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Thoughts and questions on the concept of 'competition'. Peter Petr é Functional Linguistics Leuven (FLL) FWO Vlaanderen. FRIAS – 12 december 2009 Freiburg. Why are function words & morphemes lost? Nature of competition of function words/morphemes Stable (partly complementary) distribution

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thoughts and questions on the concept of competition

Thoughts and questions on the concept of 'competition'

Peter Petré

Functional Linguistics Leuven (FLL)

FWO Vlaanderen

FRIAS – 12 december 2009



Why are function words & morphemes lost?

Nature of competition of function words/morphemes

  • Stable (partly complementary) distribution
  • Something changes (causes instability in the distribution)
  • One (or more) of the competing members is retained, the other(s) are lost

What is this something?



Only rarely the concept of 'competition' is considered in detail in linguistic analysis.

If mentioned at all, two main factors are seen as instrumental in determining the outcome:

  • Frequency: a more frequent item takes over a less frequent one
  • Expressivity: a more expressive member takes over a less frequent one

In many cases these factors do not seem to explain very much

Very briefly three case studies:

  • Conservation of be- only of the inseparable prefixes (Petré & Cuyckens 2008)
  • Loss of weorðan 'become' (Petrésubmitted)
  • Merger of is and beon

My main argument: stable competition changes into unstable competition (and subsequent loss) when the grammatical system changes at the macro-level


items for discussion

to what extent does competition involve complementary distribution and to what extent free variation?

What is the role played by frequency?

How do different (regional/idiosyncratic) outcomes of competition converge (language-internally, as the notion of standardization alone is not enough in my opinion)?


Items for discussion
a constructionist approach

In all cases, I adopt a constructionist framework (Croft 2001, Croft 2000, Goldberg 1995, 1996)

This is mainly done to highlight the function of changing meaningful syntactic patterns (form-meaning pairings) in which the respective morphemes/function words are used

The details of Construction Grammar are not relevant to follow the discussion


A constructionist approach
frequent prefixes from germanic in oe
Case 1 – Conservation of be-Frequent prefixes from Germanic in OE

From ca. 1350 onwards, be- alone remains productive

competition between prefixes

Already in OE, semantics much bleached

Often alternating (competing) in certain contexts

(1) ... sola nominum praenotatione DIStinguo (L: 15.19)

gif ic Asceade mid mearcunge þara namena(GD [O]: 7.2)

gyf ic mid mearcunge TOsceade þara naman (GD [H]: 7.2)

... GEsceade ... (GD: 7.fn.1)

"If I DIStinguish by marking their names."

Often merely intensifying

(2) God GEswang Farao ðone cining mid ðám mǽstum wítum.

"God scourged king Farao with the greatest punishments. (c1025)

Alternation with be- is less frequent, but does occur

(3)Gif hine mon BEswinge, mid XX scillingum gebete.

"If people flog him, amend it with 20 shilling." (c1000)

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Competition between prefixes
research question hypothesis

From early ME onwards, however, be-V starts to be the dominant form (e.g. onginnan > beginnen [find other examples: bitiden, bilimpen?])

How to account for the conservation of be- in the face of the loss of

the other prefixes, some of which (e.g. to-) had much more

concrete semantics than be-?

Possible answer: prefixes are associated with two construction types

(cf. Blom 2004; Goldberg 1995):

- predicative (the majority): will disappear

- non-predicative be-: will remain

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Research question & hypothesis
predicative prefix constructions

Intransitive verbs of motion

(4) Astig nu of rode (c950)

“descend [DOWN-come] now from the cross”

→ you come + are DOWN

Transitive verbs

(5) he TObræc þa clusan (c890)

“he shattered [IN-PIECES-broke] the prison”

→ he broke the prison + it is IN PIECES

• Predicative prefixes predicate the result of the action of the V

(are like secondary predicates)

• Valence identical to that of prefixless construction

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Predicative prefix constructions
non predicative prefix constructions 1

Path prefix be- denotes PATH along which the action of V proceeds

It does not predicate the result of the action, hence non-predicative

(6) & he BErad þone cyning þær (c. 890)

“and he surrounded [AROUND-rode] the king there”

Is NOT like

(7) *he rode + the king was AROUND

But MORE like

(8) He rodeAROUND the king

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Non-predicative prefix constructions (1)
non predicative prefix constructions 2

→Semantically salient (↔ prepositions)


(9) hie BEsæton ða burg (921 A.D.)

