Research Seminars

Research seminars

Wednesday 9th November 2016

Specialization in language change and acquisition.

Joel C. Wallenberg (Newcastle University Linguistics and Centre for Behaviour and Evolution) 

This talk describes a new acquisition-based model for situations when the diachronic replacement of one linguistic form by another is halted, or slowed, by forms specializing for different functions, linguistic environments, or extralinguistic contexts. Kroch (1994) discussed how “grammar competition” between syntactic structures or morphological doublets, like dived, dove, can be neutralized by forms specializing for different contexts of use. But to date, no articulated theory of how this specialization actually happens has been proposed and tested. A general pressure towards specialization in acquisition, the “Principle of Contrast”, has been discovered, and argued to account for patterns of word-learning (Clark 1987, 1990), but this has not been connected to a formal theory of language change, or extended beyond the lexicon. This paper hopes to rectify that, and show how the Principle of Contrast can be incorporated into a general and precise theory of specialization in language change. In doing so, I build on proposals in Fruehwald and Wallenberg (in prep); Wallenberg (2013), and combine them with the variational learning model of Yang (2000, 2002) to suggest a general, cross-modular theory of specialization in acquisition that makes clear predictions for language change.

                While this is primarily a study in the theory of language change, the theoretical proposals are based on a set of empirical cases illustrating the effect of different dimensions of specialization on the diachronic pattern. The first case comes from previous work in Bailey et al. (2012) on embedded polar questions in the history of English, and shows that categorical syntactic variation can resolve by specialization for two syntactic contexts. Secondly, I discuss the case study of extremely slow syntactic change from Wallenberg (to appear), in which binary variation in relative clause extraposition specializes along a continuous dimension, prosodic weight, leading to near stable variation. This kind of specialization is necessarily imperfect, leading to the diachronic loss of extraposition in a number of languages. This case may also involve considerable intraspeaker variation in relative clause structure, building on Sauerland (2003).

                Finally, I present a new morpho-lexical case study, the specialization of the doublet melted, molten along a binary dimension, which ultimately leads to the survival of both variants. This study allowed me to use the 1 billion word Penn York Computer-annotated Corpus of a Large amount of English (PYCCLE-TCP; Ecay 2015), which is a highly rich data source for certain kinds of linguistic variables. Through this resource, we can view diachronic specialization at such a high level of resolution that it becomes possible to distinguish important hypotheses for the speed of specialization, both in acquisition and in the speech community. This case study also helps us to reconcile experimental evidence on specialization in acquisition, which suggests specialization happens quickly, with data from language change, which suggests specialization happens slowly. In the end, I show how we can begin to test precise, quantitative predictions about the diachronic “race” between competition and specialization, and seechange as a natural outcome of the acquisition of the grammar.


Bailey, Laura, Joel C. Wallenberg, and Wim van der Wurff. 2012. Embedded yes/no questions: reanalysis and replacement. Paper presented at Presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB), University of Salford.2

Clark, Eve V. 1987. The Principle of Contrast: A constraint on language acquisition. In Mechanisms of language acquisition, ed. Brian MacWhinney, The 20th Annual Carnegie Symposium on Cognition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Clark, Eve V. 1990. On the pragmatics of contrast. Journal of Child Language 17:417–431.

Ecay, Aaron. 2015. The Penn-York Computer-annotated Corpus of a Large amount of English based on the TCP (PYCCLE-TCP). Public release 1.

Fruehwald, Josef, and Joel C. Wallenberg. in prep. Optionality is Stable Variation is Competing Grammars.

Kroch, Anthony S. 1994. Morphosyntactic variation. In Papers from the 30th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistics Society: Parasession on Variation and Linguistic Theory, ed. K. Bealset al.

Sauerland, Uli. 2003. Unpronounced heads in relative clauses. In The Interfaces: deriving and interpreting omitted structures, ed. Kerstin Schwabe and Susanne Winkler, volume 61 of Linguistik Aktuell, 205–226. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Wallenberg, Joel C. 2013. A unified theory of stable variation, syntactic optionality, and syntactic change. In Presented at the 15th meeting of the Diachronic Generative Syntax (DIGS)Conference. University of Ottawa.

Wallenberg, Joel C. to appear. Extraposition is disappearing. To Appear in Language Historical Syntax Online Section. Draft available upon request.

Yang, Charles. 2000. Internal and external forces in language change. Language Variation and Change 12:231–250.

Yang, Charles D. 2002. Knowledge and Learning in Natural Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hazel Price