You are here: Home Research Non-Hierarchicality in Grammar …

Non-Hierarchicality in Grammar (NonGram)

Key information

Emmy-Noether Research Group funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)

Start: February 1, 2019

Duration: 5 years

HeadProf. Dr. Uta Reinöhl

Project TeamKirsten CulhaneNaomi PeckMaria Vollmer and Simon Fries.

T. Mark Ellison is associated with the project as a Mercator Fellow.

Location: Department of General Linguistics, University of Freiburg; previously at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz.

The Project

The NonGram Project will result in the first detailed investigation of the phenomenon of non-hierarchical syntax across languages and semantic categories. “Non-hierarchical” syntax is found when lexemes of the same syntactic category are combined into complex constructions without any further linguistic adaptation such as the addition of formal marking or prosodic integration into compounds. Studying non-hierarchical syntax across languages and semantic categories will allow new insights into what is perhaps the most basic syntactic mechanism of human speech, the formation of larger wholes from individual building blocks. How are complex constructions formed from multiple Ns or Vs? Is there no hierarchicality found at all? What semantic structures do we find? How are elements assigned their syntagmatic slots?

Non-hierarchical constructions are mostly absent from major European languages, including English. In such languages, complex constructions normally consist of lexemes from different word classes, e.g. the entity warm days consists of an adjective and a noun, and the event runs fast of a verb and an adverb. Such sub-divided word class systems have stood at the centre of over half a century of syntactic theorising, where it is often taken for granted that an NP is projected from a single element N, or a VP from a single V. However, in Wooi (Austronesian, Indonesia), several “verbal” elements can be concatenated in a serial verb construction to express a single event, e.g. huo mai thau ‘lift come put’. In other languages like Warlpiri (Pama-Nyungan, Australia), several “nominal” elements may be combined to denote a single entity, e.g. kurdu-ngku wita-ngku ‘child.ERG small.ERG’, translatable idiomatically as either ‘small child’ or ‘childish small thing’. These findings challenge the notion of hierarchical syntax that NPs or VPs are always projected from and thus dependent on single Ns or Vs. They imply that some languages may organise their verbal or nominal material in a non-hierarchical way.

As non-hierarchicality has only been marginally explored across languages and semantic categories,  project members are examining this issue in depth using a corpus from their selected language to gauge whether phenomena are category-specific, language-specific or more commonly attested. Entity-denoting constructions are undergoing investigation in Vedic Sanskrit (Indo-European, India) by Prof. Dr. Uta Reinöhl and Simon Fries, and in Warlpiri (Pama-Nyungan, Australia) by Maria Vollmer, while event-denoting constructions are being studied in Waima’a (Austronesian, Timor-Leste) by Kirsten Culhane and in Kera’a (Sino-Tibetan, India) by Prof. Dr. Uta Reinöhl and Naomi Peck.

Project-related publications and conference talks


  • Fries, Simon. accepted. Why and How Do New Tense Formations Arise? – On the Emergence of the Vedic So-Called Periphrastic tā́-Future. Historische Sprachforschung.
  • Vollmer, Maria. Accepted. The mysterious clitic =ju/=ji in Warlpiri: Topic marker, definiteness marker, or something else? To appear in Carmel O’Shannessy, James Gray, and Denise Angelo (eds.), Projecting voices: Studies in language and linguistics in honour of Jane Simpson, Canberra: Asia-Pacific Linguistics.
  • Casaretto, Antje & Uta Reinöhl. Subm. Identifying discourse functions without formal clues – Secondary predicates and related functions in Vedic Sanskrit
  • Reinöhl, Uta, Kirsten Culhane, Simon Fries, Naomi Peck, Maria Vollmer. In prep. Serial Verbs and ‘Flat’ Nominal Expressions – Pushing the Boundaries of Information Packaging?

  • Schnell, Stefan, Geoffrey Haig, Nils Norman Schiborr, Maria Vollmer. 2023. Are referent introductions sensitive to forward planning in discourse? Evidence from Multi-CAST. In Alessandra Barotto & Simone Mattiola (eds.), Discourse phenomena in typological perspective [Studies in Language Companion Series 227], 231-268. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Vollmer, Maria. 2023. Comparing zero and referential choice in eight languages with a focus on Mandarin Chinese. Studies in Language.

  • Culhane, Kirsten. 2022. The phonology and typological position of Waima'a consonants. Oceanic Linguistics 61 (1) doi: 10.1353/ol.2021.0025

  • Haig, Geoff, Maria Vollmer and Hanna Thiele. 2022. Northern Kurdish (Kurmanji) DoReCo dataset. In Seifart, Frank, Ludger Paschen and Matthew Stave (eds.), Language Documentation Reference Corpus (DoReCo) 1.1. Berlin & Lyon: Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft & Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage (UMR5596, CNRS & Université Lyon 2). doi: 10.34847/nkl.ca10ez5t

