Lucien Tesnière

Lucien Tesnière
Born (1893-05-13)13 May 1893
Mont-Saint-Aignan, France
Died 6 December 1954(1954-12-06) (aged 61)
Montpellier, France
Era 20th century
School Structuralism
Main interests
Linguistics, syntax
Notable ideas
Dependency (grammar), valency

Lucien Tesnière (French: [lysjɛ̃ tɛnjɛʁ]; May 13, 1893 December 6, 1954) was a prominent and influential French linguist. He was born in Mont-Saint-Aignan on May 13, 1893. As a professor in Strasbourg (1924), and later in Montpellier (1937), he published many papers and books on Slavic languages. However, his importance in the history of linguistics is based mainly on his development of an approach to the syntax of natural languages that would become known as dependency grammar. He presented his theory in his book Éléments de syntaxe structurale (Elements of Structural Syntax), published posthumously in 1959.[1] In the book he proposes a sophisticated formalization of syntactic structures, supported by many examples from a diversity of languages. Tesnière died in Montpellier on December 6, 1954.

Many central concepts that the modern study of syntax takes for granted were developed and presented in Tesnière's book (i.e. in the Éléments). For instance, Tesnière developed the concept of valency in detail, and the primary distinction between arguments (actants) and adjuncts (circumstants, French circonstants), which most if not all theories of syntax now acknowledge and build on, was central to Tesnière's understanding. Tesnière also argued vehemently that syntax is autonomous from morphology and semantics. This stance is similar to generative grammar, which takes syntax to be a separate component of the human faculty for language.


Lucien Tesnière was born on May 13, 1893 in Mont-Saint-Aignan, now a suburb of Rouen (north-west of France). He studied Latin, Greek, and German in school. He spent time abroad as a young man in England, Germany, and Italy.[2] He was enrolled at the University of Sorbonne and the University of Leipzig studying Germanic languages when World War I broke out. He was mobilized on August 12 and sent to the front on October 15th. He became a prisoner of war on the 16th of February 1915. He was interned in the camp at Merseburg with 4000 other prisoners from all nationalities. During his 40 months of captivity, he continued his intense study of languages. He also worked for the German authorities as a French-English-Russian-Italian-German interpreter.

He continued his studies at the Sorbonne after the war. He studied with Joseph Vendryes, and at the Collège de France he was under the tutelage of Antoine Meillet, a prominent linguist at the time. Tesnière was then invited as a lecturer to the University of Lubjana (now the capital of Slovenia), where he wrote his doctoral thesis on the disappearance of the dual in Slovenien. He married Jeanne Roulier in Zagreb and fathered three children with her.

In February 1924, Tesnière became associate professor of Slavic language and literature at the University of Strasbourg (the capital of Alsace on the border to Germany), where he taught Russian and Old Slavic. Tesnière was promoted to professor of grammaire comparée at the University of Montpellier (in the south of France) in 1937.

During World War II Tesnière worked as a cryptography officer for the Military Intelligence, the so-called Deuxième Bureau. He became very sick after the war in 1947 and his health remained poor until he died on December 6, 1954. His primary oeuvre, Éléments de syntaxe structurale, was then published five years later in 1959 due to the constant efforts of his wife Jeanne and the help of colleagues and friends.

Central ideas in Tesnière's conception of syntax

The following subsections consider some of the central ideas and concepts in Tesnière's approach to syntax. The following areas are touched on: 1) connections, 2) autonomous syntax, 3) verb centrality, 4) stemmas, 5) centripetal (head-initial) and centrifugal (head-final) languages, 6) valency, 7) actants and circonstants, and 8) transfer.


Tesnière begins the presentation of his theory of syntax with the connection. Connections are present between words of sentences. They group the words together, creating units that can be assigned meaning. Tesnière writes:

"Every word in a sentence is not isolated as it is in the dictionary. The mind perceives connections between a word and its neighbors. The totality of these connections forms the scaffold of the sentence. These connections are not indicated by anything, but it is absolutely crucial that they be perceived by the mind; without them the sentence would not be intelligible. ..., a sentence of the type Alfred spoke is not composed of just the two elements Alfred and spoke, but rather of three elements, the first being Alfred, the second spoke, and the third the connection that unites them – without which there would be no sentence. To say that a sentence of the type Alfred spoke consists of only two elements is to analyze it in a superficial manner, purely morphologically, while neglecting the essential aspect that is the syntactic link."[3]

The connections that Tesnière describes in this passage are now more widely called dependencies, hence the term dependency grammar.[4] Two words that are connected by a dependency do not have equal status, but rather the one word is the superior, and the other its subordinate. Tesnière called the superior word the governor, and the inferior word the subordinate.[5] By acknowledging the totality of connections between the words of a sentence, Tesnière was in a position to assign the sentence a concrete syntactic structure, which he did in terms of the stemma (see below).

