Guide Varieties of English: An Introduction to the Study of Language

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Their use of binary logistic regression permits the correct prediction of the choice of S-genitive and OF-genitive in Gries uses discriminant analysis to explore what variables — such as the length of the direct object or the idiomaticity of the verb phrase — result in a preference for verb-particle-object ordering e. Studies such as these provide us with the means of making empirically grounded predictions regarding the linguistic behaviour of language users for one particular phenomenon in particular situations in the present state of the language.

With the advent of a growing number of individual studies, our knowledge of the present and past stages of the English language becomes ever more detailed. Your browser does not support the video tag. You can find the video by clicking here. Figure 2 exemplifies this graphically: if we represent language in all its many aspects as a two-dimensional vertical plane, then our knowledge about one particular phenomenon — such as particle placement — can be represented as a small area within that plane. Of course, the scale is not accurate here.

If we now consider that language may change across time — which is represented as consecutive language planes following each other on the time arrow actually, with an infinitely small distance between them , then it is theoretically possible to carry out studies on the same phenomenon at different times e. Modern English registers, as is done by Dorgeloh The more individual research points there are, the more we know about the historical development of a particular phenomenon which corresponds to the yellow arrow. Provided that we have some diachronic results, among which there is at least one relatively recent account, it may be possible to extrapolate from the findings about the present and the past and to make tentative predictions concerning future developments for particular phenomena, based on what we already know about linguistic change.


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The study of linguistic change has always played an important role in linguistics. Particularly in its beginnings, the academic study of language mainly focused on historical developments and the earlier stages of the various languages under consideration. The neo-grammarians attempted to reconstruct language and to determine general principles governing linguistic change in the past cf.

Hickey : 1. This is also the time which is crucial when it comes to the prediction of potential future changes in the language. Speculative as the enterprise of prediction may seem, the impressive body of previous research furnishes us firstly with a number of considerations regarding the nature of linguistic change and secondly with several observations that seem to apply relatively regularly when it comes to language change, and which one may base some educated guesses upon.

In the very first place, there are a number of elaborate discussions of how and why languages change. For an overview of central approaches addressing the topic on a general level, cf. Schneider Labov has written extensively on the internal , social , cognitive and cultural principles which drive linguistic change. If we go back in time, Weinreich, Labov and Herzog : — lay the foundations for much of the subsequent discussion of language change by identifying five issues that any theory of linguistic change and thus also any prediction of future linguistic changes needs to take into consideration: the constraints on changes, the stages intervening in transition, the associated changes and the effects of changes e.

As for the generally applying principles, one which is widely accepted in the study of linguistic change cf. For predictions, the uniformitarian principle is simply extrapolated to the future, which means that any general principles that hold true now are expected to apply to future linguistic stages.

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As for the recurring patterns regarding linguistic change which predictions might focus on, the spread of innovations represents a central case. However, a common observation is that this is not how linguistic innovations spread. Instead, linguistic change is more aptly represented graphically as an exponential S-shaped growth curve cf. Lass : ; Denison : 56 , which has, for instance, been observed in the historical separation of modal verbs from ordinary verbs or in the development of the use of the progressive Aitchison : 98— Nevalainen for a critical discussion of that model.

In the beginning, changes only affect few constructions so that the curve is relatively flat. As soon as a critical mass has been affected, the change gathers momentum and has wide-reaching consequences reflected by the steep part of the graph before slowing down with regard to the last remaining constructions of the previous type some of which may actually never change.

With regard to the prediction of linguistic change, the observation of an S-shaped growth curve preceding the present time in an ongoing process of change means that the change is unlikely to speed up in the future, since most items in the language will have been affected by it already. In view of the observation that it is unusual for a language to borrow grammatical words such as personal pronouns which is, however, the case with Scandinavian-origin they , their etc.

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Sociolinguistic research has also yielded the result that linguistic change tends to start with younger speakers, with lower-class speakers, in spoken language and in informal language Mair : Mair Based on the assumption that any stage of any language needs to meet certain physiological and cognitive requirements, changes violating such constraints are less likely than other types of change — and sometimes even impossible for instance, the biological foundations of language impose limitations on possible sounds; cf.

Lenneberg : Also, the openness and closeness of vowels is restricted by the physical qualities of the articulators Labov : The same applies from the perspective of the listener: since maximally open front and back sounds are difficult to distinguish, linguistic changes which would emphasise this phonemic difference are relatively unlikely Martinet : The non-existence of patterns across a large number of languages in typological research is thus indicative of the limits of potential language change Kortmann : The cognition of their speakers also sets a limit to the shapes that natural languages may take.

Compared to the physiological constraints, limitations on cognition and memory will tend to be even more of the gradual and less of the categorical type. For instance, linguistic changes resulting in a massive increase in very long compounds such as holiday car sightseeing trip are very unlikely, since these make high demands on processing, particularly in spoken language cf. Schmid : — We may conclude from all of the above that some linguistic changes are indeed likelier than others — but as in any probabilistic model, this does not prevent some unlikely events from happening and some likely events from not happening.

