Grammatical change (some basics) exemplified with Early Modern English


Morphological innovation

·       borrowing

·       sound change

·       analogy

o      extension

o      levelling



·       radius, radii


Sound change

·       OE ynog “enough”, plural ynog-e (and other inflections) ->

o      ME enough, plural enow

·       OE attributive mīn “my”: eyes, hands, feet -> with loss of /_n/ before a consonant,

o      EmodE mine eyes but my feet

·       often creates differences within a set which may get leveled later



·       “The process whereby elements within the morphological system, especially those in inflectional paradigms or sets, tend to influence one another.”

·       look for similarities of

o      meaning: radius, octopus both nouns, both “formal/classical”

o      form: both end in –us

·       so, by analogy, octopus has acquired an incorrect/unhistorical but very healthy plural form, octopi





Examples of analogical extension

·       influence of productive noun plural –s on other categories of nouns

o      foreign: back-formation of English hero from Gk. heros “hero”

o      native: eventual replacement of –en by –s in shooen, eyen

·       influence of regular verbs (productive category) on irregular verbs

o      regular verbs: fell, past tense felled; shell, past tense shelled

o      by analogy, irregular swell has acquired regular form swelled (also an example of levelling; see below)

§       swell sounds like fell, shell

§       they’re all verbs

§       regular verbs are more common

·       older form may survive: swollen




heros -> hero


shoen -> shoes

hero+s > heros








swoll-> swelled



Doesn’t always work this way

·       “zero-plural” nouns like sheep, deer

o      attracted a loanword: moose

o      and a native word: fish (we keep fishes for different species)

§       extension to words where “plural” could be redefined as “collective”?

·       “irregular” verbs like ride, drive (rode, drove)

o      formerly regular dive, dived has acquired past tense dove


1 sheep




5 sheep


moose (not mooses or meese)

fishes -> fish













Analogical levelling  regularizes differences within a paradigm

o      enough, enow -> enough

o      mine eyes, my feet -> my eyes, my feet

o      now my / mine have a functional distinction

§       my book: attributive

§       that book is mine: predicative







mine eyes

my eyes

my feet

my feet



Levelling isn’t always complete

o      speak, spake, spoken -> speak, spoke, spoken

o      /o/ leveled from past participle into past tense

Different kinds of sets, e.g.

·       inflectional, paradigms of words and their grammatical forms

o      e.g. nouns and their plurals (cactus, cacti), verbs and their principal parts (ride, rode, ridden; dive, dove, dived)

·       syntactic:

o      e.g.  SV(O) is the word order default for English

§       set consists of an infinite number of sentences: I run, he eats worms

o      SVO pattern might account for

§       disappearance of old impersonals: methinks -> I think

§       disappearance of of with some objects: “to consider of”, “to judge of  -> consider, judge

·       “All these bills were then referred to committees to consider of them”

·       “We have not enough information to judge of the case”

o      VO generalized to these?

Syntactic change


Language universals (Greenberg 1963)

o      classify languages according to order of SVO

o      English is a VO language

o      likely used to be an OV language

o      VO languages tend to share other patterns of word order, e.g.

o      prepositions before objects (to there)

o      genitives after their heads (the roof of the house)

o      changes in a language are interrelated

o      as English changed from OV->VO, other changes happened too

o      there are often relics left over

o      e.g. herein, hereafter (preposition after the object)

o      e.g. John’s book (alongside the roof of the house)

§       older way favoured by nouns “highest on the gender scale”



o      example: going to

o      Fred’s going to look at his neighbours’ property assessments at City Hall.

§       verb of motion?

§       purpose/future?

o      depends on the possibility of more than one analysis of a given construction

o      doesn’t change its surface modification

o      but changes its “underlying structure”

o      can eventually occur with complement verbs not possible with verbs of motion

§       It is going to rain

§       You’re going to like Bill


Other examples

o      to go about, to be about to

o      “to be engaged in,” “to be preparing”

§       1611: “Why go ye about to kill me?”

§       1635: “Cardinall Granvill … went about to set the English and the Netherlanders at variance”

o      future participle: “on the point of, going”

§       “The wounded soldier rests his head / About to die upon the dead.”


o      considering

o      present participle of verb: “to contemplate mentally”

§       “Considering his youth, we were surprised at his attainments”

·       we is subject of the verb consider

o      preposition: “in view of, taking into consideration”

§       “The evening was pleasant, and also warm, considering we were amongst Ice”

·       the evening is clearly not able to do any considering



o      “the increase in the range of a morpheme advancing from a lexical to a grammatical or from a less grammatical to a more grammatical status”

o      often characterized by a concurrent “weakening” of both the meaning and the phonetic form of the word involved.”

o      e.g. verb will

§       weakening of meaning: “want” -> future

§       weakening of form: ‘ll

o      e.g. going to

§       lexical: I’m going to the store

§       future/intention: It’s gonna rain.


Social factors in morphosyntactic change


§       choice of thou (old 2nd person singular) or you (old 2nd person plural) in earlier English

o      social factors in ME: you high status, thou low status

o      pragmatic factors in EmodE

§       you: respect, formality, but also (if used unexpectedly or inappropriately) emotional distance or coldness

§       thou: condescension to social inferiors, but also marker of familiarity or intimacy

·       interested? see


Spread of innovations

§       consider factors like region, social stratification, gender

§       Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg have found that region is significant in the spread of my and thy before vowels (vs mine and thine) and third person verbal –s (vs –th)

o      first northerners

o      then Londoners

§       then other factors start to become significant


Syntax more open to pragmatic variation than morphology and phonology

o      pragmatics: how language is influenced by context, the relationship between speaker and hearer

o      when would you say “the man to whom I’m speaking”, when “the woman I’m speaking to”?

o      when antennas, when antennae?


E.g. “violation” of word order

o      poetry: “This is the forest primeval.”

o      emphasis: “Your essays you should proofread carefully.”


Some sources


Campbell, Lyle. Historical sociolinguistics: an introduction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Fitzmaurice, Susan. “Politeness in Early Modern English: the second person pronouns.”

Lehmann, Winfred. Historical linguistics: an introduction. New York: Holt, 1962.

McMahon, April M.S. Understanding language change. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Nevalainen, Terttu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. Historical sociolinguistics: language change in Tudor and Stuart England. London, etc.: Longman, 2003.

UK vs US grammar


Grammatical differences reflect

o      variation in Early Modern English

o      among different regional and social varieties

o      within individual varieties


Sample example

o      to a British person, American “He’s gotten really good at that” stands out

o      they don’t have gotten


In British English, the paradigm for get has more leveling than in American English

o      in ME, was get-e(n), gat, gotten

o      by PDE, the o has been leveled into the past tense,

o      in British English, the –en has disappeared


In British English, have got has got two meanings

o      “have acquired” (older, from eME, perfect of get)

o      “where he thought to have gotten perpetual praise”

§       once you have acquired something, you possess it

o      “possess” (newer, after C16th)

o      Johnson’s dictionary: “he has got a good estate does not always mean that he has acquired, but barely that he possesses it. So we say the lady has got black eyes, merely meaning that she has them.”

§       “The lady has got black eyes” can’t mean “acquired”!


In American English, have gotten has the “acquired” meaning

o      “have acquired” or “become”

o      They’ve gotten tickets (“acquired”)

o      Carol’s gotten fat (“become”)

o      “possess”

o      They’ve got tickets

o      Carol’s got short legs

o      modern humour (thanks to Andrew M.)

o      with coloured contact lenses, one can now say that “Carol’s gotten blue eyes”