Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English
Volume 16

Can We Predict Linguistic Change?

Edited by Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg

Publication date: 2015


Sanchez-Stockhammer, Christina
Can we predict linguistic change? An introduction

Empirical research on language is limited to the analysis of linguistic usage in the present and in the past. The unavailability of future linguistic performance makes it impossible to draw any certain conclusions regarding developments which lie ahead in time. It remains to be seen, however, whether all predictions are necessarily purely speculative: a growing body of empirical research on language variation and in statistics seems to suggest that linguistic change is subject to certain regularities, e.g. regarding the typical S-shaped growth curve observed in processes of change. At the same time, a multitude of disruptive factors may lead to unpredictable developments.

This introduction gives an overview of the current state of discussions on this issue and points out the main questions which are addressed in the various contributions.

Nevalainen, Terttu
Descriptive adequacy of the S-curve model in diachronic studies of language change

The S-shaped curve is typically used to model the diffusion of linguistic change across time. This paper looks at the degree to which the model applies to empirical real-time data of some time-depth. An S-shaped curve is commonly attested in the quantitative studies discussed, but it is not the only pattern that emerges from systematic analyses. To put the model and its descriptive adequacy into perspective, I consider both typical cases and exceptions to them, notably change reversals. I also draw attention to the level of analytic detail that has a major role to play in empirical research into processes of language change and their outcomes.

Tagliamonte, Sali A.
Exploring the architecture of variable systems to predict language change

In this paper I review the results from three changes in progress that offer insights into whether or not we can predict linguistic change: 1) stative possessive have have got; 2) future temporal reference will/shallgoing to and 3) the innovation quotative be like. I argue that absolute predications about the locus of change in the linguistic system and the precise point in time when a change will actuate are impossible. However, the probability of knowing subsequent stages of development in a current change (e.g. increase in frequency) can be estimated given a longitudinal perspective, a known trajectory of constraints as well as attention to social, cultural and economic conditions.

Minkova, Donka
A U-turn and its consequences for the history of final schwa in English

This paper traces the reversal in the trajectory of the phonotactic history of schwa in final unstressed syllables (/-ə/#) in non-monosyllabic words. It is the first full empirical account linking all stages in the history of final schwa in English. The first stage involves ubiquitous loss of the unstressed vowel at the right word boundary culminating c. 1400–1450. The second stage initiates an incipient reversal of the loss in a severely restricted subset of the lexicon. The next phase is a gradual, and as yet incomplete, reanalysis of the functions of right-edge schwa. In a macro-perspective, the history of the change plots as a continuous, but apparently non-repetitive, U-curve.

The account identifies and compares the properties of final schwa before and after the middle of the 15th c. with a view to its future. Phonologically, the turnaround was robust, complete, and apparently categorical, allowing us to predict its continuity in the phonological system with confidence, at least for this century. However, the data-survey reveals developments in other parts of the grammar: morphology, prosody, pragmatics. In some of these areas schwa’s future is still in the balance and has to be treated as aleatory. The spread of /-ə/# beyond the original narrow loanword lexical range led to a previously non-existent involvement of /-ə/# in limited gender marking, it continues to be associated with nounness, and it may even be a candidate for a peripheral/pseudo-suffixal status and contributes to the hybridity of the PDE prosodic system. Only one of the non-phonological parameters of pre-1400 /-ə/#, its unrestricted use in all registers, accompanies the U-curve, and even that pragmatic aspect of /-ə/# may be “in progress”, depending on education, regional demographics and rate of speech. The lesson to be learned from this history is that even a statistically “perfect” change can be reversed, with unpredictable consequences outside its domain.

Rütten, Tanja
For whom the bell tolls, or: Why we predicted the death of the mandative subjunctive

In this paper, I suggest that the life, death and revival of the mandative subjunctive that have been “predicted” in recent research appear in a different light under re-consideration of three points: 1) the range of permissible alternatives for inflected subjunctive forms, 2) the inventory of triggering expressions, and 3) the evolution of subjunctives in independent clauses. I show that methodology, co-text and conceptualisations of the linguistic category “subjunctive” have direct and sweeping consequences on the respective mappings of its change, its growth rate and our ability to correctly predict direction, speed and completion of the change. With hindsight, I thus hope to sharpen our senses for identifying unaccounted, and even unaccountable, factors in predictions of ongoing and future variation and change.

Dorgeloh, Heidrun & Gero Kunter
Modelling adjective phrase inversion as an instance of functional specialization in non-locative inversion

English non-locative inversion is a semantic subtype of full inversion in which the fronted constituent is an adjective phrase (most disturbing is…) or an ascriptive noun phrase (an exception to this rule is…). In the history of English, this type of inversion has emerged relatively late and is subject to specific constraints and discourse functions of the left clause periphery.

Based on the assumption that elements at the left periphery have a connective and a subjective function, we present data from a historical corpus to explain the development of this type of inversion over the last 200 years. Our statistical models find different developments for different semantic subtypes. Adjective phrases with a subjective meaning, which have been frequent in the 19th century, show a decreasing frequency during the last century. By contrast, adjective phrases with a connective meaning have been increasing in frequency over the last 100 years, and our models predict that they are likely to do so in the future.

This rather fine-grained analysis of word order variation suggests that the study of language change calls for an integration of semantic and syntactic categories, and that the possibilities for predicting language change also depend on a suitable selection of the scale of classification.

MacKenzie, Ian
Will English as a lingua franca impact on native English?

English used as a lingua franca (ELF) by non-native speakers contains a huge amount of variation and usually differs quite considerably from English as a native language, although there is some evidence that innovations or hybrid forms shared by speakers of many L1s are diffusing into common ELF usage. In this article I describe some of these forms and consider the psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic mechanisms that might lead to – or prevent – such usages being propagated among native English speakers. Although English has a long history of language contact and language shift, with, e.g., Celts (Britons) and Scandinavians adding to and subtracting from the language, this happened long before there was widespread literacy, education, mass media, and language standardization. Today, native speakers could imitate ELF forms if they found them particularly expressive, or for reasons of (overt or covert) prestige – imitating the speech of a culturally dominant or socially attractive group, although this currently appears improbable. Moreover, non-native speakers who relocate to Anglophone countries are more likely to accommodate to local speakers than vice versa, and their children will acquire the variety of the wider local community. In parts of larger cities this could be a ‘multi-ethnolect’ containing various L2-derived features, but such forms are unlikely to be widely diffused. At present, there is no evidence that native English speakers are accommodating to ELF usages, and my (tentative) prediction is that this is unlikely to happen.