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.

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 4

Of Lambkins and Piglets in Old English and Beyond

by Patrick V. Stiles (University College London)

It is suggested that the Old English adjectives geēan and gecealf, each attested once in the same passage, could refer not only to pregnant livestock but also to mothers with their newborn young (as proposed by Osthoff in 1895). The twice occurring sequence gefearh sugu, which is usually taken to be a compound, is here analysed as consisting of a third such adjective used attributively before the noun; as the feminine nominative singular of a heavy‐syllabled adjective, it is endingless. This appears to be a return to an earlier view. A fourth example, gefol, recorded once, is also discussed. The formation of these adjectives is briefly treated, as is the PGmc noun *auna- “lamb” presupposed by the first adjective, together with its presumed relationship to Latin agnus and further cognates. Evidence for the derived class II weak verb *aunôn (reflected in OE *ēanian) in the Germanic languages is presented.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12121

TPS 116(1) – Abstract 3

The Status of Passive Constructions in Old English

by Howard Jones (University of Oxford) & Morgan Macleod (University of Cambridge)

In Old English, passive‐type constructions involving a copula and a passive participle could be used to express both events and states. Two different types of copula are found in these constructions: weorðan, meaning ‘become’, and wesan and beon, meaning ‘be’. There has been some dispute as to how the meaning of these copulas relates to the meaning of the construction as a whole, in both its eventive and its stative uses, and whether any of these constructions was grammaticalized in the sense that its meaning was non‐compositional. We propose a semantic model that represents these constructions compositionally and test it against a selected corpus of Old English texts in order to address two questions: whether the data provide evidence of non‐compositional meaning that would suggest grammaticalization, and whether other factors are also responsible for the choice of copula. Our analysis suggests that the attested Old English passives are fully compatible with a compositional analysis; we also discuss additional semantic factors that may be responsible for the lower frequency of passives with weorðan.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12101

TPS 116(1) – Abstract 1

Contrastive Feature Hierarchies in Old English Diachronic Phonology

by Elan Dresher (University of Toronto)

This article looks at the origins and uses of contrastive hierarchies in Old English diachronic phonology, with a focus on the development of West Germanic vowel systems. I begin with a rather enigmatic remark in Richard Hogg’s A grammar of Old English (1992), and attempt to trace its provenance. We will find that the trail leads back to analyses by some prominent scholars that make use of contrastive feature hierarchies. However, these analyses often appear without context or supporting framework. I will attempt to provide the missing framework and historical context for these analyses, while showing their value for understanding the development of phonological systems. I will show that behind these apparently isolated analyses there is a substantial theoretical edifice that once held a central role in synchronic as well as diachronic phonological theory, and which is still capable of providing insights into the workings of phonology.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12105

Faces of PhilSoc: George Walkden

George Walkden
Position: Lecturer in English Linguistics
Institution: University of Manchester
Role in PhilSoc: Council member; member of the Publications Committee


About You

How did you become a linguist – was there a decisive event, or was it a gradual development?

My favourite subjects at school were languages and maths, and I was always torn between them. During my first degree I gradually realized I could combine the two! I think my desire to continue in academia was born during my year abroad, during which I was clocking in and out every day to translate documents for a pharmaceutical company. I wanted to do a job that rewarded results, not a 9-to-5, and a job that allowed me to keep on learning (and studying language) until I keeled over. After that I was more or less hooked!

What was the topic of your doctoral thesis? Do you still believe in your conclusions?

My doctoral thesis was about reconstructing the syntax of Proto-Germanic. The general conclusions – in particular that syntactic reconstruction is feasible and interesting – I would stand by. I did make at least one major mistake in interpreting results for Old English verb-late clauses, though, and I gave a talk about this at PhilSoc in 2015, retracting my earlier claim.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

Lots of different things! Negation in Middle English, preposition stranding in early Germanic, how to derive and understand Constant Rate Effects in syntactic change… I’m an obsessive collaborator and tangent-taker. I’m also looking to expand my parsed corpus of Old Saxon.

What directions in the future do you see your research taking?

I’m keen to expand my knowledge of computational and mathematical approaches to language change, and am aggressively reading up in this area. Combining this with corpus-based research and predictive theories of acquisition and use is what I’d aim to achieve. One of the things I love about historical syntax is how many different skills you need to develop: philology, syntactic theory, corpus methodology, the general theory of language change, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

Two events aimed specifically at postgrads and early career researchers: one in Cambridge in 2010, and another in Oxford in 2012.

‘Personal’ Questions

Do you have a favourite language – and if so, why?

Old Saxon! It’s the underappreciated sibling of Old High German, and has been unjustifiably ignored, especially within Germany.

Minimalism or LFG?

Minimalism. But I wish we had something like XLE.


Looking to the Future

Is there something that you would like to change in academia / HE?

Gold Open Access should be the norm, not the exception. Academic publishing should be scholar-led.

(How) Do you manage to have a reasonable work-life balance?

Honestly, I find it hard to distinguish between the two.

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

Don’t be afraid to put your ideas out there! Senior academics are (mostly) not out to get you.

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 1

London’s Name

by Theodora Bynon

The present paper was inspired by Richard Coates’s 1998 article ‘A new analysis of the name London’, in which he refutes the traditional derivation of the name from the form Londinium recorded in the Classical sources on the grounds that its Old English ancestor Lunden presupposes a British (that is to say, Celtic) source form *[Lōndonjon] with a back vowel in the second syllable. I wish further to clarify the history of this name in two respects by showing that: (i) the British name must have reached western Germanic dialects prior to West Germanic Consonant Lengthening and thus in all probability prior to the Anglo-Saxon settlements in England, and: (ii) that *Londonion (with a short [o]) belongs to an identifiable British place-name type, even though the identity of the lexical base lond- remains rather elusive and information on a native settlement is confined to a single historical source, which locates it to the south of the Thames.

TPS 114(2) – Abstract 2

Early Old English Foot Structure

by Nelson Goering (University of Oxford)

The variable operation of high vowel deletion in Old English has long been a point of difficulty, both descriptively – a prehistoric form like *hēafudu is attested variably as hēafudu, hēafdu, and hēafod – and theoretically. Recent work, especially by Bermúdez-Otero (2005b) and Fulk (2010), has indicated that plural forms like hēafudu are most likely original, but accounting for why the medial *u is preserved in this case form, and not in hēafde, the dative singular of the same word, has remained theoretically problematic. These difficulties arise from attempting to describe the prehistoric Old English process of high vowel deletion on the basis of later Old English phonology. At an earlier stage, the nominative-accusative plural *hēafudu could be exhaustively parsed into two precisely bimoraic feet: *[hēa][.fu.du]. The dative singular historically ended with a long vowel, *hēafudǣ, in which the medial *u could not be accommodated within a bimoraic foot: *[hēa].fu[.dǣ]. High vowel deletion is therefore best characterized as the deletion of unfooted high vowels in early Old English, initially operating while length in unstressed vowels remained contrastive. Both this quantitative system and the preference for precisely bimoraic units receive support from Kaluza’s law, an archaic metrical phenomenon in Beowulf which prohibits resolution in secondary metrical ictus if the resulting unit would have more than two moras, and which is sensitive to prehistoric length distinctions. This original system was obscured, linguistically and metrically, in later Old English by the shortening of unstressed long vowels, triggering various morphological reanalyses of the effects of high vowel deletion. A review of these changes suggests that the system of metrical phonology described here provides a more plausible starting point for the reworkings that produced the forms found in later Old English than do alternative accounts such as those of Campbell (1983) or Ringe (2002).

Read it online