Joan Bybee

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Mechanisms of change and frequency effects across levels

Abstract. Mechanisms of change are not special processes that take place only when change is in progress, rather they are they the result of normal processing activities that operate as language is used. Because they are activities that implement change only with repetition, they interact with degrees of frequency of use. Some mechanisms operate earlier on high frequency units while others operate earlier on low frequency units. The interaction of processing activities with repetition across many usage events is what gives language its structure. In this talk I will first introduce the role of frequency in the grammaticization process, providing brief descriptions of the mechanisms of change that apply in grammaticization. The mechanisms of change and the attendant frequency effects provide evidence that language change takes place in normal language use.

These considerations lead to a view of grammar as the cognitive representation of one’s experience with language. The organization of these cognitive representations arise from domain-general principles, particularly sequential chunking and categorization. These principles give rise to constructions, which are gradient and variable and have a highly redundant representation; each exemplar of a construction is represented in memory (to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon its frequency) with details about meaning, context, inferences, phonetic detail, lexical detail all present.

The particular change that is the focus of my presentation is the much-studied development of the English auxiliary and the constructions that call for this category. I will argue that the development of the constructions of subject-auxiliary inversion, not-negation and the rise of periphrastic do begin in the grammaticization of the modals which greatly increases their frequency of use, leading to the establishment of special construction for modals that are later spread by analogy to all verbs via the use of do as an auxiliary. Quantitative data from Early Modern English is presented to support this analysis.