Constructions in variation and change
The more or less exclusive focus on decontextualized “standard” language in the early days of construction grammar is a thing of the past: recent years have seen a marked increase in studies combining a construction-based view on grammar with an interest in issues of language variation and change. This shift in constructionist attention can be related to three more general trends in contemporary (cognitive) linguistics. First, since the mid-2000s, there has been an increasing rapprochement between constructional approaches to language change and research on grammaticalization. While constructions have to a certain extent always played an important role in theories of grammaticalization - see, e.g., Lehman’s (1992: 402) often-quoted observation that “grammaticalization does not merely seize a word or morpheme [...] but the whole construction formed by the syntagmatic relations of the elements in question” - the arrival of constructionist theories of grammar has inspired grammaticalization scholars to refine the notions of “construction” and “constructional network” and to further reflect on the exact role of constructions as the input and/or outcome of processes of language change (see, e.g., Traugott 2008a, 2008b; Trousdale 2010, 2012; Traugott and Trousdale 2013; Nodl 2007; Hilpert 2013). A second larger trend is the advent of Cognitive Sociolinguistics, a novel field of research that integrates methods and models from Cognitive Linguistics on the one hand and (variationist) sociolinguistics on the other, with a view to the uncovering of socio-cognitive dimensions of meaning (Kristiansen and Dirven 2008; Geeraerts, Kristiansen, and Peirsman 2010; Harder 2010; Putz, Robinson, and Reif 2012). Needless to say, there is a social dimension to constructional meanings, too: several of the papers in, for instance, the edited volume by Geeraerts, Kristiansen and
Peirsman (2010) are explicitly constructionist in their approach to grammar. Thirdly, and related to the previous trend, there has been a kind of methodological turn in Cognitive Linguistics research at large, including various strands of construction grammar, in the form of an increasing reliance on empirical methods of data investigation - which can of course be related to the usage- based view on language and language acquisition embraced in Cognitive Linguistic theorizing. As pointed out by Geeraerts (2006: 30), doing corpus research implies coming to terms with variation in the data, as bringing in real language data automatically brings in sociolinguistic variation. In addition to the above- mentioned studies, we can also refer to Hoffmann and Trousdale (2010), Fried (2013), Ostman and Trousdale (2013) and Hollmann (2013) for further discussion of the ways in which and reasons why construction grammar is particularly suited to deal with the inherent variability of language.
The first two chapters in this section focus on long-term constructional change. Freek Van de Velde’s chapter ‘Degeneracy: The maintenance of constructional networks’ applies the biological concept of degeneracy to language variation and change, arguing that language is a complex adaptive system not unlike, for instance, ant colonies. Degeneracy is a technical term from evolutionary biology for the phenomenon that structurally different elements can fulfil the same function. An example from biology is thermoregulation in the human body, which is degenerately controlled by perspiration, arteriolar vasodilation, shivering, countercurrent flow, wearing protective clothing, huddling, and so on. A simple example from the Germanic languages is the coexistence of the expression of the past tense by ablaut and by a dental suffix (English spoke vs. talked). Degeneracy is related to the notion of redundancy, but one of the differences is that degenerate features may play a role elsewhere in the system as well. Applying degeneracy to language, Van de Velde argues that horizontal or paradigmatic relations in construction networks - in which related constructions in a functional domain are mutually defined by differential values they take on a set of grammatical parameters - can be transmitted through time, even if the specific grammatical parameters on which they are defined are under threat. In other words, related functions are often degenerately expressed by different forms, which in the context of form-function change is important, according to Van de Velde, in that such changes should not be seen as renewal, i.e. compensating for the loss of a grammatical strategy by the development of something new. Rather, form-function changes involve the strengthening of degenerately already available resources, which can extend to new domains when a subsystem comes under pressure. To make this argument, Van de Velde discusses two case studies from the history of Dutch, viz. argument realization in experience processes and adverbial subordination.
The second chapter in this section, ‘Social and constructional diffusion. Relative clauses in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch’, written by Gijsbert Rutten and Marijke van der Wal, argues that a full account of language variation and change should combine constructional analyses and sociolinguistic research. Focusing on a case of morphosyntactic change in Dutch, viz. the rise of w-relativizers such as waar ‘where’ at the expense of d-relativizers such as daar ‘lit. there, where’, Rutten and Van der Wal claim that the trajectory of this change is subject to different types of diffusion. Using a corpus of private letters by writers with various social backgrounds, they show that the change displays social variation in the late seventeenth century as well as in the late eighteenth century, with the upper (middle) ranks of society behaving more progressively than the lower (middle) ranks. Zooming in on formulaic sequences, which are very characteristic of these historic private letters, they also argue that the change from d- to w-relativizers displays constructional diffusion, that is, the change proceeds through constructions. As sound changes may affect concrete words at different rates (lexical diffusion), similarly morphosyntactic changes may affect constructions at different paces (constructional diffusion).
The chapter by Muriel Norde, Bernard De Clerck, and Timothy Colleman, entitled ‘The emergence of non-canonical degree modifiers in non-standard varieties of Dutch: A constructionalization perspective’ shifts the focus to incipient language change. It is concerned with a set of high-quantity expressions that are all developing degree modifier uses in (substandard varieties of) present-day Dutch, thus adding to the large and diverse set of available degree modifiers in the language, a class that is particularly prone to language change due to rapid pragmatic wear and tear. The four cases singled out for the investigation are massa’s (‘masses’), duizend (‘thousand’), een parti] (‘a batch’) and tig (‘umpteen’). On the basis of data from a variety of informal web sources, the authors lay bare similarities and differences between these cases as different instantiations of the quantifier-to-degree modifier pathway of change, and they discuss these cases of incipient constructional change in terms of Traugott and Trousdale’s (2013) recent theory on (grammatical) constructionalization.
Hand in hand with the increasing attention for issues of intralingual variation and change discussed in the beginning of this section, construction grammarians have in recent years also taken a wider interest in issues of cross-linguistic comparison, see for instance the volume edited by Boas (2010a). In the introduction to that volume, Boas (2010b: 15) reflects on the potential of constructions for language comparison and concludes that “[s]ince constructions are linguistic signs that pair [phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic] aspects, they are extremely well suited to capture all of the different (and partially idiosyncratic) distributional properties of grammatical structure across languages simultaneously.” In the present volume, this constructional approach to contrastive linguistics is represented by the chapter by Bert Cappelle on ‘Conventional combinations in pockets of productivity: English resultatives and Dutch ditransitives expressing excess’. Cappelle starts off from a classic example from the early days of construction grammar, viz. Pat sneezed the napkin off the table, first discussed in Goldberg (1995). He argues against the view that such examples underscore the existence of a productive caused-motion argument structure construction by showing that the pattern is in fact idiosyncratically constrained in ways that are not predicted by the semantics of the general construction. Rather, Cappelle argues, following recent work by Kay (2013), such novel uses are better treated as analogical extensions from more conventional three-argument verbs, such as blow. Focusing on the so-called Body Part Off Construction (e.g. work one’s head off) (BPOC), Cappelle shows that the action-intensifying semantics of this pattern cannot simply be explained on the basis of the overall meaning of the caused-motion construction, with general pragmatic reasoning ruling out the literal resultative reading. The fact that a direct translation of the BPOC does not occur in Dutch, which does have the caused-motion construction, shows that the BPOC has to be learnt independently. Dutch has a couple of related caused-motion patterns expressing excess, but the most commonly used Dutch construction in this domain has ditransitive rather than resultative syntax. For both the Dutch and the English constructions, corpus data reveal some highly conventional combinations that may prevent the use of other combinations that could have been possible.