Autonomous syntax

Tesnière rejected the influence of morphology on the field of syntax.[6] In so doing, he was promoting a break from a tradition in linguistics that focused on concrete forms such as affixes and the inflectional paradigms associated with the study of the languages of antiquity (Latin and Greek). Tesnière argued that the study of syntax should not be limited to the examination of concrete forms, but rather one has to acknowledge and explore the connections (as just described above). He pointed to the key concept of innere Sprachform 'inner speech form' established by Wilhelm von Humboldt.[7] Since innere Sprachform (i.e. the connections) is abstract, one cannot acknowledge it and explore the central role that it plays in syntax by focusing just on concrete forms. Tesnière was arguing, in other words, that syntax is largely independent of morphology; it is an autonomous component of natural language.

Tesnière also saw syntax and semantics as separate domains of language. To illustrate this separation, he produced the nonsensical sentence Le silence vertébral indispose la voile licite 'The vertebral silence indisposes the licit sail'.[8] He emphasized that while the sentence is nonsensical, it is well-formed from a syntactic point of view, for the forms of the words and their order of appearance are correct. Noam Chomsky made the same point with his famous sentence Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.[9]

Verb centrality

Tesnière argued vehemently against the binary division of the clause into subject and predicate that was and is prevalent in the study of syntax, and he replaced this division with verb centrality.[10] He stated that the division stems from logic and has no place in linguistics. He positioned the verb as the root of all clause structure, whereby all other elements in the clause are either directly or indirectly dependent on the verb. Tesnière illustrated the distinction with the diagrammatic representations (stemmas) of the French sentence Alfred parle lentement 'Alfred speaks slowly' and the Latin sentence Filius amat patrem '(The) father loves (the) son':[11]

The diagram of the French sentence above illustrates the binary division that Tesnière rejected; the clause is divided into two parts, the subject Alfred and the predicate parle lentement. The Latin sentence below illustrates the verb centrality that Tesnière espoused; the verb amat is the root of the clause and the subject filius and the object patrem are its dependents. The importance of this distinction resides with the overall understanding of sentence structure that arises from these competing views. A theory of syntax that starts with the binary division is likely to become a phrase structure grammar (a constituency grammar), whereas a theory of syntax that starts with verb centrality is likely to become a dependency grammar.


Tesnière relied heavily on tree-like diagrams to represent the understanding of sentence structure and syntax that he was pursuing. He called these diagrams stemmas - the Éléments contains over 350 of them. These stemmas show the connections and the manner in which the connections link the words of sentences into a hierarchy of structure, e.g.[12]

These diagrams show some of the main traits of Tesnière's conception of syntactic structure. Verb centrality is evident, since the verb is the highest word in the stemma (the root). Syntactic units are present; constituents and phrases are identified; they correspond to complete subtrees. An important aspect of these stemmas is that they are "unordered", i.e. they do not reflect actual word order. For Tesnière, structural order (hierarchical order) preceded linear order in the mind of a speaker. A speaker first conceives of what he/she wants to say, whereby this conception consists of words organized hierarchically in terms of connections (structural order). The act of speaking involves transforming structural order to linear order, and conversely, the act of hearing and understanding involves transforming linear order to structural order.[13] This strict separation of the ordering dimensions is a point of contention among modern dependency grammars. Some dependency grammars, i.e. the stratified ones (e.g. Meaning-text theory and Functional generative description) build on this strict separation of structural order and linear order, whereas other dependency grammars (e.g. Word grammar) are monostratal (in syntax) and hence reject the separation.

Centrifugal (head-initial) and centripetal (head-final) languages

Given the hierarchical organization of syntactic units that he posited (and represented using stemmas), Tesnière identified centripetal and centrifugal structures.[14] The modern terms for these concepts are head-initial (centrifugal) and head-final (centripetal). Centrifugal structures see governors (heads) preceding their dependents, whereas the situation is reversed for centripetal structures, the dependents preceding their heads, e.g.

