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How language change sneaks in
Date:9/3/2012

(Washington, DC) Languages are continually changing, not just words but also grammar. A recent study examines how such changes happen and what the changes can tell us about how speakers' grammars work. The study, "The course of actualization", to be published in the September 2012 issue of the scholarly journal Language, is authored by Hendrik De Smet of the University of Leuven /Research Foundation Flanders. A preprint version is available online at: http://lsadc.org/info/documents/2012/press-releases/de-smet.pdf

Historical linguists, who document and study language change, have long noticed that language changes have a sneaky quality, starting small and unobtrusive and then gradually conquering more ground, a process termed 'actualization'. De Smet's study investigates how actualization proceeds by tracking and comparing different language changes, using large collections of digitized historical texts. This way, it is shown that any actualization process consists of a series of smaller changes with each new change building on and following from the previous ones, each time making only a minimal adjustment. A crucial role in this is played by similarity.

Consider the development of so-called downtoners grammatical elements that minimize the force of the word they accompany. Nineteenth-century English saw the emergence of a new downtoner, all but, meaning 'almost'. All but started out being used only with adjectives, as in her escape was all but miraculous. But later it also began to turn up with verbs, as in until his clothes all but dropped from him. In grammatical terms, that is a fairly big leap, but when looked at closely the leap is found to go in smaller steps. Before all but spread to verbs, it appeared with past participles, which very much resemble both adjectives and verbs, as in her breath was all but gone. So, changes can snea
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Contact: Alyson Reed
areed@lsadc.org
202-835-1714
Linguistic Society of America
Source:Eurekalert

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