Data on the historical evolution of the what with construction
In this section, some data on the historical evolution of what with constructions is presented, and analysed from the perspective of grammatical constructionalization. To begin, however, I provide a brief summary of the arguments proposed by Felser & Britain (2007) against treating what with as a grammaticalized prepositional complementizer (that is, where what with is treated as a constituent, a complex preposition), and restate the essence of their synchronic analysis of the what with construction described in detail in 2.2 above.
There are two principal reasons why Felser & Britain do not treat what with as a grammaticalized prepositional complementizer. First, they adduce evidence from internet examples to support the claim that what with is not a constituent, because the sequence may be interrupted by adverbs like primarily, also, and even, as illustrated by (16):
(16) As you can probably tell by now, Final Fantasy VIII is very different from its predecessors, what especially with the drastic innovations in its battle system.
(= Felser & Britain's example (37b))
Secondly, again using examples taken from the internet, they show that what in what with constructions can be 'expanded' to what all (which is itself a DP, McCloskey 2000), as in (17):
(17) So ... what all with this desk job, it seems I have such various job tasks as data entry, switchboard operation, and signing someone else's name on letters.
(= Felser & Britain's example (39a))
This is taken as evidence that what (all) with cannot be a phrasal head (that is, cannot be located in C). Recall from 2.1, above, that Felser & Britain (2007) start from a position that (what) with is part of an absolute construction which takes a clausal complement. What look on the surface to be simple nominal complements are accounted for by virtue of a null clausal head. A further historical development noted by Felser & Britain (2007) is that the what with pattern with nominal complements (that is, where what with introduces a reason adjunct) is likely to have preceded the use of what with as the first part of an absolute, given that the former were attested in the Middle English (ME) period (see 3.1 below), while absolute constructions were rare until the Early Modern period (Denison 1998, Rissanen 1999, Rio Rey 2002). For this reason, I focus particularly on developments in the Late Modern English period.
In the following subsection, the development of the what with construction is explored in order to track the various micro-changes which have occurred: Section 3.1 is concerned with the very early history of the expression, and
Section 3.2 uses a corpus of Late Modern English in order to track the change in more detail in the recent history of English. Thereafter, an analysis of the development is provided, using the framework of grammatical constructionalization, focussing specifically on the kinds of expansion which typify the growth of grammatical constructions (Himmelmann 2004).
Up to Modern English
Early evidence of the what with construction appears in the ME period. Example (18) below, from the late fourteenth century, illustrates the typical pattern associated with what with constructions noted in Section 2 above, namely that what with precedes coordinated elements (phrases or clauses), where what with is itself repeated.
(18) So what with hepe and what with crok, so what with pruning hook and what with crook Thei make her maister ofte winne they make their master often win
'So by hook or by crook, they make it so their master often wins'.
(c. 1393 Gower, Confessio Amantis, 5.2872)
An even earlier example involves the use of Old English (OE) hwat 'what', with a different preposition, but nonetheless with a similar meaning to the modern what with construction. In example (19) below, hwat 'what' cooccurs with for:
(19) Alle we beod in monifald wawe ine pisse all we be.p.iND in manifold woe in this wreche liue, hwat for ure eldere werkes, wretched life, what for our elder.p work.p hwat for ure ajene gultes.
what for our own.p guilt.p
'We are all in great unhappiness in this wretched life, what with the sins of our fathers, what with our own misdeeds'. (c. 1175 Lamb. Hom. 145)
This use of hwat/what for persists into the ME period; further ME examples show yet more prepositions occurring with what (through in example (21)):
(20) What for calde & for holdyng in pe watir What for cold and for holding in the water I was nere-hand slayn.
I was near-hand slay.p.ptcp
'What with the cold and being held in the water, I was very nearly killed'.
(c1440 Alphabet of Tales, 13)
(21) For what thorugh werre and wikkede werkes For what through war and wicked work.p and wederes unreasonable .
and weather.p unreasonable...
'For what with war, and wicked deeds, and unseasonable weather'.
(1393 Langland, Piers Plowerman B-text, Passus XV.355)
In the earlier history of English, then, there was a wide range of prepositions which could occur following hwat/what. The most frequent of these appears to be for, which is predominant in earlier texts (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. what, II adv. or conj. 2. b) but other examples include because of, between, by,from, in case (of), of, through, and of course with (see also Visser 1972: 1158, 1271-1277 for more on the augmentation of absolute constructions in the history of English). The what P pattern could be repeated after the conjunction (as in (18) and (19)) or not (as in (20) or (21)).