Tesnière did not actually produce "ordered" stemmas like the two on the right here.[15] But if one does choose to reflect word order in the stemmas, then the distinction between centrifugal vs. centripetal structures that Tesnière established is clearly visible. The following two trees of the English sentences Stop attempting to do that and His sister's attempts succeeded illustrate the distinction:

The stemmas clearly show the manner in which centrifugal structures extend down to the right, and centripetal structures down to the left. Tesnière classified languages according to whether they are more centrifugal than centripetal, or vice versa. The distinction has since become a mainstay of language typology. Languages are classified in terms of their head-directionality parameter: as predominantly head-initial or head-final. The Semitic languages (e.g. Hebrew, Arabic) are, for instance, much more centrifugal than centripetal, and certain East Asian languages are much more centripetal than centrifugal (e.g. Japanese, Korean). English is a mitigated language according to Tesnière, meaning that it contains a good mixture of both centrifugal and centripetal structures.[16]


With his "valency" metaphor,[17] Tesnière contributed to our understanding of the nature of the lexicon. He compared verbs to molecules. Like an oxygen atom O attracts two hydrogen atoms H to create an H2O molecule, verbs attract actants to create clauses. Verbs therefore have valency. Tesnière distinguished between verbs that are avalent (no actant), monovalent (one actant), divalent (two actants), and trivalent (three actants). English examples follow:

Avalent verb: It rained. - The verb rain is avalent (the pronoun it is semantically devoid of content).
Monovalent verb: Sam slept. - The verb sleep is monovalent; it takes a single actant
Divalent verb: Susan knows Sam. - The verb know is divalent; it takes two actants, a subject actant and an object actant
Trivalent verb: Sam gave Susan earrings. - The verb give is trivalent; it takes three actants, a subject actant, and two object actants.

The valency characteristics of verbs play a role in the exploration of various mechanisms of syntax. In particular, various phenomena of diathesis (active, passive, reflexive, reciprocal, recessive) are sensitive to the underlying valency of verbs.[18] The concept of valency is now widely acknowledged in the study of syntax, even most phrase structures grammars acknowledging the valency of predicates.

Actants vs. circonstants

In addition to actants, Tesnière acknowledged circumstants (French circonstants). While the actants that appear with a verb are important for completing the meaning of the verb, circumstants add optional content, e.g.

Tomorrow Alfred is leaving at noon.[19] - The circumstants tomorrow and at noon add optional content.
One sees him a lot all the time everywhere.[20] - The circumstants a lot, all the time, and everywhere add optional content.

The number of actants that appear in a clause is limited by the valency characteristics of the clause-establishing verb, whereas the number of circumstants that can appear in a clause is theoretically unlimited, since circumstants are not restricted by verb valency.[21] Modern syntax acknowledges actants and circumstants of course also, although it uses different terminology. Actants are known as arguments, and circumstants as adjuncts, so again, Tesnière identified and explored key concepts that are now a mainstay in the modern study of syntax.


The second half of the Elements (300 pages) focuses on the theory of transfer (French translation). Transfer is the component of Tesnière's theory that addresses syntactic categories. Tesnière was interested in keeping the number of principle syntactic categories to a minimum. He acknowledged just four basic categories of content words: nouns (O), verbs (I), adjectives (A), and adverbs (E). The abbreviations he used for these words (O, I, A, E) match the last letter of the corresponding Esperanto designations.[22] In addition to these four basic content words, he also posited two types of function words, indices and translatives.[23] He took articles (definite and indefinite) and clitic pronouns to be indices, and typical translatives were subordinators (subordinate conjunctions) and prepositions. The main task translatives perform is to transfer content words from one category to another. For instance, prepositions typically transfer nouns to adjectives or adverbs, and subordinators typically transfer verbs to nouns. For example, in the phrase le livre de Pierre 'the book of Peter, Peter's book', the preposition de serves to transfer the noun Pierre to an adjective that can modify the noun livre. In other words, the noun Pierre, although it is technically not an adjective, comes to function like an adjective by the addition of the translative de. Transfer is represented in stemmas using a special convention. The following stemmas represent the phrase de Pierre 'of Peter' and the sentence Écrivez dans le livre de votre ami 'Write in the book of your friend':

The translative and the word that it transfers are placed equi-level and a vertical dividing line separates them. The target category, i.e. the category that is the result of transfer, is indicated above the horizontal line. In the first stemma above, the A indicates that Pierre has been transferred (by de) to an adjective. The stemma below shows two instances of transfer, whereby the first indicates that dans livre de votre ami is transferred to an adverb, and the second that de votre ami is transferred to an adjective.