“they sat ~ROUND [i.e. besieged] the castle”

→ Syntactically salient (↔ simplex verbs)

• Intr. verbs of motion become transitive (LM provides DO)

• Theme-DO and LM-PP of transitive verbs switch places

(10) sume ða yða he BEcerð mid ðy scipe (ca. 890 A.D.)

“some waves he avoided [AROUND-turned] with the ship”

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Non-predicative prefix constructions (2)
development of predicative prefix cxns

From late OE onwards shift from OV (Vf2) to VO

→ New VO patterns (particles) gradually replaced OV prefixes

  • OV: prefix specifier precedes V
    • (11) Astig nu of rode (Mt 27.40, c950)
    • “DEscend from the cross”
  • VO: V precedes particle specifier
    • (12)gá NYÞER of þære rode (Mt 27.40, c1025)
    • “come DOWN from the cross”

→ Functional/Conceptual equivalence enables replacement

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Development of predicative prefix cxns
non predicative be semantic salience

Spatial non-predicative be- combines ‘path’ and ‘affectedness’

→ replacement by PP in the shift to VO would lose ‘total affectedness’

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Non-predicative be-: semantic salience
core extensions of be

Be- extends to express

  • coverage of LM (metonymic extension from surrounding)

with valence change (tr. began < intr. gan)

(13) mid þy Romani þa gyt Breotone BEeodon (ca. 890 A.D.)

“when Romans then still walked ABOUT [= occupied] Brittain”

without valence change (pragmatic effect of intensification)

(14) & BEwreoh þæt heals fæste mid leafum. (cf. tr. wreon 'cover')

“and (BE)cover the neck firmly with leaves” (c950)

  • affectedness (coverage often entails affectedness)

(15)Gif hine mon BEswinge, mid XX scillingum gebete

“If people beat him SEVERELY, amend with 20/-”

  • Furnishing (with N or Adj as input): bespoused, bespaded

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Core extensions of be-
the conservatory influence of be s valence

The core types frequently preserved be-’s original valence



This valence more often than not differs from that of prefixless usages.

(16) Wiþ gongelwæfran bite, smit on isen swat. (before 950)

‘Against spider’s bite, smear on iron sweat’


þu ellþeodig usic woldest […] synnum besmitan (before 1050)

‘you stranger us wished [...] sins-with defile [lit. besmear]’


Frequent exposure to valence ‘minimal pairs’ (intr. sittan vs. tr. besittan)

makes it easier to establish the construction’s contribution

→ This kind of syntactic salience exerts a conservatory influence

To test this: Pairing samples of be-/to-Vs with samples of simplex Vs

Case 1 – Conservation of be

The conservatory influence of be-'s valence
syntactic salience of be

Table 3: Comparison of valence of type pairings in OE

→ Syntactic salience correlates with frequency history

Case 1 – Conservation of be

Syntactic salience of be-

In OE various prefixes were in competition, but not in free variation

From late OE onwards, competition spread to phrasal particles

Phrasal particles took over due to their better alignment to VO

Only exception to this: be-

Its conservation can be accounted for by its non-predicative constructional properties:

  • Semantic salience of the the spatial prototype
    • (‘path’ + ‘affectedness’)
  • Syntactic salience of prototype + extensions

Not by its frequency (ge-, a- more frequent), nor semantic expressivity (to- 'asunder' more expressive)

Case 1 – Conservation of be


In OE weorðan 'become' (German werden) was a highly frequent verb;

It alternated with the main copula-cluster is/beon/wesan

They are in some sort of stable (partially?) complementary distribution:

(17) Wesan: no change of state (statal/resultative)

Gehwa wundrað hu se hælend become into his apostolum. & wæron þeahhwæðere þa dura belocene?

