of texts we presently have at our disposal, while paying little attention to what we argue is the more promising line of inquiry. That is, existing studies discuss in detail the possible morphological sources of ‐mes and their phonological development and focus little on the syntactic environments in which verbs inflected with ‐mes occur. We intend to reverse this trend through a comprehensive examination of ‐mes across the OHG corpus, with a particular focus on two of its major monuments, the OHG Tatian and Otfrid’s Evangelienbuch; this analysis shows that the syntactic distribution of ‐mes‐inflected verbs point to the suffix being diachronically and synchronically pronominal. Thus, we conclude that ‐mes must have arisen as the result of pronominal cliticization, a suggestion first put forth by Kuhn (1869) and Paul (1877).

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12117

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 1

Non‐Negative Word Order In Breton: Maintaining Verb‐Second

by Holly J. Kennard (University of Oxford)

This paper examines variation in Breton word order patterns in non‐negative utterances across speakers of different ages. Not only has there been some disagreement on how best to characterise unmarked word order in Breton, it has also been claimed that younger speakers of so‐called Neo‐Breton overuse subject‐initial word order under influence from French. Data from fieldwork provide a complex picture of word order variability. This seems to be driven by a number of factors, including the nature of the subject (lexical or pronominal), regional variation among older speakers, and a corresponding lack of regional features among younger speakers. Rather than overusing subject‐initial word order, the Neo‐Breton speakers tend to avoid this word order pattern when other word orders are available, such that the verb‐second pattern is being maintained.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12119

Parallel evolution of relative clauses in Indo-European

by Nikolas Gisborne & Robert Truswell (University of Edinburgh)

The Indo-European indefinite/interrogative pronouns *k wi-/k wo- are the source of relative pronouns in several daughter languages, including varieties of Romance, Slavic, and Germanic among others. These pronouns did not head relative clauses in PIE, and so their presence in the relative clauses of the daughter languages is a result of processes of historical evolution which have recurred in different subfamilies. However, this recurring parallel process is by and large confined to Indo-European. Comrie (1998) claims instead that the interrogative relative pronoun strategy is a European areal phenomenon, because it is also found in neighbouring languages such as Hungarian and Georgian. However, there is ample evidence that endogenous innovation gives rise to interrogative relativizers in English and several other Indo-European languages. This suggests that such endogenous processes may be wholly or partly responsible for the emergence of interrogative relativizers across Indo-European. However, these processes are not the same across daughter languages: there appear to be several meandering paths from the same start point to similar endpoints.

In this talk, we establish a framework for describing both the parallel diachronic pathways and the dimensions of variation around those pathways. The broad outline of the parallel developments can be established by combining a typological perspective on Indo-European indefinite/interrogatives with results from Haspelmath (1997) on the relationship between interrogative and indefinite pronouns, from Belyaev & Haug (2014) on the typology of correlatives and conditionals, and from Haudry (1973) on the relationship between correlatives and headed relatives. At the same time, the behaviour of individual lexical items within this typological space is less predictable, accounting for the variation around this broad pathway.

This paper was read at the Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society in Oxford, Somerville College, on Saturday, 16 June, 4.15pm.

An audio recording and screencast of the paper can be found below and on the Society’s YouTube channel. A PDF version of the presentations is also available.

TPS 116(1) – Abstract 4

Chinese cleft structures and the dynamics of processing

by Wei Liu (Beijing Jiaotong University) & Ruth Kempson (King’s College London)

This paper addresses the challenge of Chinese cleft structures, involving a pairing of the particles shi and de, which in different combinations display a variety of focus‐related effects and different potentials for ambiguity: clefts and pseudo‐clefts in particular differ only in order of the elements. We argue that retaining conventional assumptions necessarily involves positing unrelated structures and multiple ambiguities, leaving the systematicity of variation unexplained; and we go on to argue that it is only by turning to a dynamic framework in which syntax is defined as mechanisms for incremental build‐up of interpretation that an integrated characterisation of these effects is made possible. Adopting the Dynamic Syntax framework (Cann et al 2005), we argue that shi and de induce procedures for incremental build‐up of construal which feed and can be fed by other such procedures; and we show how the array of effects both in clefts and pseudo‐clefts can be shown to follow from the dynamics of building up interpretation reflecting online processing.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12106