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Syntax and typological change in English

Drift and language typology
Language typology and universals
Cross-categorial generalisations

Old English, the earliest stage of English, was typologically similar to modern German: three genders, several cases, a complicated verb system and a fairly free word order which allowed topicalisation by rearrangement of sentence elements. This was to change radically in the course of the Middle and Early Modern English period because inflectional endings were lost on a broad front with a typological realignment as a consequence.

Move from synthetic to analytic This shift in the history of English is characterised by a variety of changes which can be summarised as follows.

1)   Simplification of case system from five to two
2)   Collapse of articles from three to one single form
3)   Reduction in number of verb forms
4)   Reduction of verb auxiliary system from two (be and have) to one (have)
5)   Disappearance of impersonal verb forms (type methinks)
6)   Harmonisation of verb position in main and subordinate clauses: main SVO : sub SOV > main SVO : sub SVO
7)   Demise of V2 status, i.e. inversion not required after adverbs (Probably he will come not like German Wahrscheinlich kommt er)

These are the most obvious changes when one looks at the five hundred years from ca. 1000 to 1500. Later instances of wider changes become noticeable, for instance during the Shakespearean period.

7)   Development of conversion (zero derivation) as a productive means for creating new word class elements: lunch (n.) > to lunch (v.)
8)   Relaxation of congruence requirements on verbs and subjects : The police have arrived. (compare German Die Polizei ist gekommen)

For the latter feature a German sentence is offered to show how this differs from modern English. Congruence is strictly according to form in German because its speakers think morphologically, given the importance of morphology in their language. The English think in a more semantically oriented manner, given the relative unimportance of morphology in English. Furthermore German shows its predisposition to deconstruct morphologically complex forms on borrowing in such cases as Pullunder which is derived from an analysis of Pullover, a genuine loanword. Equally a form such as Dressman is non-existent in English but shows German (loan)compounding on the basis of English dress and man.

9)   Lack of congruence between formal and semantic sentence categories, e.g. instrumentals or inanimate subjects appear often in subject position.

The chisel opened the door.
The midlands report heavy snowfalls.

This feature is yet another instance of the relaxing of formal requirements on sentence elements in English.

Drift and language typology

The term drift is used in linguistics to describe a slow and imperceptual change in a given direction. One of the best known instances of this is the gradual development from synthetic to analytic in the history of English as outlined above. The point here is that the change has moved in a single direction. It may change in direction but this is only possible in a gradual manner. Once momentum has been gained in a certain direction it maintains this for at least some few hundred years.
   Although drift excludes a zig-zag course in typology there are, in present-day English, some signs of a move away from the analytic type which had established itself so firmly by the beginning of the early modern period.

INCORPORATION This is a process whereby elements fuse to forms which do not allow one to recognise its component parts. There is a degree of incorporation in the verb system of modern English. It is contained by prescriptivism and the orthographic standard but nonetheless shows an avenue of future typological development which could be taken by English. The modals tend to cliticise with prepositions and negators, yielding one-word forms. With these the component forms are still recoverable as the standard retains the individual components.

won't > will not dont > do not
cant > can not gonna > going to

Another area where incorporation can be seen is in the acceptance of compound adjectives which compress a complete clause to a single word. This type of structure has become particularly common in official and journalistic usage. work-shy colleague, court-appointed lawyer, part-financed road building long-suffering husband, nuclear-free zone, user-friendly interface.

German has long since accepted such formations (arbeitsscheu, teilfinanziert, atomfrei, benutzerfreundlich) as they fit into the typological picture of the language which its predisposition to lexical compounding.

NEW INFLECTIONS It is obvious looking at the languages of the Indo-European family that there is a general tendency to lose inflections and become analytic. But if this were a one-way street for all languages then each of them would become analytic and that would be the end of the matter. However, new inflections can arise through the merger of forms, in particular due to the absorption of grammatical words into lexical stems to produce a stem plus affix (usually a suffix). This is the chief source of all inflectional morphology. A good example is provided by the development of Latin into the modern Romance languages. In Latin the future was expressed by a lexical verb followed by a form of habere ‘to have’ as in cantare habeo ‘I have to sing’, i.e. ‘I will sing’. With the form habeo was phonetically reduced, cliticised onto the stem and reduced to the level of an inflection which consists of just a vowel which is to be seen in French je chanterai or Italian canterò.

