Dependency grammar

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Dependency grammar describes a form of grammar .

She examines the hierarchical structure of sentences based on mutual dependencies (dependency structure). Dependency therefore means the dependence of one word (the ruled word or the dependency) on another word (the ruling word or the rain). A dependency grammar differs from the phrase structure grammar (= constituent grammar ) by the absence of phrasal nodes in the analyzed structure.

The dependency grammar was founded by Lucien Tesnière (1893–1954), but its approach can also be found in the Middle Ages with Thomas von Erfurt .


Dependency grammar begins with the Indian grammarian Panini, who lived in the 5th or 4th century BC . It thus precedes the constituent grammar, which was developed later from the ancient propositional logic of Aristotle , by many centuries. Ibn Maḍāʾ (1116–1196) may have been the first in Europe to use “dependency” in its modern meaning. Mada was born in Cordoba in 1116, studied in Seville and Ceuta, and died in Seville in 1196. In the German-speaking area in the Middle Ages there was the concept of dependency in the grammar of Thomas von Erfurt , who was the rector of the St. Severi and St. Jakobi schools . In the early modern era, dependency and constituency seem to have coexisted as concepts. Constituency came mainly from ancient logic, which was mainly spread through Port Royal logic, into modern grammars of various European languages.

Example of a stemma .

Modern dependency grammars are mainly based on the grammar theory of Lucien Tesnière. Tesnière was a French, polyglot and professor of linguistics at the universities of Strasbourg and Montpellier. His main work Éléments de syntaxe structurale was published in 1959, five years after his death. The concept of dependency developed by Tesnière seems to have been recognized by others in the 1960s independently of Tesnière. The dependency grammar has a strong tradition in the German-speaking area, where the V2 principle of German and the comparatively free word order can be examined insightfully on the basis of the dependency. Interest in the dependency grammar has been growing for several years. This can mainly be explained by the fact that the use of the dependency principle for the machine processing and translation of texts is increasingly recognized. The first international conference on dependency in linguistics only took place in September 2011.


The dependency grammar is determined by the dependencies or dependencies between the individual elements of the sentence; it captures the syntax of most natural languages in the form of relationships between the elements of a sentence, the words . There are dependencies between the words, which are linked to one another several times. So they are not next to each other, like in a dictionary .

When considering sentences, it is assumed that when two word elements are syntactically linked, one is a governing word and the other is a dependent element. In cases in which a ruling word element in turn depends on another ruling word, a complex hierarchical order of dependency arises. A tree graph (stemma) is used to analyze and represent such structures . The central node of such a stemma is taken by the ruling word, i.e. the verb. In order to represent the dependencies or relations , a directly dependent word element is represented by an edge to an underlying node, nœud verbal . After Tesnière the verb has the ability to a certain number of actants actants bind to. For this he used the term from chemical terminology, the valence, and called the property valence. Similar to the electrons available for a chemical bond of an atom, the valence of a verb indicates the spaces that a verb allows. In this way the verb gains a certain number of actors or players who promise an action or event.

He limited the actants to the subject, accusative and dative object (direct and indirect object). On the other hand, the adverbial determinations and predicatives were excluded from the valence relationships.

In the dependency grammar, the verb alone is regarded as central to the sentence structure , all other parts of the sentence depend on it. Because the verb rules the sentence , as it were, by determining certain spaces for the nouns involved. As a result, verbs are characterized by a certain value or valence that determines the number of possible actants or players. The “actants” are substances, ie living beings or things that are actively or passively involved in the actions described by the verb ( subject , object ). Basic terms of the dependency grammar are the terms “connection”, “junction”, “translation” as well as “actants” and “circus dancers”. Lucien Tesnière compared the sentence with a micro- drama in which an event is staged by various actors and circumstances . Words form the inventory for creating sentences. There are two types of words in the dependency or valence grammar:

Empty words are the designations of words that have a grammatical, but no independent lexical meaning. The full words are different. They express an idea , so they have a syntactic as well as a semantic function. The valence represents the syntactic ability of the verb to connect. Finite verbs open up such spaces in a sentence. The spaces are filled by words from other word classes.

