Theory and data in diachronic Construction Grammar

The case of the what with construction[1]

Graeme Trousdale

University of Edinburgh

Constructionalization (the diachronic creation of conventional symbolic units at different levels of schematicity and complexity) is a process which involves a series of micro-changes at different linguistic levels. The development of what with constructions in English is argued to be a case of grammatical constructionalization, whereby aspects of a construction become more general, productive, and less compositional. Equally, parts of the construction become more fixed (involving a reduction in variability), while other parts of the construction expand. The application of principles of construction grammar to aspects of diachronic change helps to clarify the relationship between theoretical principles of language change and the analysis of naturally occurring data; equally, the study of the what with construction reveals areas of potential convergence between formal and functional approaches to syntactic change, as well as areas of difference.


Studies which bring together the findings of research into grammaticalization with the principles of construction grammars of various kinds (see, for example, the various papers in Bergs and Diewald 2008, Hilpert 2008, Fried 2009, Traugott 2008b, and Patten 2010, among others) are typically concerned with understanding the nature of micro-changes, at various constructional levels. Macro-changes may be represented abstractly as 'A > B', while micro-changes are "the tiny local steps between A and B that the arrow '>' encompasses" (Brinton & Traugott 2005: 150). Such research is also connected with broader questions regarding the nature and locus of language change, for instance whether change is best understood as an abrupt reanalysis of linguistic structures at acquisition, or as a gradual process over a lifetime of usage, this distinction sometimes said to characterize the different approaches taken by formal approaches to change on the one hand, and functional approaches to change on the other (on which see further Fischer 2007). Formal generativist approaches to grammaticalization have also recently focused on the nature of micro-changes, sometimes understood as parameter resetting (Roberts 2010) or feature economy (van Gelderen 2011). From the perspective of construction grammar, micro-changes associated with grammaticalization have been shown to take place in both the form and meaning poles of a construction (for instance, syntactic reanalysis and phonetic attrition in the former, semantic bleaching and pragmatic enrichment in the latter).

Evidence for these micro-constructional changes has typically been adduced from diachronic corpora; since most variants of construction grammar are usage-based frameworks, the use of quantified data from corpora of existing texts as the core material for investigating the development of linguistic change is very common (for instance, Hilpert 2008, Patten 2010). Formal approaches to language variation and change have also increasingly made use of quantified data from corpora of various kinds (for instance, Pintzuk & Haeberli 2008 on word order in Old English). Some of this research has been particularly concerned with the intersection of formal and sociolinguistic accounts of synchronic variation in the speech community (for instance, Adger & Smith 2005, Rupp 2005, Adger 2006). Other examples have been concerned with register differences and formal accounts of variation in a corpus, such as the article which prompted the research presented here (Felser & Britain 2007).

By comparing a formal (minimalist) and functional (constructional) approach to variation and change in a particular area of English grammar,[2] the research presented in this chapter highlights some of the different predictions of the two approaches and tests these predictions using evidence from diachronic and synchronic corpora. In keeping with the aims and objectives of this volume, this chapter attempts to investigate and compare insights from formal linguistics and cognitive linguistics, in order to illustrate similarities and differences between the two approaches, and more crucially to demonstrate that there are perhaps more areas of convergence than might otherwise appear to be the case, accepting that some sharp, fundamental differences between the two approaches to language structure will inevitably persist.

In this chapter, I address the issues described above through an investigation of a particular construction in English, the what with construction,[3] illustrated in (1):[4]

(1) What with the gown, the limos, and all the rest, you're probably looking at about a hundred grand. (2009 Diane Mott Davidson, Fatally Flaky; COCA)

The issues are explored by answers to the following primary questions:

a. What synchronic analyses of the construction might be proposed?

b. What do corpus data suggest about the recent development of the construction?

c. How can the micro-changes uncovered in the corpora be modelled?

d. What does this study suggest about the relationship between data and theory in cognitive linguistics?

The chapter is structured as follows. In the next section, I provide a grammatical description of the synchronic pattern, followed by a summary of its analysis in a formal framework (Felser & Britain 2007), and an analysis in constructional terms. In Section 3, the recent historical evolution of the pattern is described; in this section, Felser & Britain's account of the historical material they consider is also discussed. Section 4 provides an analysis of the development of the what with construction from the perspective of grammatical constructionalization, focussing on the nature of the micro-steps involved at various stages, and some of the ways in which this gives rise to synchronic variability. Section 5 is the conclusion.

  • [1] I am grateful to Elizabeth Traugott, the editors of this book, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this chapter, and to Manuela Rocchi, whose research on the synchronic properties of what with prompted me to consider the historical development of the construction. All errors and shortcomings are my own.
  • [2] The majority of the research presented by Felser & Britain (2007) is primarily concerned with exploring the alleged constructional nature of the synchronic pattern discussed in this article, and not with its historical evolution. My purpose here is the converse: to focus on the historical evolution of the pattern, and to show how these are of relevance to the more general theoretical issues regarding the synchronic pattern raised by Felser and Britain in their article.
  • [3] I use the expression What with construction' to mean a conventional symbolic unit of English grammar, in the Construction Grammar sense of the term; I use the expression 'what with sequence' for non-Construction Grammar approaches to this aspect of English grammar.
  • [4] Examples are taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA; Davies 2008-) or the extended version of the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts extended version (CLMETEV; De Smet 2005) unless otherwise stated.
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