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Syntactic change and information structure

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Theresa Biberauer.



In traditional work in historical linguistics, it is often assumed that syntactic change may be triggered by fluctuations in the usage frequency of ‘stylistically’ marked patterns expressing information-structural (IS) categories such as topic or focus (cf. e.g. Givón 1976 on the reanalysis of resumptive pronouns as agreement markers, Stockwell 1977, Kemenade 1987 on the change from OV to VO in the history of English). However, recent findings from both diachronic quantitative analyses and language acquisition studies cast some doubt on the validity of this scenario. Thus, it has been pointed out that the ratio of relevant IS-related patterns seems to remain constant over time (cf. Pintzuk 1999, Taylor & Pintzuk 2012), and that learners acquire (even subtle) information-structural distinctions, by and large, early and flawlessly (Westergaard 2010). This paper explores the wiggle room these findings leave for language change, starting out from the observation that in many cases, IS-related syntactic change involves competition between different strategies to realize one and the same IS category. We will then propose a typology of changes related to the syntactic expression/encoding of IS categories, focusing on examples of ‘fossilization’ (reanalysis of IS-related syntactic patterns as either (i) morphology (grammaticalization/morphologization) or (ii) movement driven by semantically/pragmatically neutral EPP -features (e.g., the rise of generalized V2 in Germanic)) and instances where an IS-related pattern is ‘cannibalized’ by other IS-related patterns (which might also lead to the disappearance of IS categories from the language, cf. Matić 2010 on changes affecting postverbal topical subjects in Serbo-Croatian). In addition, we will take a look at diachronic processes that may lead to new IS-related form-function pairings (including changes in which syntactic patterns linked to a certain IS category are reanalyzed as the expression of another IS category, e.g. the rise of object clitic doubling in Spanish, cf. Gabriel & Rinke 2010).

This talk is part of the DTAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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