For Tesnière, the ability to transfer one category to another at will in fluid speech is the primary tool that makes truly productive speech possible. Syntactic categories that alone are not capable of combining with each other can be immediately unified by a translative that effects transfer.


Tesnière's legacy resides primarily with the widespread view that sees his Éléments as the starting point and impetus for the development of dependency grammar. Thus the frameworks of syntax and grammar that are dependency-based (e.g. Word grammar, Meaning-text theory, Functional generative description) generally cite Tesnière as the father of modern dependency grammars. An interesting side note in this regard is that Tesnière himself did not set out to produce a dependency grammar, since the distinction between dependency- and constituency-based grammars (phrase structure grammars) was not known to linguistics while Tesnière was alive. The distinction first became established during the reception of Tesnière's ideas.

Tesnière's legacy is not limited to the development of dependency grammar, however. As stated above, a number of the key concepts that he developed (e.g. valency, arguments vs. adjuncts, head-initial vs head-final languages) are cornerstones of most modern work in the field of syntax. Interestingly though, Tesnière does not receive the full credit that he perhaps deserves for his contribution to the field of syntax. Tesnière died shortly before the initiation of generative grammar, and his Éléments remained untranslated to English until just recently (2015). Thus his influence has been greater in Europe than in English-speaking North America.

See also


  1. Due to sickness at the end of his life, Tesnière did not manage to see his central work published. The actual publication of the Éléments was due in part to the work of friends, family (especially Madame Tesnière), and former students of his. These admirers of the linguist ensured that the manuscript he left was organized and put into book form in the years after his death.
  2. The biographical information here is an abbreviated version of the biography produced in the Translators' introduction to the English version of the Éléments. See Kahane and Osborne (2015).
  3. The passage cited here is taken from the first page of the Éléments (1959[1969]).
  4. Note that Tesnière never actually used the term dependency grammar to describe the theory of syntax he was proposing. That concept arose later in the 1960s as Tesnière's theory was being received and evaluated.
  5. These key terms (governor and subordinate) are first presented in chapter 2 of the Elements (1959[1969:13]).
  6. Tesnière states in chapter 15 that morphology and syntax are separate domains (1959[1969:34]).
  7. Tesnière first mentions Wilhelm von Humboldt and innere Sprachform in chapter 1 (1959[1969:13]).
  8. This nonsensical sentence is discussed in chapter 20 (1959[1969:40-42]).
  9. Note that Tesnière died in 1954, whereas Chomsky's famous sentence appears in his book Syntactic Structures (1957:15).
  10. Tesnière discusses the binary division and verb centrality in chapters 48-49 of the Éléments (1959[1969:102-105]).
  11. The following two stemmas are from chapter 48 of the Elements (1959[1969:102]).
  12. The two examples given here are the English translations of the French originals. A majority of the stemmas Tesnière produced were (of course) of French sentences and phrases, (since Tesnière was a Frenchman).
  13. Tesnière discusses the distinction between structural order and linear order in chapter 6 (1959[1969:19ff.]).
  14. The distinction between centripetal and centrifugal structures is first presented in chapter 8 (1959[1969:22ff.]).
  15. The two ordered stemmas on the right here have been included merely to aid understanding.
  16. Actually, Tesnière (1959[1969:33]) claimed that English is a bit more centripetal than centrifugal, a claim that modern language typology disagrees with, since English arguably employs more centrifugal than centripetal structures.
  17. Tesnière produces the "valency" metaphor in chapter 97 (1959[1969:238]).
  18. Tesnière discusses valency and diathesis in detail in chapters 97-119 (1959[1969:238-280]).
  19. This first example illustrating circumstants corresponds to stemma 118 (1959[1969:125]).
  20. This second example illustrating circumstants corresponds to stemma 121 (1959[1969:126]).
  21. Tesnière discusses circumstants in chapter 56 (1959[1969:125]).
  22. Tesnière presents the four basic word categories and their abbreviations in chapter 33 (1959[1969:63f.]).
  23. Translatives are first discussed in chapter 40 (1959[1969:82f.]).

Main works

Secondary works

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