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Dialect syntax as a testbed for models of innovation and change

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Recent years have seen a remarkable revival of interest in the syntax of dialects and nonstandard varieties in theoretical syntax. This paper considers how geographical and social distribution of syntactic variants currently undergoing change can inform our understanding of how syntactic innovations arise and diffuse. While some syntactic innovations are transparent to speakers and can be copied by adults, many others are quite abstract. Since speakers have no direct access to the internalised grammars of other speakers, a reasonable hypothesis is that such innovations spread more readily by being replicated in the newly developing grammars of children during language acquisition. This also raises the possibility that some syntactic innovations may spread by arising independently during acquisition in the grammars of many individuals. These possibilities will be examined and evaluated using data from the first phase of the Syntactic Atlas of Welsh Dialects, focusing on the following recent innovations in Welsh:

(i) creation of a new negative modal cau ‘won’t’ and its integration into the negative-concord system; (ii) the innovation of marking of long-distance wh-dependencies (e.g. long-distance wh-questions) on every verb in the dependency (e.g. wh-marking on both ‘trying’ and ‘ask’ in ‘What are you trying to ask?’); (iii) creation of a new second person singular pronoun chdi ‘you’ and its spread to new syntactic contexts.

These innovations form a continuum from less to more abstract which mirrors a similar continuum in their geographical and social distribution from more to less compact, plausibly reflecting differences in the mechanisms of innovation.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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