According to Tesnière there are four parts of speech, which denote:

  • Verbs concrete processes ,
  • Nouns characterize and denote the substances in their concreteness ,
  • Adjectives characterize the substances in an abstract way,
  • Adverbs, on the other hand, describe the processes in an abstract form.

Dependency vs. Constituency

Dependency is a one-to-one relationship. Each element in the sentence (word or morph) corresponds exactly to one node in the structure of the sentence. Constitution, on the other hand, is a one-to-one or more relationship. There each element in the sentence (word or morph) corresponds to at least one node and often more than one. The difference is easy to see in simple tree structures:

Dependency picture 1

In the dependency tree on the left there are two words and two nodes. In the constituent tree on the right, however, there are two words but three nodes. Constituency presupposes that the number of nodes exceeds the number of sentence elements (words) by at least one. A second example underlines the difference:

Dependency picture 2

"Sub" stands for "Subordinator", and SubP for Subordinator-Phrase (= subordinate clause). The dependency tree on the left contains four words and exactly four nodes, while the constituent tree on the right contains four words but six nodes. What is remarkable about the constituent tree is the absence of a finite verb phrase (as a constituent) that excludes the subject. In this regard the constituency tree is a direct translation of the dependency tree (dependency → constituency). Dependence as a principle of the hierarchical organization of elements avoids recognizing a finite VP as a constituent.

The concept of constituents is important for the difference between dependency and constituency. Both dependency and constituency recognize constituents. Every complete tree and every complete subtree of a tree is considered a constituent. So there are only four constituents in the second dependency tree above, but six constituents in the second constituent tree. In this regard, it is of great importance whether the grammar provides evidence for the assumption of the relatively large number of constituents that the constituent postulates and whether there is evidence to support the assumption of a finite VP constituent.

Some important differences between dependency and constituency are summarized in the following table:

Dependency Constituency
Mostly associated with Lucien Tesnière Mostly associated with Noam Chomsky
One-to-one relation One-to-one-or-more relation
Verb as the organizational center of the sentence Division of the sentence into subject and predicate
No finite VP constituents Assumption of a finite VP constituent
Minimal structures Comparatively full structures
Comparatively flat structures Comparatively layered (deep) structures

Finite verb phrase?

The principle of constituency comes from ancient logic, where a statement is divided into a subject and a predicate. This binary classification was taken from the Port Royal logic, applied directly to sentences and thus became the basis of sentence analysis in several grammars of several languages. It appears in Noam Chomsky's early work in the form S → NP VP: a sentence (S) consists of a noun phrase (NP) and a verb phrase (VP). Tesnière, however, has opposed this division of the proposition into two parts by arguing that this binary division of logic has no place in syntax. Instead of binary division, Tesnière considered the verb to be the center and root of the sentence. If one accepts the binary division, constituency as an organizational principle of the proposition is self-evident. But if one rejects this division and replaces it with the central role of the verb as the organizational center of the sentence, then dependency is quite natural.

The present difference between dependency and constituent directly affects the existence of a finite VP-constituent. Most constituent grammars assume that such a constituent exists, especially for English. Dependency grammars, on the other hand, cannot recognize such a constituent. In this regard, the dependency grammar can fall back on so-called constituency tests . These tests provide little evidence of the existence of a finite VP constituent for both English and German, e.g. B.

Hans said nothing .
a. * Didn't say anything Hans. - topicalization
b. ? Hans did that . (did that = said nothing) - Proform substitution
c. What did Hans do? - ?? Said nothing . - Answer ellipse

Attempting to topicalize the finite verb phrase clearly fails. Whether the finite verb phrase can be replaced by a proform is not easy to see because it is not clear whether did that can be regarded as a proform for said nothing . The demonstrative pronoun that alone should be the proform ( Hans did not say anything ). And the appearance of Said nothing as an answer fragment is questionable, since the answer with subject is clearly preferable: He said nothing .

