Language change in its socio-historical context

On 16 November, a panel of three Early Career Researchers will convene to present their research on language change in its socio-historical context; the presentations will be followed by a round table discussion chaired by Ranjan Sen (Sheffield). The speakers are: Christien Wallis, Claire Childs, and George Bailey; abstracts of their talks can be found below.

The presentations and round table discussion will take place at the University of Sheffield, Humanities Research Institute, 4.15pm.


Standardisation and the Old English Subjunctive

by Chrstine Wallis (University of Sheffield)

Traditional accounts of Old English (‘OE’) (Campbell, 1959; Hogg, 1992) often focus on early or otherwise dialectally marked manuscript texts for evidence of the history of the language.  Such manuscripts are chosen as the basis of this evidence because they are closest to the original author’s or translator’s work, and are felt to reflect ‘real’ OE in a way that later copies do not (Miller, 1890: v-vi).  Where more than one manuscript of a text exists, those which diverge most from the most conservative versions are rarely discussed in detail in general histories.

This paper presents an alternative way of viewing the development of OE, through the more sociolinguistically-orientated lens of scribal copying.  A text with several surviving manuscript witnesses allows us to see what linguistic forms were deemed acceptable to individual language users/writers (i.e. features which were copied literatim), and which were not (i.e. those emended or updated by later copyists) (cf. Laing, 2004).

The OE translation of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica is one such text, surviving in four main copies, whose scribes diverge to varying degrees from the Mercian dialectal character of the translator’s (now lost) original text.  The paper focuses on one case study, that of plural, preterite subjunctives, which in the earliest manuscripts commonly appear with denasalisation (e.g. hie wolde instead of hie wolden ‘they wanted’).  A range of strategies is used by the scribes studied and this talk will show examples of the different responses of the Bede scribes to this feature when they copied the text.

This paper shows how evidence not normally considered in larger histories of the language can usefully be brought to bear on ideas of standardisation in the pre-Conquest period.  In the absence of direct metalinguistic comment, the actions and decisions of copyists and correctors have much to tell us about attitudes to correctness and linguistic norms in the period.


The present-day interaction of longitudinal changes: Stative possession and negation

by Claire Childs (University of York)

This talk will focus on the modern-day variation between stative possessive HAVE and HAVE GOT in negative contexts, which is the result of two intersecting historical changes. Firstly, DO-support as a means of expressing negation arose in English around the 15th century, but not immediately in stative possessive contexts (Warner 2005). Secondly, stative HAVE GOT came to be used as an alternative to HAVE in around the 16th century (Lorenz 2016: 489). It was not until the 19th century that DO-support became possible with stative HAVE (Hundt 2015: 70). Contemporary studies of British English have indicated that HAVE GOT is becoming increasingly used for the expression of stative possession in affirmative contexts (Tagliamonte 2003), but DO-support is also thought to be rising (Trudgill et al. 2002: 6). With these two tendencies seemingly pulling in different directions – since HAVE GOT is incompatible with DO-support (*I don’t have got any money) – how does this manifest itself in present-day British English?

To answer this question, I will present initial findings from a quantitative variationist analysis of HAVE (GOT) in negative contexts in British English, based on a 2.5-million-word sample of conversational speech from the British National Corpus 2014 (Love et al. 2017). The results reveal that while HAVEN’T GOT was the favoured way of negating a stative among speakers aged 60+, this decreases in apparent-time to the extent that DON’T HAVE becomes the majority form among younger speakers. Although British English is thought to be more variable in terms of the syntactic status of HAVE – i.e. it can behave like an auxiliary or a lexical verb – HAVE is actually rarely contracted and thus has the syntactic properties of a lexical verb, just as in Canadian English (D’Arcy 2015). My findings allow two independent observations of subject-type constraints on contraction (McElhinny 1993) and stative possession variation (Tagliamonte et al. 2010) from the literature to be reconciled. More broadly, my analysis shows how insights gained from separate analyses of single linguistic variables can be explained as part of a larger system within the grammar.


When sound change isn’t led by social change: The case of Northern English (ng)

by George Bailey (University of Manchester)

Incorporating sociolinguistic evaluation into explanatory models of language variation and change has become increasingly popular in recent years (e.g. Eckert 2000; Zhang 2005; Podesva et al. 2015), dating back to Labov’s (1963) influential study of Martha’s Vineyard. However, not all objects of linguistic variation can accrue social meaning (Eckert & Labov 2017), and there remain a number of apparent limitations relating to its role in the incrementation and propagation of sound change (Bermúdez-Otero forthcoming). This paper bears directly on this debate by reporting on a recent change in Northern English /ŋɡ/ clusters, which sees increasing post-nasal [ɡ]-presence in words like wrong and hang when in pre-pausal position (Bailey 2018). Post-nasal /ɡ/-deletion progressed along a systematic pathway of change throughout the Modern English period, following an ordered set of stages laid out by the life cycle of phonological processes (Bermúdez-Otero & Trousdale 2012). However, this new pre-pausal behaviour does not represent the next natural stage along the same pathway of change laid out by the life cycle, but is rather an entirely separate and unpredicted innovation. As such, it is amenable to an analysis in which external factors – such as sociolinguistic evaluation – play a central role.

Independent evidence from a matched-guise task reveals another source of apparent time change: the indexical strength of [ŋɡ] as a feature of northern dialects is increasing over time. However, this does not translate to uniform evaluation, with no evidence of a shared evaluative norm among these subjects. Furthermore, despite the change in production being restricted to pre-pausal contexts, this change in the social meaning of (ng) is not concentrated on any particular environment, suggesting that the two are operating at different levels of granularity and that there is no causal link between them. Consequently, these results cast further doubt on the extent to which social meaning is involved in producing macroscopic patterns of sound change.