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.

Varro’s ‘De lingua Latina’ (‘On the Latin language’)

by Wolfgang D. C. de Melo (University of Oxford)

I must begin this blog post with a little confession. As an undergraduate and to a large extent still as a graduate, I found it hard to get excited about the history of linguistics. Of course I respected the great achievements of the Neogrammarians and of early phoneticians like Henry Sweet or Daniel Jones; but I was more interested in the results of their work than in how they got there. Any linguistic work written before the nineteenth century left me cold. Like any other classics undergraduate, I read through various grammarians. I liked the fact that they preserved so many quotations from early literature that had otherwise been lost. But beyond that I could not see anything of value in them. To me, Nonius was an encyclopaedia of errors; Isidore made me shudder; and, as Eduard Norden, the great authority on Latin style, told us, Varro had the worst prose style of any Latin writer before the Middle Ages.

In view of all this, it came as a bit of a shock to me when I was asked by OUP whether I would be willing to edit Varro’s De lingua Latina, our earliest extant treatise on Latin grammar. I had to think long and hard about it before I said yes. One thing that I consider vital for a text like this is a translation and a commentary. They are necessary because the text is both fragmentary and technical. I have now been working on Varro for a few years, and during this time I have come to respect, admire, and even like him.

Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC) was born in Reate, modern Rieti. He was politically active and had his own farm, and yet, despite all this, he managed to write several hundred books on philosophy, history, agriculture, and language. An ancient book corresponds to a modern book chapter in length, but even so this output is astounding. Of course, quantity is not the same as quality, and there are indications that Varro often wrote in haste and could have produced better quality if he had written in less of a hurry. However, on the whole he is an original and thoughtful writer with many valid and interesting insights.

Originally, the De lingua Latina comprised twenty-five books. An introductory volume was followed by six books on etymology, six on morphology, and twelve on syntax. Sadly, we only have fragments of the books on syntax. What we do have in almost complete form is books 5-10, that is, the second half of the etymological part and the first half of the morphological part.

Of the etymological books, the first three covered the theory of etymology. The three books that we still have deal with the practical side. Book 5 gives us hundreds of etymologies of places and things; book 6 deals with the etymologies of times and actions; and book 7 discusses all these concepts in poetry.

Varro did not know that sound change is regular, and of course he had never heard of the comparative method. It comes as no surprise that many of his etymologies are, by modern standards, ‘wrong’. But wrong does not equal stupid. His method is surprisingly sound. He identified loan words, and did so by and large correctly. Among native words, he looked for words that are similar in sound and meaning. This approach enabled him to find many etymological connections that we can confirm today with the help of the comparative method.

Perhaps a few examples will show more clearly how Varro’s mind works.

Continue reading “Varro’s ‘De lingua Latina’ (‘On the Latin language’)”

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 4

Periodization, translation, prescription and the emergence of Classical French

by Wendy Ayres-Bennett (University of Cambridge) and Philippe Caron

In this article we demonstrate how fine-grained analysis of salient features of linguistic change over a relatively short, but significant period can help refine our notions of periodization. As our case study, we consider whether it is appropriate to distinguish a period called français préclassique (‘Pre-Classical French’), and if so, what its temporal limits are. As our contemporary informants we take, on the one hand, the comments of writers of remarks on the French language, who were highly conscious of language change, and on the other, usage in successive French translations of the same Latin source text which can be exploited to track and date the adoption of ‘modern’ linguistic variants. We find atypical patterns of change – and notably changes which move rapidly through Labov’s different stages – that contribute to the sense of discontinuity or periodization. However, this sense of ‘rupture’ does not coincide with the chronological boundaries hitherto suggested for français préclassique, thus throwing the validity of this period into question.