Language typology and universals

Research into typology in the early 1960’s began to concern itself with statement about all languages in general, i.e. with universals. The impetus for this was the pioneering work of Joseph Greenberg who investigated large numbers of widely diverging languages in an attempt to arrive at statements about the structure of human languages per se.
   The results of Greenberg’s research have been published in several monographs, mostly significantly in a four volume work in the late 1970’s entitled Universals of Human Language. The essence of his work is the notion of implication. By this is meant that if one statement holds true for a language then others do as well. To this end Greenberg divided universals into two types, absolute and implicational universals. There are not many absolute universals and they are so general as to be of little value, e.g. ‘All languages have nouns and verbs’ and ‘All languages have vowels and consonants’. There are also near-absolute univerals which have only a very few exceptions, e.g. ‘All languages have nasals’ the exception here being a small group of Amerindian languages on the Pacific coast on the border between the United States and Canada, the Salish languages.
   The second set of Greenbergian universals are more interesting as these are more definite. Here are a few instances from phonology.


   nasal vowels > oral vowels

   voiceless stops > voiced stops

   labial, velar stops > alveolar stops

A glance at these shows that the statements in the left column concern more specific elements and what they imply in the right column is the existence of more general segments. One must be careful not to be circular in one’s argumentation here. For instance oral vowels are statistically more common than nasal vowels so that to say that the latter are marked is simply another way of saying that they are statistically rare. The informational value of an implicational universal lies not in the greater probability of one segment over another but the implication that the existence of one type presupposes the existence of the other within the same language, e.g. there are no languages which only have voiced stops or nasal vowels.

Cross-categorial generalisations

A controversial but interesting concern of typology is with determining whether statements made about some word class in a language applies to more than one. Take as an example the notion of case. This is an agreement requirement between governing elements and governed elements in a sentence. The most obvious governing element is a verb and the most obvious governed one is a noun, with cases typically expressing the relationship of one or more nouns to the main verb in a sentence. There are several major case types, seen semantically, accusative for the patient, the object of an action, dative for the beneficiary, genitive for the possessor, instrumental for the implement or tool used for an action, etc. Such semantic case types have a morphological realisation in an inflecting language like German. There is a cross-categorial generalisation here, namely that not just the verbs required morphological case but adjectives or adverbs, e.g. in the use of the genitive as in Sie entsann sich des Tages, an dem sie heiratete. Kraft seines Einsatzes. Ich kam trockenen Fusses nach Hause.

   Another instance of a cross-categorial generalisation is that there are more case distinctions in the singular than the plural, irrespective of noun class (of which there are several in German) and this applies to the singular and plural of verbs as well. English has an inflection in the present singular but none in the plural of the verb. It has a distinction in the past of to be in the singular but not in the plural. Such observations lend credence to statements concerning the primacy of singular over plural as a category in language.

   A further example, this time from phonetics, would be the observation that alveolar fricatives are phonetically salient (easy to perceive) and hence preferred as markers of essential grammatical categories. To support this one can cite changes from different categories such as the shift from -eÞ to -es for present singular of verbs and the demise of different plural forms of verbs in favour of the single {S} plural morpheme in the course of the history of English.
   Not all observations in individual languages or small groups can be used to derive general statements. An example of a pitfall would be Germanic which only has separate forms for the past and preterite of verbs, all other tenses being formed by using an auxiliary verb and a non-finite form of the lexical verb. This holds true for English, German, Swedish, Dutch, etc. but a glance at the Romance languages shows that it is not generally valid and cannot be used to make a statement about the putative secondary importance of the future vis à vis the past tense.


Fischer, Olga 2006. Morphosyntactic Change. Functional and Formal Perspectives. Oxford: University Press.

Baltin, Mark and Chris Collins 2001. The handbook of contemporary syntactic theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Radford, Andrew. 1997. Syntax. A minimalist introduction. Cambridge: University Press.

Lightfoot, David 1979. Principles of Diachronic Syntax. Cambridge: University Press.

Trask, Robert Lawrence 1993. A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics. London: Routledge.