Compare this data with the results of the tests when applied to an infinite verb phrase:

Hans does n't want to say anything .
a. Hans does n't want to say anything (already). - topicalization
b. Hans wants to do that . (do that = say nothing) - Proform substitution
c. What does Hans want to do? - Don't say anything . - Answer ellipse

The topicalization of the verb phrase say nothing succeeds. The combination of doing this as a pro form is now plausible, and the fragment saying nothing can very well appear as the answer to the given question. In view of this data, it can be concluded that infinite verb phrases are constituents. This fact is not a problem for the dependency grammar because, like the constituent grammar, it probably regards infinite verb phrases as constituents, e.g. B.

Dependency picture 3

The phrase say nothing forms a complete subtree and is therefore considered a constituent.

Individual verbs and the verb complex

In valence grammar, verbs can be divided into main and secondary verbs. The main verb or main verb is the governing sentence element. A secondary verb can be added. Here the verbal complex would then be changed without changing the rest of the sentence structure. Each time the number and type of additions is determined by the valence of the main or main verb, and the entire sentence structure is determined. If the main verb occurs as a single one in a sentence, it shows up in a conjugate or finite form. However, if there is still a sub-verb in the sentence, this takes over the finite form and the main verb appears in its infinite form, as an infinitive or participle .

Minimal structures

The dependency one-to-one relation limits the number of nodes in the structure of a set to the number of elements in the set. The small number of nodes means that dependency structures are comparatively minimal. A dependency tree usually contains half of the nodes and edges of the corresponding constituent tree. Because of these minimal structures, there are less difficult decisions to make regarding the structure of sentences. So it is easier to set up a plausible dependency analysis of sentences. The following dependency trees are examples of structures that many dependency grammarians consider correct because the dependency hierarchies are supported by empirical observations:

Dependency picture 4

Most dependency analyzes agree with such structures - opinions only differ when there are discontinuities. The agreement results from the fact that difficult questions that arise in constituent grammars do not arise. For example, the difficult question of whether there should be a finite VP constituent does not arise, because dependency does not allow such a constituent. In addition, the other difficult question does not arise whether the structures should be relatively flat or rather layered (deep). Dependency structures do not allow heavily layered structures because the number of nodes is limited to the number of words.

Dependency grammars and phrase structure grammars

Both dependency grammars and phrase structure grammars are widely used. In English-speaking countries, however, phrase structure grammars dominate. The following grammars are phrase structure grammars because they are based on the concept of constituency:

Phrase structure grammars (= constituent grammars )
Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar
Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar
Categorical grammar
Lexical-functional grammar
Minimalist program
Rection and attachment theory

Dependency grammars are more represented in Europe. The following grammars are based on dependency:

Dependency grammars
Meaning text model
Extensible Dependency Grammar
Functional generative description
Lexicase Grammar
Word Grammar

In German-speaking Europe, a lot of research was and is being done in the area of ​​dependency grammar. The work of Ágel , Engel, Eroms, Happ, Heringer, Lobin, Weber, among many others, has advanced the grammar of dependency very much.

Valence grammar?

The dependency grammar is sometimes referred to as the "dependency and valence grammar". However, this designation is problematic because valence is a component of many grammar theories and cannot be viewed as a separate grammar. Valence is the ability of a predicate to determine the number and function of the constituents near the predicate (i.e., the arguments of the predicate). The fact that there is this term "dependency and valence grammar" is understandable insofar as dependence and valence are terms that can be traced back to Tesnière's theory of syntax and grammar. The term "valence theory" is more plausible than "valence grammar". So there is the dependency grammar and the valence theory, whereby the two are historically closely related. The valence theory is an autonomous field, i. That is, it exists even if one rejects dependence and replaces it with constituency. Most phrase structure grammars have long given the valence of predicates a central position in theory. Phrase structure grammars are not dependency grammars.