An Introduction to the Study of Language

It is in full awareness of all of the above that the present volume attempts to discuss the question whether it is possible to predict linguistic change. The authors are not equipped with crystal balls but with corpora, statistical tests and critical minds. The volume assembles seven papers in total.

Definition And Examples Of Language Varieties

The first two contributions Nevalainen ; Tagliamonte focus on the general theoretical discussion of predictability in language change. They discuss the predictive potential of S-curve models of change Nevalainen and synchronic regional variation Tagliamonte , among other things. The volume closes with a discussion of the potential influence of linguistic contact between native and non-native speakers of English on language change MacKenzie. Her research on the Corpus of Early English Correspondence reveals an S-curve-like development in twelve out of fourteen cases under investigation e.

Interestingly, some reversals may even slightly revert again e. While an expected S-curve does not call for an explanation, Nevalainen notes, a change reversal usually does — e. Thus more conservative dialects are likely to follow the same steps in their development as more progressive dialects, so that the data from another region can be used to predict linguistic change at a specific place. Where studies in apparent time and thus synchrony mirror diachrony, the prediction that certain changes will go on seems more reasonable e.

Prescriptive tendencies may serve to explain differences that can be observed in specific registers or varieties such as American English , e.

Tagliamonte also points out an important advantage of making predictions, namely that they permit to look for explanations when the actual results deviate from the predicted ones. Eventually, she calls for conducting more replications of existing studies, so as to catch language change in action and to improve predictability. She provides a very detailed discussion of the history of word-final schwa in English and analyses the possible reasons for the historical development of schwa-loss and its reinstatement in English — such as the influence of personal names with word-final schwa and the contact with languages like Latin, Spanish or Italian.

Minkova argues that the reintegration of word-final schwa is irreversible and expects an extension rather than a reduction of its functions such as the marking of personal names as female, e. She argues that a very important aspect to consider in any prediction of linguistic change is what the alternatives to the phenomenon under consideration are, since this has direct implications for the results.

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Introduction to the English language - Study courses - UiS

For instance, it is very difficult to compare the various periods of English using the same potential triggering expressions for the mandative subjunctive as a context, because these are highly period-specific. As a consequence, one would be comparing very different systems at different times — a problem which can also be generalised to other phenomena of language change, and ultimately to the prediction of likely future developments.

Based on the preference of structures in the left periphery of clauses to connect to previous discourse or to express subjective contents, they expect to find an increase in this function over time in phrases consisting of one adjective with one premodifying general or degree adverb — which they do indeed.

Dorgeloh and Kunter argue in favour of modelling linguistic change statistically, since this manages to represent the gradience of short-term developments. Their conclusion regarding the prediction of linguistic change in general is the importance of selecting a suitable scale for the classification. This involves features such as the use of the simple present rather than the past perfect to express duration, or the use of past time adverbials with the present perfect rather than with the simple past. By comparison to previous stages of English, however, MacKenzie does not expect the same simplifying effect of non-native adult acquisition of English in the future because of widespread literacy and the omnipresence of the written standard variety.

MacKenzie is highly sceptical regarding the amount of influence of non-native English on the native English of inner circle countries, since he believes the native speakers in those countries to be exposed relatively little to non-native language use.


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  6. Where native speakers adopt non-native constructions, this is presumably because these constructions are regarded as more expressive or as having a certain attention-getting stylistic effect or for reasons of prestige. Since all contributions in this volume — even those which are sceptical regarding the predictability of future linguistic change — assume that the English language is going to change in the future, one might argue that this constitutes a prediction on a very general level already.

    However, the expectation that it is an inherent feature of natural languages to change can be found so generally in the literature e. The summaries and the list above indicate already that the individual contributions in this volume address a range of central questions regarding the predictability of future changes in the English language, such as what common methodological problems there are e. Nevalainen , whether linguistic change is reversible e. Minkova , how fine-grained predictions of linguistic change need to be in order to work best e.

    MacKenzie and how we can use present-day geographical variation in order to make educated guesses about future trajectories of change e. This introduction has also addressed a number of issues, such as the question whether negative predictions in which no changes in a particular feature are expected are more likely to come true than positive predictions. However, a number of questions remain, which could either only be touched upon in passing in the present volume or not at all, but which would merit to have more detailed discussion and research devoted to them:.

    This is due to the fact that even synchronic slices of time need to have a certain extension so as to make them analysable in practice. As a consequence, studies which predict the use of particular linguistic variants in specific Present-Day English situational contexts cf. Gries etc. Wetter Online and supported by radar films with simulations of moving clouds, one might wish to argue that it is possible to make plausible predictions for language, too — but only for a highly limited period of time.

    This also raises the question whether predictions are more likely to be correct if they concern clearly delimited small-scale phenomena such as the future development of one particular grammatical construction or more general tendencies such as the development of global English.