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Old English se: from demonstrative to article

Old English se: from demonstrative to article

By Lotte Sommerer

PhD Dissertation, University of Vienna, 2011

Abstract: Contributing to the ongoing debate about the existence of a definite article in Old English, the present thesis discusses patterns of nominal determination in Old English and their influence on the phenomenon of the emergence of the category ‘article’. Specifically, a usage-based study of the Old English demonstrative se (seo – þæt) and its development into the definite article the is carried out. Theoretically, this study is embedded into a broader discussion of linguistic gradience, diachronic gradualness, grammaticalization and reanalysis. Empirically, it is based on a large quantitative and qualitative analysis of definite NP patterns in several early Old English prose texts in the The York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose (YCOE)). For analysis, the CorpusSearch Program and AntConc were used.

To shed some light on the causal mechanisms behind the given observable linguistic change ‒ from a grammar that has no definite article to a grammar that employs this functional category ‒, this study elaborates a possible WHEN and WHY. A central aim in this regard was to set up clear, testable criteria for ‘articlehood’ and to check if these criteria can be successfully applied to an older language stage. It is shown that demarcating the category ‘article’ from other categories like the ‘demonstrative’ is by no means a simple task. To answer the question of whether the article already existed in Old English, the semantic and syntactic behavior of the demonstrative pronoun is investigated thoroughly by analyzing a large data set with a special focus on the Peterborough and Parker Chronicle.

It is argued that the article category developed due to the previous emergence of a positional, syntactic, lexically underspecified ‘determination slot’, which becomes functional itself. Thus, it is proposed that the change from demonstrative to definite article is a change driven by a “lexically underspecified [syntactic] construction” (van de Velde 2010: 291) – in other words, the grammaticalization of a schematic construction with a slot (Trousdale & Traugott 2010: 12; cf. De Smet 2008; Bybee 2003a,b 2007; Traugott 2006). The empirical evidence adduced suggests that this determination slot already existed in early Old English.

Next to being influenced by semantic-pragmatic factors, the development of the definite article is conceptualized as a so-called “form-driven change” (Fischer 2007: 66), where mostly formal ‘system-internal’ factors (e.g. structural simplification as a principle of economy) are responsible for the grammaticalization of the demonstrative (cf. Hawkins 2004). It is demonstrated that the grammaticalization of the schematic construction was mostly triggered by analogical reasoning (formal pattern recognition and transfer) (cf. Fischer 2007; De Smet 2010). Grammaticalization is seen as an epiphenomenal result and a notion which should be split up “into more fundamental mechanisms […] including (among others) analogy” (De Smet 2009: 1730). Analogy is treated as a “psychologically real phenomenon which has causal efficiency both in language as in culture” and is not simply a “descriptive device” (Itkonen 2005: xii). Analogy is thus conceptualized in a wider sense as ‘rule generalization/ extension’ at a higher meta-linguistic level (Traugott & Trousdale 2010: 36; Fischer 2007).

Although the development of the article category is definitely a multi-causal phenomenon, this study suggests that complex analogy and frequency effects are the main driving forces behind the observable linguistic change (Fischer 2007: 4). The frequency of linguistic surface forms (i.e. concrete tokens), the influence of taxonomically related constructions, and preferences in cognitive on-line processing are in particular seen as reasons for the diachronic development.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Vienna

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