Mind-bending grammars: Guest lecture with Professor Peter Petré, University of Antwerp
Peter Petré has an ERC Starting Grant in linguistics, for a project called Mind-Bending Grammars, which investigates how grammars change in individuals in the course of a lifespan. The data come from the minds of dead people: The project has compiled a 90-million-word corpus of the most productive writers born in 17th-century England.
Mind-Bending Grammars: Syntactic change in Early Modern English as a socially embedded emergent phenomenon
Language change has typically been studied at the aggregate level, yet it is individuals who change. In this guest lecture I will focus on the role of individual cognition and social networks in explaining syntactic change, as it has crystallized out of the ERC-funded Mind-Bending Grammars project, which is now approaching its finale.
Assuming that language is a complex adaptive system, I will provide evidence of how macro-properties of grammaticalizing constructions can be accounted for as an unintended effect of intentional individual interactions. This dynamics is exemplified by various developments in 17th and 18th century English as represented in 50 prolific writers (brought together in the EMMA-corpus, Petré et al. 2019). I will focus in particular on the grammaticalization of be going to, but will also show related evidence for the copularization of 'get', the increasing productivity of prepositional passives, and the increasing rhetorical use of clefts. For each of these evidence is presented that individuals continue to innovate/adopt innovations beyond adolescence, but do so in different ways, depending on their age and community of practice. These differences lead to a higher degree of variation, which prepares a changing construction for its next leap. Also, leaders of change are followed by both older and younger adopters, but whereas older adopters will conservatively constrain innovative usage in agreement with pre-existing habits, younger language users may significantly elaborate it across the lifespan. Combined these behaviors reinforce the well-known s-curve propagation of change.
To fully understand the various developments, the specific English socio-historical context also needs to be taken into account. The writers in EMMA lived in the long 17th century, which saw the Civil War, plague and Great Fire of London in rapid succession. Such upheaval appears to impact on the rate of change, with signs of changes slowing down in times of extreme stress. General demographics and networks with many weak ties also play a role, with Londoners being generally more progressive.
Yet even within this complex multi-faceted reality, regularities across individuals’ cognitive representations emerge, as visible in recurrent intra-individual orderings of adopting interlinked innovations, or frequency correlations between similar constructions. Eventually, the combination of these individual regularities and their unintended macro-effects should also help explain why English grammar diverged so much from other Germanic languages.
Petré, Peter, Lynn Anthonissen, Sara Budts, Enrique Manjavacas, Emma-Louise Silva, William Standing, and Odile A. O. Strik (2019), Early Modern Multiloquent Authors (EMMA): Designing a large-scale corpus of individuals’ languages. ICAME Journal 43, 83–122.