Impossible Persons

From Linguistic Inquiry Monographs

Impossible Persons

By Daniel Harbour

A groundbreaking, comprehensive formal theory of grammatical person that recasts its empirical foundations and re-envisions its theoretical core.





A groundbreaking, comprehensive formal theory of grammatical person that recasts its empirical foundations and re-envisions its theoretical core.

Impossible Persons, Daniel Harbour's comprehensive and groundbreaking formal theory of grammatical person, upends understanding of a universal and ubiquitous grammatical category. Breaking with much past work, Harbour establishes three core theses, one empirical, one theoretical, and one metatheoretical. Together, these redefine the data subsumed under the rubric of “person,” simplify the feature inventory that a theory of person must posit, and restructure the metatheory in which feature theory as a whole resides.

At its heart, Impossible Persons poses a simple question of the possible versus the actual: in how many ways could languages configure their person systems, in how many do they configure them, and what explains the size and shape of the shortfall? Harbour's empirical thesis—that the primary object of study for persons are partitions, not syncretisms—transforms a sea of data into a categorical problem of the attested and the absent. Positing, innovatively, that features denote actions, not predicates, he shows that two features alone generate all and only the attested systems. This apparently poor inventory yields rich explanatory dividends, covering the morphological composition of person, its interaction with number, its connection to space, and properties of its semantics and linearization. Moreover, the core properties of this approach are shared with Harbour's earlier work on number features. Jointly, these results establish an important metatheoretical corollary concerning the balance between richness of feature semantics and restrictiveness of feature inventories. This corollary holds deep implications for how linguists should approach feature theory in future.


$95.00 X ISBN: 9780262034739 336 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 27 b&w illus.


$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262529297 336 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 27 b&w illus.


  • In this theoretically austere but empirically rich study, Daniel Harbour provides a masterful new theory of possible and impossible inventories of person features. Through its formal rigor and empirical breadth, this book is bound to influence all future work on person features.

    Terje Lohndal

    Professor of English Linguistics, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim; Professor II, University of Tromsø—The Arctic University of Norway

  • In this monograph, Daniel Harbour masterfully develops a new theory of person features based on the notion of partition alone. With profound insight and empirical depth as well as theoretical rigor, he integrates typological and theoretical work, thereby identifying fascinating areas of variation in several domains where the concept of person plays a role in the languages of the world. He then seeks to explain the source of this variation, capturing its range and its limits. This novel theory will redefine the field's understanding not only of person, but also of features more generally, inviting us to rethink a concept that lies at the very core of linguistic theory.

    Martina Wiltschko

    Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia

  • Daniel Harbour brings a mastery of classic linguistic methodology and of the typological literature to solve a longstanding textbook question for the field: why do languages show the particular categories of person that they do, and not easily conceivable others? This book is a game-changer for an increasingly essential area of linguistic theory—substantive universals governing syntactic features—and will anchor future debate about features for years to come.

    Alec Marantz

    Silver Professor of Linguistics and Psychology, New York University; coeditor of Distributed Morphology Today: Morphemes for Morris Halle