Peter Petré (University of Antwerp)
Constructional change across the lifespan
In this talk I present some of the highlights of the Europe-funded Mind-Bending Grammars project, which came to a close this August. Language change has typically been studied at the aggregate level, yet it is individual behaviours that change to bring about such change. Assuming that language is a complex adaptive system (Beckner et al. 2009), I show how macro-properties of grammaticalizing constructions can be accounted for as an unintended effect of intentional individual interactions. These dynamics are exemplified by various developments in seventeenth and eighteenth-century English as represented in 50 prolific writers (brought together in the EMMA-corpus, Petré et al. 2019), including the grammaticalization of be going to, the copularization of ?get?, the increasing productivity of prepositional passives and rhetorical shifts in cleft constructions. For each of these types of evidence it will be shown 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. Combined, these behaviors reinforce the well-known S-curve propagation of change.
The leap-like and yet gradual nature of change is also visible at the individual level, with increasingly more people showing lifespan change in the direction of the median use after a more experimental period. Even so, the majority of early adopters will also conservatively constrain innovative usage in agreement with pre-existing habits (cf. Petré & Van de Velde 2018), or what may be called their constructional horizon. This has certain implications for a theory of constructionalization. Formal-semantic changes in a constructional schema seem to be possible within an individual?s lifetime. For example, in the be going to INF construction we find semantic loss of motion combined with formal obligatorification of the to INF emerging later in life. Yet at the same time there always is a backpull from the lexical source material, preventing a full-fledged constructionalization process within a single lifespan in most cases. This does, however, not imply that ?true? reanalysis can only occur between generations. At most it implies that such reanalysis will be rarer as people age and are burdened by pre-existing habits. Apart from social pressures (e.g. Trudgill 2011) that could push them towards innovation at this level, or prevent such innovation, I will also provide evidence of the probable role played by personality, as apparent in how certain types of people tend to be conservative or progressive across the board.