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Complexity as L2-difficulty: Implications for syntactic change

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Trudgill (2011) has suggested that different types of language contact situation lead to differential simplification and complexification: for instance, long-term co-territorial contact is predicted to lead to additive complexification, whereas short-term contact involving extensive adult L2 use is predicted to lead to simplification.

In this talk I explore the implications of Trudgill’s sociolinguistic insight for syntactic change. Following Trudgill, I take complexity to be L2-difficulty, i.e. the difficulty that a particular linguistic feature poses to an adult learner. I assume a specific definition of syntactic L2-difficulty taken from the generative literature on second language acquisition: the Interpretability Hypothesis, which states that syntactic features that are not semantically interpretable are particularly difficult for adults to acquire.

The approach then predicts that, in sociohistorical situations in which adult L2 learners are particularly dominant, uninterpretable features will typically be lost. I will offer three case studies in support of this prediction: the loss of bipartite negation, the loss of consistent null-subject status, and the loss of case. Data will be drawn from the history of Low German, (post)colonial varieties of Spanish and Portuguese, and more.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Linguistics Forum series.

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