"Everybody wonders how the Saviour came by his apostles, when yet the doors wereclosed." (c995)

(18) Weorðan: change of state (dynamic)

Hi urnon ut of ðissere byrig mid ðam ðe ða burhgata belocenewurdon.

"They ran out of the city at the time when the city gates wereclosed. " (c1005)

By the end of the 14th century, however, weorðan had al but disappeared;

How to account for this?

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

as a copula frequency and expressivity

Fact: in general, is/beon/wesan is about 10 times as frequent as is weorðan in OE

Biese (1932, 1952): the copula weorðan disappeared as a consequence of competition with

  • the much more frequent cluster is/beon/wesan
  • more expressive verbs like wax or grow.

And yet, an account on the basis of frequency alone is suspect given that worden/werden further grammaticalized in Dutch and German from a comparable starting point.

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

As a copula: frequency and expressivity
as a passive auxiliary frequency

Zieglschmidt (1929), Klingebiel (1937): next to weorðan, wesan/beon are used in dynamic passives as well

Mitchell (1985) takes this even a step further: they are in free variation

(19) (Annal 633) Her wearð Eadwine cing ofslagen [...] (Annal 642) Her was Oswald ofslagen Norðhymbra cing.

"In this year king Edwin waskilled [...] In this year Oswald waskilled, king of the Northhumbrians." (c1107. ChronF: 633 & 642)

Weorðan disappeared due to its lower frequency(see Wattie 1930: 143)

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

As a passive auxiliary: frequency
as a passive auxiliary higher expressivity

Expressivity can hardly be an explanatory factor

Kilpiö (1989: 85) showed that weorðan has a semantics of its own, preferring negatively connoted, sudden changes (krank werden, böse werden)

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

As a passive auxiliary: higher expressivity
problems with existing research

Studies on the copula weorðan are separated from studies on the passive auxiliary weorðan

Because of this, major generalizations are lost

The disappearance of weorðan is accounted for by means of its overlap/near-synonymy with wesan/beon:

  • This overlap is peripheral at best;
  • The part played by the much more central semantic and functional differences between weorðan en wesan/(is/beon) in the process of loss are not taken into account.

The existing studies cannot account for the fact that weorðan is lost first in the past tense (where it 'competes' with wesan), and only about half a century later in the present tense (Petrésubmitted)

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

Problems with existing research
un bounded

In the past tense, weorðan is mainly found in narrative texts.

An important distinction within narrative text construction is that between bounded and unbounded:

  • Bounded language use: the endpoint is included, marks progress (e.g. then he walked over to the other side).
  • Unbounded language use: construes situations as open-ended, often by means of a progressive (e.g., he was walking about) (Declerck 2007).

Recent research argues this to be a deep cross-linguistic distinction (von Stutterheim 2002: 25, Carroll & von Stutterheim 2003, Carroll & Lambert 2003, Carroll, von Stutterheim & Nuese 2004).

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

bounded languages

Examples: German, Dutch

Similar to a camera filming through the eyes of the protagonist

(20) Auf einmal hört der Mann Wasser tropfen

Und dann gräbt er nach dem Wasser

Bis der Sand dann unter ihm nachgibt

Abundant use of time adverbials

  • divide the narrative in temporal segments (bound each segment):
  • define a topic-time (topic 1; Klein 1994: 3), for which the statement applies.
  • topic-time shifts with each segment
  • connect the preceding clause with the present clause
  • are often in first position (Vf2).

