ICAME – Disappearances and Failures in Language Change

Wednesday, I was lucky enough to attend a pre-conference workshop free of charge of the ICAME conference in Leuven organised by the University of Leuven and the University of Namur. Despite the fact I had to choose 1 from 5 very interesting workshops, I was soon – evidently – drawn towards WS3 on Disappearances and Failures in Language ChangeHendrik De Smet and Peter Petré hosted, introduced and concluded 5 most inspiring talks by Florian DolbergMalte RosemeyerMarianne Hundt, Mathieu Fraikin & Peter Petré and Stefan Diemer.

It was Hendrik De Smet and Peter Petré’s aim to raise awareness that the contemporary focus on success stories in language change, most notably grammaticalisation studies, do not (and indeed should not) constitute the whole picture. ‘There are two sides to the coin of language change’ resonated clearly in the talks and the call for papers. Grammaticalisation studies (and studies on language change at large) have focused on stories of emancipation and entrenchment mainly, leading to a perhaps wrong conception that grammaticalisation inevitably implies conventionalization and routinisation. This, however, is not entirely true, which is remarked less often than neglected. Accepting the above also has its repercussions on the importance of frequency: although frequency is certainly a prerequisite of sorts for grammaticalisation (which does not necessarily lead to entrenchment), frequency in itself cannot be seen as conclusive or explanatory nor as a direct cause of success stories in language change. Additionally, it seems to me that the same principles of intralinguistic competition and system pressure and extralinguistic pressures underlie both the creation and the dissolution of linguistic items and paradigms.

The workshop was particularly interesting to me because I am currently conducting research on a seemingly disappearing modal paradigm in the English language, viz. the comparative modal better-constructions (‘had better’, ‘ ‘d better’, ‘better’). Making the topic even more interesting are conflicting views on the modal paradigm: on the one hand we witness that the well-established ‘traditional’ modal verbs are actually also declining; on the other hand Krug (2000) documents on new emerging modals (gonna, wanna, gotta, etc.) acting as replacements of the older modal verbs. The question where the better constructions belong and whether they will eventually assimilate to the emerging modals or disappear like the traditional modal verbs now seems more pressing than ever.. So, we are witnessing something like this:

modal verbs – decline

better constructions – decline        will there be analogy? or dismissal?

emerging modals -rise ­                       what is the role of entrenchment and frequency

Malte Rosemeyer, with his usage-based account on English and Spanish be + pp, raised some interesting points on persistence and entrenchment. His talk got me thinking; if the modal verb paradigm is declining, and even the less conventionalized modal verb replacements (‘competitors’) are experiencing a similar decline, could this mean that competition is lost or loosened between grammatical modal expressions? Going a few speculative steps further: could this mean that the entrenchment of the modal paradigm is slowly becoming less important to the English speaker, and why?

Stefan Diemer ended the talks on a positive note and gave all of us modality lovers hope: linguistic items can stage a comeback! I wonder when the modals (or anything like them) will strike back… Must they, need they, should they, can they, will they?


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