Linguistics 405

Constructions and Language Change

Course Information Sheet
Fall 2005

Time Monday/Wednesday 4:00-5:30
Place Herring Hall 125
Office Herring Hall 209
Tel. (348)-6225, Suzanne Kemmer
Office hours: Tues/Thurs 10:45-11:50 and by appointment

This seminar explores language change, specifically morphosyntactic change, from the viewpoint of constructions. The constructional approach to language, which in practice focuses on syntax, makes the theoretical claim that grammar should not be described in terms of a rule-based system, but in terms of constructions as meaning-bearing units whose meanings are not limited to the compositional meanings of their elements.

Grammaticalization theory studies processes of language change that involve lexical linguistic units becoming more grammatical, i.e. participating in the syntactic and morphological systems of the language. Grammaticalization theory has a strong typological orientation and typological generalizations are sought about the changes that items of particular categories undergo.

Syntactic change has been studied from a range of perspectives and using various theoretical approaches. But very little of this work has been from an overtly constructional theoretical standpoint. We will observe some of the ways that syntactic constructions arise and change through time via the existing descriptions and approaches and through our own empirical extraction of data. In the process we will try to extract meaningful generalizations against the background of modern constructional approaches to syntax such as Construction Grammar and Langacker's Cognitive Grammar.

Some of the topics dealt with include:

  • Interaction of lexicon with syntactic constructions
  • Initial emergence of constructions: de novo origin vs. renewal
  • The end stages of constructions
  • Relation of frequency to constructional change
  • Constructional grammaticalization
  • Theoretical issues of various kinds

The most concrete aim of this seminar is to explore language change through the prism of constructions. The ultimate aim is to understand how the idea of constructional syntax can be united with grammaticalization theory and a usage-based model of linguistic knowledge to form a more comprehensive theory of morphosyntactic change.

The course is a graduate seminar, meaning that the focus will be on creating new knowledge. We will explore how previously published work might be viewed in the context of newer ideas, and how cutting edge work is shaping the issues to be studied. The format is intended to be discussion-based and not lecture format. Students will lead discussions for particular readings by arrangement in class.

Readings include works by Greenberg, Traugott, Denison, Kemmer, and whatever others we pick, including unpublished work. Publications or research work by seminar participants can also be used as readings, by agreement of participants. (Further suggestions for readings also considered.)

At the outset or at least early in the course, students should have some basic understanding of why constructions are of intense interest in Linguistics, as well as a knowledge of fundamental functional linguistic ideas. Students should also have had some previous background in Language Change, or be willing to read some basic work in that area. Additional background readings can be suggested if some students have not had Ling 402 (Syntax and Semantics) or Ling 552 (Constructional Syntax) and need to acquire or deepen their understanding of various issues. Students at various levels can profit from the course.

We will start with some background on the Study of Language Change in Linguistics. Early in the semester we will also have some discussion of the newly (re-)discovered focus on Constructions in Linguistics. Students should prepare to say something about their understanding of why linguists are interested in constructions, and what their own understanding of a construction is.

For their seminar work, students may develop one or more new topics investigating a particular change in constructions or family of constructions, or they can continue on a topic for which the groundwork was laid in another course on syntax or language change, with appropriate expansion of data sources and number and depth of problems treated. Collection of data from corpora will be expected.

The final project requirement for new topics is a draft of a publishable paper that at some point can be submitted for the departmental requirement of publishable papers. It should be in the format of a major journal such as Language, including footnotes, in-text references, and references at the end of the paper. Students beyond the first year should aim to make the course paper as close to a polished publishable paper to submit for the departmental requirement as they can.

For topics started on earlier in another course, the requirement is a new paper submitted to a proceedings volume or a journal. Papers written based on previously submitted abstracts and/or work previously publicly presented are acceptable. However, papers that have already been submitted for publication cannot be used to fill the requirement of this course, only newly written or substantially revised work. Advanced students who already have one or more publications submitted should aim for the second requirement, even if starting a new topic, and should come as close as possible to a new publication.

Hands-on exploration with corpora is encouraged. Ideally, diachronic corpora should be used, although there are ways to make diachronic hypotheses using synchronic data. These hypotheses need to ultimately be tested against diachronic data. If not done this semester, the student needs to elaborate on exactly how his/her hypotheses could be tested and what various results would indicate.

Course Requirements

  • Participation in class analyses and discussions; contribution of data periodically; feedback for seminar participants' analyses and discussion of readings
  • Readings
  • Leading of at least one discussion based on a class reading
  • An abstract to submit to a conference. Abstracts must actually be for submission.
  • Paper proposal. (This is a more elaborated version of the abstract.) Proposals are generally 3-5 pages including data. Due 11/02/05.
  • Oral presentation based on your own data search (November)
  • Final paper due December 1.
  • Readings and other Course Materials

    Readings will be made available throughout the course. Lecture notes will also be posted on this site. These are considered part of the course readings.

    See Sequence of Topics and Readings for the list of topics and the corresponding readings.

    See Additional Bibliography for a selection of additional studies of syntactic changes, generally focused on particular constructions.


    If you have a documented disability that will impact your work in this class, please contact me to discuss your needs. Additionally, you should register with the Disability Support Services Office in the Ley Student Center.

    Last modified 12 Oct 05
    © 2005 Suzanne Kemmer