Topics in Diachronic Syntax

Bettelou Los


Engelse Taal en Cultuur
Radboud Universiteit
Erasmusplein 1, kamer 629
6525 HT Nijmegen
Postbus 9103
6500 HD Nijmegen

Course level

Introductory. I am assuming a basic knowledge of syntax; some acquaintance with general issues of language change will also be helpful.

Course description

The synchronic variation that we find cross-linguistically also defines the variation that is possible diachronically, i.e. between different stages of the same language, but diachronic work has the added challenge that any framework or theory of change must also account for how to get from stage to stage. Any stage we reconstruct must be a plausible language, because anything we say about extinct languages should also be true of languages today (“the Uniformitarian Principle”). Variation in language is rarely meaningless: if a variable allows more than one realization, speakers tend to converge on a meaning, (social) function, or motivation. Such motivations are of course more difficult to uncover in the absence of native speakers, which probably explains why historical linguists were in the past very quick to accept chaos in their data: syntactic variation in Old and Middle English was only to be expected because they represented languages “in transition” - a questionable teleological view, as if speakers were trying their hardest to arrive at the modern situation and their parataxis (strings of loosely connected main clauses), discourse particles whose expressive functions are less than readily identifiable, repetitions, unexpected resumptive pronouns, left dislocations, and inconsistent use of tenses were all evidence of a primitive, unfledged state. If we accept the Uniformitarian principle, the challenge, then, is to work out what the motivations are behind syntactic variation, how to spot competition between syntactic structures, and what this can tell us about syntactic change. Our case studies are mainly drawn from the history of English, an exceptionally well-documented language with texts stretching back a thousand years.

Day-to-day program


A general introduction to variation and language change at the various levels of linguistic description: phonology, morphology, syntax, and information structure. The locus of syntactic change: first and second language acquisition. Exaptation as an accidental by-product of the acquisition toolkit: learners’ analyses may occasionally differ spectacularly from their “model”.


Cross-linguistically, the two main parameters along which syntax differs from one language to the next, and where we also find differences between stages of a single language, are: (i) whether grammatical information is expressed by bound morphemes (morphology) or by free words (syntax); (ii) word order patterns; and (iii) how the thematic roles of the verb are expressed (by NPs, PPs, full clauses, etc.). We will look at (i) here and present two grammaticalization stories: the definite article and the modal verbs.


Parameter (ii): word order. Some orders may be motivated by information structure at an early period, but become syntacticized at a later stage; and, conversely, some orders may be syntactically motivated earlier but acquire an information structure or discourse motivation later on--especially when they have become minority, non-canonical orders because of syntactic change. We will look at word order phenomena like adjective noun/noun adjective, verb-second, and mixed OV/VO orders.


Parameter (iii): Although the conceptual structure of actions expressed by verbs would not be expected to differ much from one language to another –-an eating action presupposes an animate entity that does the eating, and a substance that gets eaten--, languages, and language stages, may differ in whether they require all roles to be expressed, and how they are expressed. We will look at impersonal verbs and finite and non-finite clausal complements.


We will review the case studies discussed so far to see what they can tell us about syntactic change.

Reading materials

Background and preparatory readings

  • Aitchison, J. (2001) Language change: Progress or decay? 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Denison. D. (1993) English historical syntax. London: Longman.
  • Course readings

    Lecture 1:

  • Andersen, Henning. (1973). Abductive and deductive change. Language 49, 765-793.
  • Lass, Roger. (1990). How to do things with junk: exaptation in language evolution. Journal of Linguistics 29, 79-102.
  • Lecture 2:

  • Getty, M. (2000). Differences in the metrical behaviour of Old English finite verbs: Evidence for grammaticalization. English Language and Linguistics 4, 37-67.
  • Roberts, Ian & Anna Roussou. (1999). A formal approach to ‘‘grammaticalization’’. Lin¬guistics 37:6, 1011-1041. [Focus on section 3.1]
  • Lecture 3:

  • Los, Bettelou & Erwin Komen (forthcoming). Clefts as resolution strategies after the loss of a multifunctional first position. In: Rethinking English: The Handbook of English Historical Linguistics, edited by Elizabeth Traugott & Terttu Nevalainen, OUP.
  • Los, Bettelou & Gea Dreschler (forthcoming). The loss of local anchoring: From adverbial local anchors to permissive subjects. In: Rethinking English: The Handbook of English Historical Linguistics, edited by Elizabeth Traugott & Terttu Nevalainen, OUP.
  • Lecture 4:

  • Los, Bettelou (2000). Onginnan/Beginnan + to-infinitive in Ælfric. In: Pathways of Change: Grammaticalization in English (Studies in Language Companion Series 53), edited by O. Fischer, A. Rosenbach & D. Stein, 251–274. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
  • Lecture 5:

    No reading.