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Review Fournet

Review Fournet

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Published by Arnaud Fournet

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Published by: Arnaud Fournet on Jul 26, 2013
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SKY Journal of Linguistics 24 (2011), x–x
Metslang, Helle (ed.). (2009)
 Estonian in Typological Perspective
,Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung (Language Typology andUniversals). Volume 62, issue 1/2. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. Pp. 164.Reviewed by Arnaud FournetAs the title indicates, the work under review is a thematic issue of the journal
Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung
) dedicated tothe Estonian language. To some extent it has intermediary features betweena journal and a book. It focuses on a particular language but remainsstructured like a journal, with no numbered chapters and papers havingtheir own references after their conclusions. A first impression about thecopy in hand is that the papers could have been presented in a different –and possibly more logical – order, for example: phonology, then parts of speech and morphology, then grammatical issues, etc. No apparentrationale for the order of the papers can be found.Rather conventionally the journal comprises a preface and eightarticles, for a total of 164 pages, the table of contents being on the fourthcover. The preface shortly describes Estonian and the history of thelanguage, and offers a summary of each paper. Generally speaking, thepapers are both descriptive of Estonian and address specific issues at thesame time. There are numerous examples, some of them being data takenfrom actual sources. Most of the papers are data-oriented and not theory-oriented, which makes them definitely informative about Estonian. It is notabsolutely necessary to be familiar with Estonian prior to reading thepapers but not infrequently it is not clear how words in examples should beparsed. Extra lines with a detailed parsing would have been welcome.Sometimes one wishes descriptions were more detailed with more data sothat issues and relevant data could be more easily and more thoroughlyunderstood. Maybe this situation is due to space limitations and guidelines,each paper having approximately 20 pages at most. On the whole, thepapers provide an extensive overview of Estonian both as a language per seand in comparison with Finnish, its closest relative, and (Indo-)Europeanlanguages, which are used as a kind of absolute and/or areal reference.Although published in a journal expected to focus on typology, severalpapers do not have a truly typological content but an areal comparativeperspective or even amount to describing Estonian on a synchronic basis.
Several papers mention the fact that the standard literary language isdifferent from the regional varieties and also (slightly) different from anemerging common Estonian spoken koine. From a sociolinguistic point of view, Estonian would then seem to know a double-deck diglossia. Thissituation could have been dealt with in a separate paper on a typologicalbasis.“Typological overview of Estonian syntax” by Mati Ehelt is a verydense article that nearly amounts to a grammatical digest. It is highlyinformative, although the absence of parsing in the examples is a veryinfortunate hindrance. The survey often relies on a “top-down”semasiological approach: for example, it divides clauses as existential,possessive, experiential, etc. and examines their formal, typological andsemantic features. “Bottom-up” formal criteria are also used: regular orinverted, adverbial, etc. So is sometimes semantics: modality, measureadverbial, etc.“Linguistic strategies and markedness in Estonian morphology” byMartin Ehala assesses to which extent Estonian can be consideredagglutinative or inflectional when it comes to nouns, adjectives and verbs.Morphology is to be understood as marking case, degree, or tense.Derivational morphology is conspicuously absent when the same issuecould be raised in the case of words derived by affixes from other items(with similar or different lexical classes). The methodology followed in thepaper is cleanly and linearly described: it hinges on stem alternations andsegmentability between the stems and the suffixes. The word
isused but it is not clear what in particular is thereby implied. The secondpart of the paper surveys whether and how a number of grammaticalcategories, such as case, tense, mood, persons, etc. are indicated or“marked” by explicit segments. Estonian is at the same time compared touniversal tendencies (as first surveyed by Greenberg, etc.). The paperreaches the conclusion that verbs follow an agglutinative pattern whilenouns follow a mainly inflectional one.“Estonian grammar between Finnish and SAE: some comparisons” byHelle Metslang examines typological features of Estonian when comparedto its genetic relatives like Finnish, or to its neighbors or superstrates. Itbegins with a painful reminder that Estonian has been under foreigninfluence for centuries, by Low German, Russian and now English. Thefirst part compares Estonian with Indo-European languages and does sothrough the grid of SAE features of Haspelmath, which in my opinion isnot clearly representative and focuses on details rather than the most
prominent features: for example, it does not include grammatical gender orresort to a copula like
to be
. In all cases Estonian does not appear to beSAE according to that grid, and neither does Finnish. The second partexamines the differences between Estonian and Finnish and endeavors toshow they may be caused by direct influence from either German orRussian. To some extent the paper deals with two issues at the same time.It might have been interesting to deal only with the second issue and thento add regional forms of Estonian or Baltic German to the picture. On thewhole, these issues are extremely complex and would need much morespace to be addressed. Some examples are striking: Estonian relativepronoun
= German
, a clear calque. An interactionistor structuralist approach may also add a causalist perspective to the paper.“The voice system of Estonian” by Reeli Torn-Leesik examines therelationships between the so-called personal (or active), impersonal andpassive “voices” or verbal forms in Estonian. It is different from the otherpapers both in tone and purpose. The style appears somewhat critical andopinionated, and the issues are more theoretical. It contains sentences takenfrom real sources, although cited in indirect and incomplete ways (as far asI checked some), but it is not clearly as descriptive as the others and aimsto “prove” personal stances on a topic that the references intuitively revealas a complex and controversial one about Estonian, and more generallyBalto-Finnic. The issues discussed are indeed stimulating but on the wholethe paper does not enable the reader to figure out what the issues really areand what to conclude. To begin with, it would have been interesting todefine and discuss what a “voice” is, in general and in Estonian. As theissues are complex, typological insight would have been most fruitful. It isalso odd to read that the Active or Personal voice is not listed among “thetwo main voices” of Estonian. In addition one of the premises underlyingthe conclusions of the author is that “the passive voice is a valence-reducing operation, whereas the impersonal merely constraints argumentrealization” (p. 72). This sounds like a postulation, as formal, semantic,pragmatic, grammatical features and considerations are not so easy todistinguish and disentangle. In all cases it would have been interesting tocompare Estonian with Celtic (mentioned in the paper) and Latin (notcited) where a similar formal and semantic porosity between passive andimpersonal forms exists. In Celtic, Impersonal forms are not a separatevoice but belong to the Active voice. The reasons to posit EstonianImpersonal forms as belonging to a full-fledged separate “voice” are notobvious on the basis available in the paper. The trichotomy of Personal

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