The Grammatical Function Hierarchy

The following sample essay on The grammatical function hierarchy. In linguistics, a great deal of work revolves around phrase structure and comprehension of that phrase structure: ‘decoding’ it, if you will. This is something that concerns many different linguistic specialists, from syntacticians to translators, and in order to examine the phrase structure (noun phrase {NP}, verb phrase {VP} etc.) it is vital to understand the elements that make up such a phrase structure and how they interact with one another. These elements are known as grammatical functions, and they refer to syntactic relationships between parts of speech, such as subject, object, adjunct and complement (as distinct from the semantic notions of agent and patient).

Grammatical functions determine the semantic roles and pragmatic functions of the noun phrase, as well as governing sentence structure and dictating constraints.

Grammatical functions are essentially labels of relations in a network, and many grammarians have suggested that they cannot operate simultaneously, but rather, in some sort of hierarchy.

There are several types of network available, such as relational networks (on the left) and configurational networks (on the right): Grammatical functions are therefore defined by Avery Andrews, and others, as being any relationship that it might be useful to recognise which is definable over the sentence structures of a language, regardless of the extent to which it is important for the grammatical principles of that language.1 The notion of a grammatical function hierarchy (also referred to as the agreement hierarchy, and both names will be used in this paper) therefore deserves further exploration, along with any evidence that might motivate it.

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Andrews first attempts to define various types of grammatical function, using the terms core, oblique, and external. In his view, these constitute successive layers of clause structure and therefore provide the foundations for the grammatical function hierarchy. He classes the core and the oblique as ‘internal’, whereby the core is syntactic (consisting of A, the agent; S, the single argument; and O, the patient) and the oblique is semantic (consisting of ‘the others’ – that is, complements and adjuncts). The external, conversely, is pragmatic, and the pragmatic is further divided into two categories: that of the free and that of the bound, whereby the bound has a wider range of pragmatic effects, such as the indication of focus, presupposition or presentational articulation. The whole of the external category is considered independent of the system of internal grammatical relations, and thought of as being ‘superposed’ onto it. Other texts refer to this as an ‘overlay function’.

This explanation begins to give the interested reader an insight into how the grammatical function hierarchy may be structured, and in their article on noun-phrase accessibility, Keenan and Comrie expand even further on this concept. They identify the grammatical function hierarchy, or noun phrase accessibility, a syntax-free way of identifying relative clauses in an arbitrary language. The grammatical function hierarchy therefore shares with X-bar theory the quality of generalisation: both aim to consolidate a single simplification of human language structure.

The theory relies on a semantically based definition of relative clauses. Right from the outset, Keenan and Comrie state explicitly that they consider “any syntactic object to be a relative clause if it specifies a set of objects (perhaps a one-member set) in two steps: a larger set is specified, called the domain of relativization, and then restricted to some subset of which a certain sentence, the restricting sentence, is true.” In this respect, then, noun phrase accessibility is almost certainly a theory of relativity of sorts, and it is this that Keenan and Comrie emphasise throughout their dossier. They theorise that the variation in the relative ability of noun-phrase positions is far from random, and that rather, this relativisability of certain positions is dependent upon that of others, and that furthermore, these dependencies are universal. The accessibility hierarchy, as given below, therefore allows for the expression of relative accessibility to relativisation of the noun phrase position in simplex main clauses.

The positions on the accessibility hierarchy are to be understood as specifying a set of possibly grammatical distinctions that a language may make. However, Keenan and Comrie also specify some hierarchy constraints, whereby a language must be able to relativise subjects, any relative clause-forming strategy must apply to a continuous segment of the agreement hierarchy, and strategies that apply at one point of the hierarchy may in principle cease and apply at any lower point.4 The second point, according to Keenan and Comrie, lies at the crux of justification of actual ordering of terms in the accessibility hierarchy.

Ultimately, it appears that the aim of the grammatical function hierarchy is to determine the degree of accessibility to relative clause formation. It is only with the introduction of the Primary Relativisation Constraint, however, that this intuition is made explicit. According to this constraint, a language must have a primary relative clause-forming strategy. Additionally, if a primary strategy in a given language can apply to a low position on the hierarchy then it can also apply to all higher positions, and furthermore, a primary strategy may cut off at any point on the hierarchy. There are therefore several provisos attached to the formation and operation of the grammatical function hierarchy – but what of any evidence that motivates it?

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The Grammatical Function Hierarchy. (2019, Dec 05). Retrieved from

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