The subject (topic 2) is the protagonist of the series of events

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

Bounded languages
unbounded languages

Examples: English, Arabic

Like a camera filming with bird's eye view

(21) The man is hearing the sound of dripping water

and he is digging for the water

and the sand is caving in under him 

Topic-time remains constant and serves as a frame (an implicit 'long now')


  • are construed in an unbounded manner (progessive)
  • are all anchored to the framing topic-time


  • fixed in first position
  • only topic

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

Unbounded languages
oe is a bounded language

Bounded language use is omnipresent:

(22) Ða æfter feawa dagum se gingra sunu forspilde his æhta. Ða he hig hæfde ealle amyrrede þawearð mycel hunger & he wearð wædla. Þa beþohte he hine & cwæð, Ic fare to minum fæder, & ic secge him, Eala fæder, do me swa anne of þinum yrðlingum. & þagytþa he wæs feorr his fæder he hyne geseah & wearð mid mildheortnesse astyrod.(c1025. Lk (WSCp): 13-20)

"Then after a few days the younger son wasted his possessions. When he had them all wasted, then a great hunger came (wurde) over the country & he became (wurde) a beggar. Then he thought by himself and said: “I will go to my father, and I will tell him: hey father, take me as one of your servants." And he arose then and came to his father, and when he was still far his father saw him and was (wurde) stirred by mercy”."

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

OE is a bounded language
breakdown of oe system in me

From c1300:

  • Vf2 breaks down, and SV develops
  • Drastic decrease of time adverbials, especially þa (Kemenade & Los 2006)
  • Present tense: increase of progressive be Vende/ing (Killie 2008)
  • Past tense: increase of partly unbounded inchoative constructions with (be)ginnen (Brinton 1988, Los 2000)

Contrast the following ME translation (and note the absence of wearð)

(23) And not aftir many daies the ȝonger sone wastide hise goodis. And aftir that he hadde endid alle thingis, a strong hungre was maad, and he bigan to haue nede. And he turnede aȝen to hym silf, and seide, Y schal go to my fadir, and Y schal seie to hym, Fadir, make me as oon of thin hirid men. And whanne he was ȝit afer, his fadir saiȝ hym, and was stirrid bi mercy.((c1384) WBible(1) (Dc 369(2)): Luke 15.13-20)

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

Breakdown of OE system in ME
wear and the unbounded system

The change of state-semantics of wearð are very suitable for expressing narrative action (foreground)

Narrative action constitutes the domain where unbounded constructions are used

Wearð is strongly entrenched in this type of constructions

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

Wearð and the unbounded system
semantic entrenchment time adverbials

Time adverbials bound sentences (define topic-time)

A distinctive collexeme analysis shows the association between wearð with time adverbials of narrative progress vs. wæs

The analysis of alternating pairs of constructions and their relative preferences for words that can (or should be able to) occur in both of them’ (Gries and Stefanowitsch 2004: 101).

Because of this strong association of wearð with (bounding) time adverbials of narrative progress, wearð disappears when these time adverbials disappear

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

Semantic entrenchment: time adverbials
examples of semantic entrenchment

Wearð + THO / + SOON

(24)Heo hine freclice bat. Ðawearð heo sona fram deofle gegripen.

"She beat him heavily. Thenwas/got she suddenly taken by the devil." (c1025)

Wearð + AFTER_X

(25) Meoduscerwen wearðæfter symbeldæge

"A beer-bitterness aroseafter the feast-day." (c1000)

Wæs without time adverbial

(26) Yfelwæs Iudas ðe Crist becheapode. "Evilwas Judas who betrayed Christ."

Wæs with ERE_X

(27) Ða wæs se calic eft swa gehal swa he ærwæs.

"Then the chalice was whole again as it had beenbefore."(c1000)


(28) Her forðferde Cnut cing æt Scieftesbyri, [...] & he was cing ofer eal Englaland welneah XX wintra.

"In this year died king Cnut in Shaftesbury, [...] and he was/had been king over all England almost 20 winters." (c1107)

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

Examples of semantic entrenchment
formal entrenchment main clause order

First position in Vf2-system serves to construe textual coherence

  • Often, but not always, time adverbials are in first position
  • PPs of place or cause are also possible (e.g. dadurch wurde er bang)

"verb-second was all but defunct by 1500" (Los 2009: 110; Warner 2007)

Tabel 3: Word order of main clauses with wearð vs. wæs (prose)

Vf2-entrenchment: wearð is linked to bounded constructions formally

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan

Formal entrenchment: main clause order

Wearð was very strongly entrenched in the OE bounded system

When this system starts to break down from the 13th ct. onwards, wearð disappears too.

