Towards grammatical iconicity of language: a crosslinguistic study of P demotion constructions

The current project investigates grammatical voice from a functional-typological perspective to understand the relationship between linguistic form and meaning ( or 'function'). It focuses on the class of voice alternations, which can be exemplified by (1) from English: Paula hit the fence (1a) vs. Paula hit at the fence (1b). The hallmark of such alternations is that A (subject) of transitive constructions is coded like a subject, while the P (object) is syntactically demoted, which means that this argument loses the properties of a core argument. This loss can be signaled in languages by a change in the form of the verb and/or in the form of the P, as in (1b). In the P demotion constructions the semantic roles of agent and patient assigned to the A (subject) and P (object) respectively remain the same. Consequently, (1a) and (1b) are in a semantic affinity.

Given the above, grammatical voice can be defined as referring to the linking of the semantic roles (agent, patient) of a verb with its grammatical functions (subject, object), suggesting that these two are closely related. This led many scholars to delve deeper into the form-meaning relationship to check whether regularities can be detected. Previous research has shown little agreement on this topic, and the results are rather inconclusive. Scholars disagree on whether the relationship between form and meaning is organized (‘iconic’) or simply arbitrary. Even if recent studies have proven that the syntactic structure of human language can be iconically motivated (e.g. Givón 1994), the overall tension between the iconic vs. arbitrary approach to language organization is still pronounced and provokes many debates in the field.

We will address two main research questions in the project: (i) How is the form and meaning related in the P demotion domain? (ii) How do P demotion constructions differ in the world’s languages in terms of form and meaning? These two will be followed by the secondary research questions: (iii) Is it possible to discern any areal, genealogical, or typological patterns in the distribution of P demotion constructions? What generalizations do they yield? (iv) What is the historical link between the functional varieties of P demotion constructions?

We will bridge the quantitative and qualitative approaches to examine the form-meaning link in the P demotion domain. To obtain statistically significant results, we will look at the P demotion constructions in 60 languages from Africa, Papunesia, North America, South America, Eurasia, and Australia. We will adopt multivariate typology (Bickel 2010), an approach that ensures crosslinguistic comparability and exhaustive description of the investigated phenomenon. We hypothesize that even if some P demotion constructions have a broader use, different functional varieties of P demotion constructions (where the P lacks some of the functional properties of a prototypical object) are encoded by different P demotion constructions. The form-function connection will be evaluated in a tool, designed specifically for this purpose, i.e. a semantic map.

The results will deepen our knowledge of the universality and variability of human language. Defining formal and functional properties of P demotion crosslinguistically will result in a better understanding of voice, in general, and the form-meaning link, in particular. The expected results will also provide new insights into how P demotion constructions evolved and are related. Finally, defining the principle motivating the form-function relationship within the P demotion domain will advance our understanding of the cognitive aspects of iconicity.

Katarzyna Janic

Katarzyna Janic

Katarzyna Janic is a postdoctoral researcher. She obtained her Ph.D. under the supervision of Professor Denis Creissels at Lyon 2 University in France (2013). Her thesis ‘The antipassive in accusative languages’ was awarded the prestigious Greenberg Award from the Association of Linguistic Typology, honoring outstanding contributions to linguistic typology (2015).

She has solid teaching experience, gained at Lyon 2 University. She taught general linguistics and methodological courses at the B.A. level for almost six years.

Katarzyna Janic started her postdoctoral research career at Zürich University, where she carried out her project granted by the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship  (2016-2017). The interaction with the host mentor, Prof. Bickel, was an essential step to deepen her expertise in distributional typology. Then, Katarzyna Janic continued at Leipzig University as a member of the ERC project ‘Grammatical Universals’ held by Prof. Haspelmath (2017-2020).  Her research is versed in a language structure investigated from a crosslinguistically comparative perspective. She worked extensively in the domain of voice and valency with special attention to antipassive, reflexive, and benefative constructions.

The milestones of Katarzyna Janic's typological research are: (i) the first edited volume on antipassive constructions published in 2021 with Benjamins in the series of Typological Studies in Language (; (ii) another typological volume dedicated to ‘Reflexive constructions in the world’s languages’ (, forthcoming), edited by Janic, Puddu & Haspelmath with Language Science Press, (iii) and three large-scale typological datasets on antipassives, reflexives, and benefactives.

Research funded by NCN 2021/43/P/HS2/01395, project Polonez Bis, 2022-2024