BRaCeLeT talk series, #3

Nikolaus Ritt (Universität Wien)

Obligatorification in grammatical change: Experimental approaches to the spread of (in-)definiteness marking in Early English


The talk reports work done together with Olga Féher and Kenny Smith (both from the University of Edinburgh). It deals with article emergence in Early English, focussing on the spread of grammars in which first the definiteness (cf. McColl Millar 2000, Sommerer 2012) and later the indefiniteness (cf. Rissanen 1967) of NP reference was obligatorily marked (with the and a(n) as default markers). We address the question why emerging grammars with obligatory (in-)definiteness marking managed to spread among speakers for whom it must — in early phases — still have been optional.

On the basis of Accommodation Theory (e.g. Auer & Hinskens 2005, Coupland 2010, Trudgill 1986), we hypothesize that speakers with optional (in-)definiteness marking would have found it easier to accommodate to speakers with categorical rules, because they merely had to increase their usage of a grammatically viable option, while speakers with categorical rules would have had to violate their grammars and might have been insensitive to the finer pragmatic distinctions governing optional determiner use. Therefore, speech produced in communication between speakers with different grammars would have converged on patterns reflecting categorical (in-)definiteness marking rules, so that these rules would have inevitably spread.

We tested our proposal through a communication game with a miniature language designed for this purpose (see e.g. Kirby, Cornish & Smith 2008). The language allowed the construction of simple Verb-Subject sentences describing movement types (e.g. boingla for jumping) made by either one or two animals (e.g. hoppo ‘frog’). While plurality was invariably signalled by post-nominal particles (e.g. wib), singular marking (by different particles, e.g. dak) was obligatory in one ‘variety’ and optional in the other. As the absence of plural marking implied singular, explicit singular marking was also redundant. In the communication game, participants trained on obligatory singular marking were matched with participants trained on optional marking. In each trial, one participant described a scene, and the other had to identify it among a set of different pictures. A number of such trials were played, with roles switching after each trial. This setup allowed us to test the prediction inherent in our account of article emergence, namely that accommodation would select obligatory rather than optional category marking.

The talk explains our hypothesis, reports the results of our study, and discusses how experiments involving artificial languages can help to test hypotheses about actual changes like English article emergence.


Auer, Peter & Frans Hinskens. 2005. The Role of Interpersonal Accommodation in a Theory of Language Change. In Peter Auer, Frans Hinskens & Paul Kerswill (eds.), Dialect Change: Convergence and Divergence in European Languages, 335–357. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coupland, Nikolas. 2010. Accomodation theory. In Jürgen Jaspers, Jef Verschueren & Jan-Ola Östman (eds.), Society and language use, 21–27. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Kirby, Simon, Hannah Cornish & Kenny Smith. 2008. Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: an experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 105, 10681–10686.

McColl Millar, Robert. 2000. Some suggestions for explaining the origin and development of the definite article in English. In Olga Fischer, Annette Rosenbach & Dieter Stein (eds.). Pathways of Change: Grammaticalization in English. 275-310. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Rissanen, Matti. 1967. The uses of “one” in Old and Early Middle English. Helsinki: Societé Néophilologique.

Sommerer, Lotte. 2012. Investigating the emergence of the definite article in Old English: About categorization, gradualness and constructions. Folia Linguistica Historica 33. 175–213.

Trudgill, Peter. 1986. Dialects in contact. Oxford: Blackwell.

26 February 2016, Friday 11am
1088 Budapest, Rákóczi út 5, R030

by the same author
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     25 February 2016, Thursday 5pm, 1068 Budapest, Benczúr utca 33, fszt.
Evolutionary thinking in historical linguistics
     26 February 2016, Friday 4pm, 1088 Budapest, Mikszáth tér 1, 206
last touched 2016-02-29 12:33:08 +0100