Expressivity does not seem to play a major part in its disappearance

Importantly, the domain in which wearð and wæs competed disappeared as such

  • Presumably, wæs in bounded constructions was lost as well;
  • Because wæs was used frequently in other constructions too, it remained in use (so in a sense, frequency did play a role, but frequency alone does not explain why a stable situation became unstable)
  • In a sense, then, both competing items were lost and one could wonder whether 'competition' is a good way to describe the outcome of this process (i.e. the impact of the shift to an unboudend system on copulas)

Case 2 – Disappearance of weorðan


In OE is and beon were in stable near-complementary distribution;

Both verbs possessed a full paradigm in the indicative and subjunctive present

Only beon shows non-finite forms

From late OE onwards, beon starts to extend its use at the cost of is (and, in one manuscript, vice versa)

This results in a situation more or less stable during the ME period

  • is is used in the indicative singular
  • beoð/beon is used in the indicative plural (and, marginally, (e)are(n))
  • beo(n) is used in the subjunctive plural
  • shall/will be(n) is used for the future

Case 3: merger of is and beon

distribution is en beon 1

Kilpiö 1993 (en DOE, s.v. beon) points out the following distinctions:

  • 1: BIÐ is used for the future
  • 2: IS often appears with time adverbials which link the state or action with the present moment or the present situation

(29) Se ælmihtiga scyppend hæfð gehealden sumne gecorenne. þyssere leode to cyninge. and se bið ðe swa leof swa nuis se oðer.

" The Almighty creator has kept someone chosen, as a king to this people. And he will be as dear to you as now the other [king] is." (c1020(c995))

(30) Ic þæt gehyre þæt þis is hold weorod frean Scyldinga.

“I understand that this is a troop friendly to the Lord of the Scyldings.” (c1000. Beo: 291)

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Distribution is en beon (1)
distribution is en beon 2

3: BIÐ rather than IS is used in generic statements (‘gnomic present’):

(31) Wið stede & for gebinde, heortes hær beoð swiðe gode mid to smeocanne wifmannum.

" Against strangury and constipation, hairs of the hart arevery good for women to fumigate with." (c1025)

  • 4: BIÐ rather than IS is used for iterative (8) or durative (9) construals 

(32) Ðonne [...] ða folc þær cumendebeoð.

[On Michaelmas] come [lit. are coming] the people there. (c1000(c971))

(33) Þonne hangaþ þær eac swiþe mycel leohtfæt, þæt biða dæges & nihtesbyrnende.

" Moreover, there hangs also a large lamp, which isalwaysburning, day & night." (c1000(c971))

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Distribution is en beon (2)
distribution is en beon 3

5 (not in Kilpiö): IS is used exceptionally frequently (25 %) in identifying statements (only about 4,5 % for bið)

(34) Liber Iudicum, þæt ys demena boc.

"Liber Iudicum, that isBook of Judges." (c1075)

(35) Þe zixte heaued/ of þe kueade beste: islecherie.

"The sixth head of the evil beast islechery." ((1340))

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Distribution is en beon (3)
difference is vs bi 1

From a synchronic point of view, the different meanings of bið can be related (polysemy):

  • [diachronically: "dynamic present ('grow')" = basic sense (cf. werden)]
  • future = result of a dynamic process (basis in OE? see Visser 1963)
  • generic-habitueel = what returns in the future (boys will be boys)
  • iterative = actually mostly habitual = what returns in the future
  • durative = wat continues in the future (God will always be merciful)

Hypothesis: there is a strict functional distinction between is & bið in OE:

  • is = [-generic] & [+stative] & [+present]
  • bið = [+generic] | [-stative] | [+future]

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Difference is vs. bið (1)
difference is vs bi 2

A detailed analysis shows is & bið are in near-complementary distribution

Figuur 8: Distribution is vs. beon for 951-1050

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Difference is vs. bið (2)
extension of bi to non specific subjects

The difference between bið and is gets smaller from late-OE onwards (after 1050)

Bið extends in the plural (beoð) from generic statements to situations predicated of non-specific subjects;

This is a spontaneous kind of extension:

  • In the plural the difference between reference to a kind and reference to a groep is small, and not formally marked (only contextually) :

(36) Eadigebeoð þa þe þissa eorþwelena ne gymaþ.