  • Vilmos Ágel et al. (Ed.): Dependenz und Valenz. (= Handbooks for Linguistics and Communication Studies 25 / 1-2). Volume 1, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2003, pp. 188-229.
  • Richard Baum: Dependency grammar. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1976, ISBN 3-484-52056-6 .
  • Hans-Werner Eroms: Syntax of the German language. de Gruyter, Berlin 2000.
  • David Hays: Dependency theory: A formalism and some observations. In: Language. 40, 1964, pp. 511-525.
  • H. Gaifman: Dependency systems and phrase-structure systems. In: Information and Control. 8, 1965, pp. 304-337.
  • Thomas Groß, Timothy Osborne: Toward a practical dependency grammar theory of discontinuities. In: SKY Journal of Linguistics. 22, 2009, pp. 43-90.
  • Heinz Happ : Basic questions of a dependency grammar of Latin. Verlag Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1976. (Basic work on the application of the dependency grammar to Latin)
  • Heinz Happ, Ulrich Dönnges: Dependency grammar and Latin lessons. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1977.
  • Heinz Happ: On the renewal of the Latin school grammars. Publisher Diesterweg, Frankfurt am Main / Berlin / Munich 1977.
  • Gerhard Helbig, Joachim Buscha: German grammar. A handbook for the foreigners' course. 10th edition. VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie, Leipzig 1987.
  • Hans Jürgen Heringer: German Syntax dependentiell. Stauffenburg, Tübingen 1996.
  • Connexiones Romanicae - Dependence and Valence in Romance Languages . In: Peter Koch, Thomas Krefeld (ed.): Linguistic work . tape 268 . Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1991, ISBN 3-484-30268-2 , ISSN  0344-6727 (38 pages, [PDF; accessed April 14, 2017]).
  • Igor Alexandrowitsch Meltschuk : Levels of dependency in linguistic description: Concepts and problems. In: Ágel ua (Ed.): Dependenz und Valenz. 2003, pp. 188-229.
  • Timothy Osborne, Michael Putnam, Thomas Groß: Bare phrase structure, label-less trees, and specifier-less syntax: Is Minimalism becoming a dependency grammar? In: The Linguistic Review. 28, 2011, pp. 315-364.
  • Lucien Tesnière: Esquisse d'une syntaxe structurale. Klincksieck, Paris 1953.
  • Lucien Tesnière: Elements de syntaxe structurale. Klincksieck, Paris 1959.
  • Heinz Weber: Dependency grammar. A work book. Narr, Tübingen 1992.

Web links

Wiktionary: Dependency grammar  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. actually Abu al-Abbas Ahmad bin Abd al-Rahman bin Muhammad bin Sa'id bin Harith bin Asim al-Lakhmi al-Qurtubi
  2. ^ Kojiro Nakamura : Ibn Mada's Criticism of Arab Grammarians. In: Orient. 10, 1974, pp. 89-113.
  3. Cf. Tesnière (1959).
  4. See Hays (1964) and Gaifman (1965).
  5. International Conference on Dependency Linguistics, Barcelona 2011
  6. ^ Günter Neumann: Introduction to the dependency grammar. LT lab, DFKI. Saarland University, July 2, 2013
  7. Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.): Lexicon of Linguistics. 3rd, updated and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-520-45203-0 , pp. 153-154.
  8. Christoph Gabriel, Trudel Meisenburg: Romance Linguistics. (= UTB 2897). Fink Verlag, Paderborn 2007, ISBN 978-3-7705-4325-0 , p. 184.
  9. ↑ Addiction grammar. ( Memento from May 25, 2014 in the Internet Archive )
  10. ^ Johannes Kabatek, Claus D. Pusch: Spanish Linguistics: An Introduction. Gunter Narr Verlag, 2009, ISBN 978-3-8233-6404-7 , p. 109 f.
  11. ^ Stephan Hochhaus: Dependency and valence grammar (Tesnière) Fragmentary exam preparation. ( Memento from July 19, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Summer 2004.
  12. See Osborne et al. 2011, pp. 323-324.
  13. Helmut Schumacher: VALBU - Valenzwörterbuch German verbs. Narr Verlag, Tübingen 2004, p. 48.
  14. The trees given here are very similar to those of Groß and Osborne (2009).
  15. See Ágel et al. (2003/6).
  16. See Engel (1994).
  17. See Eroms (2000).
  18. See Happ (1977).
  19. See Heringer (1996).
  20. See Weber (1992).