  • Louagie, Dana & Uta Reinöhl (eds). 2022. Typologizing the Noun Phrase. Special Issue of Linguistics 60 (3).
  • Louagie, Dana & Uta Reinöhl. 2022. Typologizing nominal expressions: the noun phrase and beyond. In: Dana Louagie & Uta Reinöhl (eds). Typologizing the Noun Phrase. Special Issue of Linguistics
  • Reinöhl, Uta. 2022. Locating Kera’a (Idu Mishmi) in its linguistic neighbourhood. Evidence from dialectology. In Mark Post, Stephen Morey & Toni Huber (eds). Ethno-linguistic prehistory of the Eastern Himalaya, 232–263. Leiden: Brill.
  • Fries, Simon. 2021. Sandhi and Syntax – Is there Prosodic Marking of Morpho-Syntactic Relations in Old Indo-Aryan? Die Sprache 53/2 (2018/2019), 153-227.
  • Kaland, Constantijn, Naomi Peck, T. Mark Ellison, Uta Reinöhl. 2021. An initial exploration of the interaction of tone and intonation in Kera'aProc. 1st International Conference on Tone and Intonation (TAI), 132-136, doi: 10.21437/TAI.2021-27
  • San, Nay, Martijn Bartelds, Mitchell Browne, Lily Clifford, Fiona Gibson, John Mansfield, David Nash, Jane Simpson, Myfany Turpin, Maria Vollmer, Sasha Wilmoth, and Dan Jurafsky. 2021. Leveraging pre-trained representations to improve access to untranscribed speech from endangered languages. In Proceedings of the 2021 IEEE Automatic Speech Recognition and Understanding Workshop (ASRU). doi: 10.1109/ASRU51503.2021.9688301.
  • Peck, Naomi. 2020. Kera'a (Arunachal Pradesh, India) – Language Snapshot. Language Documentation and Description 19, 26-34.
  • Reinöhl, Uta. 2020. Continuous and discontinuous nominal expressions in flexible (or “free”) word order languages. Patterns and correlates, Linguistic Typology 24, 71-111.
  • Reinöhl, Uta. 2020. What are and what aren’t complex nominal expressions in flexible word order languages?, Language Typology and Universals 73, 57-79.
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2020. Warlpiri ELAN dictionary. Online available in Github. [If you would like access to the dictionary, please send an email to]

Conference talks

  • Vollmer, Maria. 2023. How word order does (not) change: Warlpiri flexible word order and contact with English. Talk given at the Australianist Workshop, University of Cologne, 14-15 August.
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2023. A corpus-based study of flexible word order, language contact and language change in Warlpiri. Talk given at the conference Grammatical Relations in Spoken Corpora (GRelSpoC), Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), Paris, 15-16 June 2023. [Slides]
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2022. Language change in the flexible word order language Warlpiri. Talk given at the 1st International Emerging Research in Australian Studies Workshop, University of Cologne16 September 2022.
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2022. The diversity of left dislocation and its discourse functions in Warlpiri. Talk given at the 55th Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea, Workshop Disentangling topicality effects, University of Bucharest, 26 August 2022.
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2022. Language contact, language change and flexible word order in Warlpiri. Talk given at the 25th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, University of Oxford, 1-5 August 2022.
  • Reinöhl, Uta, Kirsten Culhane, Simon Fries, Naomi Peck, and Maria Vollmer. 2022. Emmy Noether group paper: One New Idea Constraint and flat multi-word expressions. Talk given at the Emmy Noether Workshop of the “Non-Gram” Group, University Freiburg, 11 April. 
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2022. Discourse structure in Warlpiri and the clitic =ju. Euphony, topic, focus, or definiteness? Talk given at the Emmy Noether Workshop of the “Non-Gram” Group, University Freiburg, 11 April.
  • Reinöhl, Uta, Kirsten Culhane, Simon Fries, Naomi Peck, and Maria Vollmer. 2021. Serial verbs and 'flat' nominal expressions – Pushing the boundaries of semantic packaging? Oral presentation at CCLS Lecture Series, Universität zu Köln, 05.07.2021.
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2021. Word order variation in Warlpiri. Oral presentation at Corpus Linguistics Summer School 2021, Centre for Corpus Research at the University of Birmingham, UK, 7 July 2021.
  • Reinöhl, Uta, Kirsten Culhane, Simon Fries, Naomi Peck, and Maria Vollmer. 2021. Serial verbs and 'flat' nominal expressions – Pushing the boundaries of semantic packaging? Oral presentation at Vortragsreihe der Freiburger Sprachwissenschaften [Lecture Series of Freiburg Linguistics]: Language and Communication, 10.06.2021. [All authors after the first author ordered alphabetically.]
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2021. Understanding morphosyntactic variation in a temporally and spatially representative Warlpiri corpus. A preliminary report on word order in clauses. Oral presentation at First Global Australian Languages Workshop, May 17-20, 2021, Yale University. Slides.
  • Peck, Naomi, Kirsten Culhane, and Maria Vollmer.1 2021. Comparing cues. A mixed methods study of intonation unit boundaries in three typologically diverse languages. Oral presentation at AG 10a Prosodic boundary phenomena at the 43rd Annual Conference of the German Linguistic Society, 23-26 Feb 2021, Freiburg. 1Second and third author ordered alphabetically. Slides.
  • Peck, Naomi. 2020. The phonetics and phonology of Mindri, a dialect of Kera'a (Idu). Oral presentation at ICSTLL53, University of North Texas.
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2020. Language contact and change in Warlpiri. Oral presentation at 16. Sprachwissenschaftliche Tagung für Promotionsstudierende, Wien.
  • Reinöhl, Uta and Maria Vollmer. 2020. NonGram – Construction formation without word class distinction (in Warlpiri). Poster presentation at CoEDL Fest 2020, 2-7 February, University of Queensland.
  • Schnell, Stefan, Geoffrey Haig, Nils Schiborr, and Vollmer, Maria. 2020. Discourse: Introducing new referents: A corpus-based cross-linguistic perspective. Talk held at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europea (SLE), online, 26 August to 1 September. Online available under
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2020. A re-assessment of the rate of zero arguments in Mandarin Chinese. Talk held at The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University, 20 February 2020.
  • Peck, Naomi. 2019. Problematising the typology of comparison: the lexicalisation of implicit comparison. Poster presentation at the 13th Conference of the Association of Linguistic Typology, University of Pavia.
  • Vollmer, Maria. 2019. Warlpiri – Project work and PhD topic. Oral Presentation at Non-hierarchicality in Grammar. Construction formation without word class distinction across categories and languages. 1st Workshop, September 26-27, 2019.