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Alexander Lykke - Midway Evaluation

Alexander Lykke is a Research Fellow at Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies. Welcome to the Midway Evaluation of his project "Tense morphology: Stability, variation and change in American Norwegian". The external reader for the Midway Evaluation is Erik Magnusson Petzell, University of Gothenburg.

Tense morphology: Stability, variation and change in American Norwegian


Two main research interests drive the research in this thesis: Understanding how and why Norwegian tense morphology varies and changes, and understanding why tense morphology is the most stable morphological category in heritage languages. In the following I will provide a motivation for my inquiry, as well as providing the research background for my study. Subsequently, I will relate my preliminary findings from American Norwegian, to those of homeland Norwegian. My study is work-in-progress, and thus any and all feedback is most welcome.

Background & Motivation

Morphology in heritage languages has been shown to be more susceptible to change than morphology in homeland varieties. What is more, there seems to be a cline of stability within heritage language morphology. Verbal morphology is namely more stable than nominal morphology, and within verbal morphology, tense is the most stable, aspect and mood somewhat less, and agreement is the least stable (Benmamoun, Montrul & Polinsky 2013). To the best of my knowledge, detailed studies focusing mainly on tense morphology is lacking within the heritage linguistic field. My study aims to nuance these claims, by empirically focused study of American Norwegian.

            A further aim of this empirical study is to gain new knowledge about Norwegian tense morphology, especially in a perspective of variation and change. In both experimental studies of synchronic variation (e.g. Bjerkan & Simonsen 1996), and studies of diachronic change (Enger 2007, Wetås 2010), it is found that the morphology of the Te-class (i.e. kjøpte/prøvde/sådde, ‘bought/tried/sowed’), is most prone to spread. The same tendency is found in acquisition, with children at age eight (Ragnarsdóttir, Simonsen & Plunkett 1999).  The overgeneralization of the Te-class is a priori curious, as it is the a-class (kasta ‘threw’) which accepts new loans, and contains the most members. This tendency has been used to comment on the “past tense debate” (cf. Ragnarsdóttir, Simonsen & Plunkett 1999; Yang 2002: ch. 3).

Comparing change across categories, an additional, traditionally observed tendency, is that exponents of the different categories are of differing stability (Venås 1967), and this is corroborated by newer research (Enger 2010). The present tense is the most stable, the preterit less so, and the participle is the least stable. Consistently, Enger moreover argues that Norwegian verbs change inflection class gradually, i.e. category by category, rather than by change of all exponents at once.

Preliminaries of an analysis

Comparing tendencies of variation and change between the homeland and heritage varieties is important in order to understand possible differences between the two; this of course pertains to the understanding of the mental grammars of the multilingual heritage speakers. Interestingly, all of the tendencies of variation and change described above, is shared by American Norwegian. When irregular verbs are regularized, they obtain Te-class inflection. One particularly clear case is a change from the irregular gikk /jik/ ‘walked’ to the regular Te-class preterite /gode/, displayed by one speaker. This shared tendency implies that the acquisition of the tense morphology classes among the American Norwegian speakers is at the level of terminal acquisition of homeland speakers. There are no certain examples of verbs having completely changed class, after the emigration from Norway.

Furthermore, I have, thus far, not observed exponent changes in the present tense forms, and thus the stability of the present tense is another tendency shared by American and homeland Norwegian. However, in American Norwegian, there is noticeable variation in the preterit forms. One tendency, is of variability of exponents; one verb can occur with different past tense exponents in the speech of a single speaker. This has two main causes. It can be caused by dialect contact, e.g. one speaker who variably produces /-t/ and /-te/ with verbs like viste ‘showed’, because he has received input from both an apocope dialect (Rana) and a dialect without apocope (Sogn). Another tendency, is that of instability of the class distinctions. E.g. when a verb like hoppe ‘jump’ is produced with both the preterit /hopa/, as well as /hopte/.

Another tendency of variation, is possible neutralization of the tense categories. This is a variational trend which is not shared with homeland speakers, and it is contrary to what the generalization of Benmamoun, Montrul & Polinsky (2013) would lead us to expect. A speaker we may call Will, most commonly produces /-e/ as the preterit exponent (despite having had no contact with homeland dialects with this affix). Importantly, this same speaker produces all of the expected homeland preterite affixes (i.e. /-a/, /-te/ etc.) in addition to the innovated /-e/. Some verbs occur with both /-e/ and a target-like affix, e.g. kjøre ‘drive’ which he in the preterit produces as both /çørd/  and /çøre/, indicating that he does have knowledge of the homeland morphology.

In my analysis I will employ a Distributed Morphology model of morphology. When discussing data like those of Will, concepts like the markedness of tenses (present tense        [–PAST] being less marked than preterit [+PAST]), underspecification, and impoverishment are possible avenues of explanation. /-e/ in Will’s language has some basis as a present tense exponent, though he most commonly produces /-0/ in the present tense (inherited from Rana dialect). It is thus possible that he is introducing a less marked tense (present) into the context of a more marked tense (preterit). Another, not mutually exclusive, possibility is that /-e/ in Will’s language is a lowly specified item, which becomes available in preterite context via a (non-homeland-like) impoverishment process.


Benmamoun, E., Montrul, S. & Polinsky, M. (2013). Heritage languages and their speakers: Opportunities and challenges for linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics 39 (3–4), DOI: 10.1515/tl-2013-0009, pp. 129–181

Bjerkan, K. M. & Simonsen, H. G. (1996). Prosessering av preteritumsformer i norsk: Eksperimentell evidens fra barn og voksne. Norsk Lingvistisk Tidsskrift, 14, 189–207.

Enger, H.-O. (2007). The No Blur Principle meets Norwegian dialects. Studia Linguistica, 61

(3), 278–309.

Enger, H.-O. (2010). How do words change inflection class? Diachronic evidence from Norwegian. Language Sciences, 32 (3), 366–379.

Ragnarsdóttir, H., Simonsen, H. G. & Plunkett, K. (1999). The Acquisition of Past Tense Morphology in Icelandic and Norwegian Children: An Experimental Study. Journal of Child Language, 26 (3), 577–618

Venås, K. (1967).  Sterke verb i norske målføre. Oslo–Bergen–Tromsø: Universitetsforlaget.

Wetås, Å. (2012). Danste, fiskte og hoppte: Om apikalsuffiks i preteritum av svake verb i(sørvest-)norske dialektar. In H.-O. Enger & U. Røyneland (Eds.), Fra holtijaR til holting: Språkhistoriske og språksosiologiske artikler til Arne Torp på 70-årsdagen (pp. 413–424). Oslo: Novus.

Yang, C. D. (2002). Knowledge and learning in natural language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from 29 Jan 2018.

Published Oct. 15, 2018 10:38 AM - Last modified Mar. 16, 2020 8:05 PM