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


  • Dana Louagie & Uta Reinöhl (eds). In press. Typologizing the Noun Phrase. Special Issue of Linguistics.
  • Dana Louagie & Uta Reinöhl. In press. "Typologizing nominal expressions: the noun phrase and beyond", in: Dana Louagie & Uta Reinöhl (eds). Typologizing the Noun Phrase. Special Issue of Linguistics
  • Reinöhl, Uta. In press. 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. Leiden: Brill.
  • Fries, Simon. accepted. Why and How Do New Tense Formations Arise? – On the Emergence of the Vedic So-Called Periphrastic tā́-Future. Historische Sprachforschung.
  • Fries, Simon. to appear in 2021. Sandhi and Syntax – Is there Prosodic Marking of Morpho-Syntactic Relations in Old Indo-Aryan? Die Sprache 53/2 (2018/2019), 153-227.
  • 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
  • Peck, Naomi. 2020. Kera'a (Arunachal Pradesh, India) – Language Snapshot. Language Documentation and Description 19, 26-34.
  • 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

  • Reinöhl, Uta, Kirsten Culhane, Simon Fries, Naomi Peck, and Maria Vollmer. 2021. Serial verbs and 'flat' nominal expressions – Pushing the boundaries of semantic packaging? (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 Communications, 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.
  • 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.