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Syntax and Information structure: discourse options after the loss of Verb-Second

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Title Syntax and Information structure: discourse options after the loss of Verb-Second
Period 09 / 2008 - 01 / 2013
Status Current
Research number OND1331434

Abstract

This project studies the interaction between syntax and information structure, and the way such interaction can be modelled, taking as its case-study the loss of the verb-second rule in English and its consequences. The only unmarked way to start a sentence in Present-day English is with the subject. Objects or adverbials may appear in a position preceding the subject, but this is a very marked, prominent, and contrastive position. This means that only subjects may establish a link to the preceding discourse in an unmarked way, by encoding ?old? information. When English was still a verb-second rule, any first constituent, whether subject, object or adverbial, could establish a link with the previous discourse in an unmarked way; after this rule was lost, in late Middle English/Early Modern English, such a link could only be encoded by the the subject. My hypothesis is that this new rigid syntax compromised the information flow, and that the resulting conflict was resolved by increasing the strategies for creating subjects. New constructions emerge in early Modern English that do just that, including the theoretically problematical Exceptional Case-Marking construction with to- infinitives (as in ?John was alleged to be a fool?), which from its earliest emergence appears almost exclusively in the passive ? a phenomenon for which no satisfactory explanation has so far been proposed, but which makes sense if we regard this new construction as providing a new strategy for creating subjects. Other evidence that the syntax no longer fitted the discourse needs of its users like a glove was the emergence of constructions known as clefts (?It is people like this who will benefit most?), a type of construction that has long been recognized to function primarily as a information packaging device. Investigating in detail the circumstances in which these new constructions arose will enable us to uncover the interaction between syntax and information structure, especially its bi- directional effects: syntactic change affects information structure, and pressure from information structure results in new constructions. Constructing a model of this interaction represents a major advance in our insight into syntactic change.

Abstract (NL)

This project studies the interaction between syntax and information structure, and the way such interaction can be modelled, taking as its case-study the loss of the verb-second rule in English and its consequences. The only unmarked way to start a sentence in Present-day English is with the subject. Objects or adverbials may appear in a position preceding the subject, but this is a very marked, prominent, and contrastive position. This means that only subjects may establish a link to the preceding discourse in an unmarked way, by encoding ?old? information. When English was still a verb-second rule, any first constituent, whether subject, object or adverbial, could establish a link with the previous discourse in an unmarked way; after this rule was lost, in late Middle English/Early Modern English, such a link could only be encoded by the the subject. My hypothesis is that this new rigid syntax compromised the information flow, and that the resulting conflict was resolved by increasing the strategies for creating subjects. New constructions emerge in early Modern English that do just that, including the theoretically problematical Exceptional Case-Marking construction with to- infinitives (as in ?John was alleged to be a fool?), which from its earliest emergence appears almost exclusively in the passive ? a phenomenon for which no satisfactory explanation has so far been proposed, but which makes sense if we regard this new construction as providing a new strategy for creating subjects. Other evidence that the syntax no longer fitted the discourse needs of its users like a glove was the emergence of constructions known as clefts (?It is people like this who will benefit most?), a type of construction that has long been recognized to function primarily as a information packaging device. Investigating in detail the circumstances in which these new constructions arose will enable us to uncover the interaction between syntax and information structure, especially its bi- directional effects: syntactic change affects information structure, and pressure from information structure results in new constructions. Constructing a model of this interaction represents a major advance in our insight into syntactic change.

Related organisations

Related people

Supervisor Prof.dr. A.M.C. van Kemenade
Researcher Dr. E.R. Komen
Project leader Dr. B.L.J. Los
Doctoral/PhD student G.A. Dreschler (MA)

Related research (upper level)


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