"Happy are they(,) who do not care about these earthly riches." (c1000(c971))

  • In the singular the difference is greater (at least in OE): hund 'a dog (non-specific)' vs. se hund 'a/the dog (generic)'

The opposite development (sinden > generic) does not seem to occur (except perhaps in the Ormulum)

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Extension of bið to non-specific subjects
extension of bi to specific subjects

In a next stage bið spreads to specific subjects

(37) 3if 3e hit rædeð; 3e beo[ð] mine riche men. ich wulle his heued of swippen.

"If you advise it - you are my brave men - I will smite off his head." (c1275)

Figur 9: Spread of bið to non-generic subjects

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Extension of bið to specific subjects
different outcomes 1

The spread of beon to non-specific subjects and then to specific subjects proceeds in different ways in different manuscripts:

  • In the Kentisch homilies (c1125),sinden is only retained in main clauses.

This may be related to its deictic function of pointing out what is the case at present – something for which mainly main clauses are used –, but sinden is used in various ways (though not generically).

  • In the late OE martyrology (c1085),sinden is limited to either identifying clauses or naming-contexts

Both are related to the prototypical identifying function of is)

  • In the Ormulum (c1180), the opposite tendency takes place: sinden is used everywhere; the singular beoð occurs, but only with future sense.
  • To complicate matters: earun is used in some dialects as well (e.g. Chad from the East Midlands), but only really increases in use after 1450.

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Different outcomes (1)
different outcomes 2

By 1250, sinden has been lost in most texts. There are exceptions, and largely seem an archaic retention for metrical purposes

  • Layamon's Brut (southern West-Midlands)
  • Bestiary (East Midlands)
  • Owl and nightingale (Southern)

Case 3: merger of is and beon

Different outcomes (2)
general discussion

External influence, dialect variation & standardization

  • may be trigger, but a wholesale adoption/abandonment of a more prestigeous syntactic construction + function word in one sweep is unlikely; some kind of language-internal development in the adoption of a new system still has to be accounted for.

Role of frequency: what, if any

  • not always the most frequent alternative is retained
  • still most frequent/entrenched uses of the disappearing alternative seem to remain in use longest (innovation of usage is peripheral)

Complementary distribution or free variation?

  • be- and wearð largely preserved their own core applicational domain, and therefore were largely in complementary distribution with their alternatives; the degree of "free" variation/competition seems to have been rather limited (but not non-existent)
  • Only in the case of is/beon free variation seems to have been somewhat more widespread, but even here there seem to have been (idiosyncratic) rules for their distribution (limitation to main clauses / subordinate clauses etc.); only, these rules cannot be fitted in a broader pattern

Case 3: merger of is and beon

General discussion

Biese, Yrjö M. 1932. Die neuenglischen Ausdrücke des Werdens in sprach-geschichtlicher Beleuchtung. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 33, 214–24.

Biese, Yrjö M. 1952. Notes on the use of ingressive auxiliaries in the works of William Shakespeare. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 53, 9–18.

Blom, Corrien. 2004. On the diachrony of complex predicates in Dutch: Predicative and non-predicative preverbs. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 16: 1–75.

Brinton, Laurel. 1988. The development of English aspectual systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carroll, Mary & Christiane von Stutterheim. 2003. Typology and information organisation: perspective taking and language-specific effects in the construal of events. In Anna Ramat (ed.), Typology and Second Language Acquisition, 365–402. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Carroll, Mary & Monique Lambert. 2003. Information Structure in narratives and the role of grammaticised knowledge: A study of adult French and German learners of English. In Christine Dimroth & Marianne Starren (eds.), Information structure and the dynamics of language acquisition, 267-287. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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References (2)
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Peter Petre

Department of Linguistics

University of Leuven

Blijde-Inkomststraat 21

B-3000 Leuven, Belgium


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