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Discussion and conclusions

We deduced two hypotheses from the literature on changes in relativization systems, viz. that the change from d- to w-relativization exhibits both social and constructional diffusion. We were able to demonstrate both types of diffusion, using two subcorpora comprising private letters from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

As noted at the end of section 6, there is a complicating factor in the case of the UNDERSTAND construction, in that this construction is an example of a so-called continuative relative clause. Following Loock (2007), we consider con- tinuative relative clauses syntactically as a subtype of appositives characterized by the discrepancy of form and function. Contrary to other types of appositives, which semantically expand the main clause they are structurally part of, contin- uative relative clauses usually convey new information, prototypically presented in a main clause, while they have the form of a subordinate clause. As such, continuative relative clauses create coherence with the preceding discourse by employing subordinating syntax, while the information structure would canonically trigger a new main clause. For this discrepancy of form and function, con- tinuative relative clauses should be treated as a separate type of construction, which is corroborated by their behavior with respect to d- and w-relativization. In Rutten and van der Wal (acc.), we demonstrate that continuative relative clauses appropriate w-relativizers at a remarkably fast pace, faster than any other type of relative clause. Using the same collection of seventeenth-century letters, we show that out of 64 continuative relative clauses, no fewer than 53 instances or 83% have a w-form. Among these 64 continuative relative clauses are the 17 instances of the UNDERSTAND construction discussed in the present paper. This means that the progressive behavior of instances of the UNDERSTAND construction may be caused by the fact that they behave in accordance with the more general pattern of continuative relative clauses, and need not be explained by constructional diffusion at the level of the UNDERSTAND construction. It is beyond the scope of this paper to clear this matter up, as this would require detailed analyses of many more semantic and (morpho)syntactic aspects of continuative relative clauses. Finally, we wish to point out that an explanation drawing on the progressive behavior of continuative relative clauses in general is not necessarily at odds with the idea of constructional diffusion. It only means that constructional diffusion is at work at a different level, viz. at the level of the continuative relative clause construction.

Another question relates to the probability of the existence of an abstract relative clause construction, of which all examples and constructions discussed here are tokens or subtypes. In section 5, we abstracted away from specific relative clause types, and merely investigated the form of the relativizer. We believe there is, is fact, reason to assume an overarching schematic relative clause construction. One reason is that any relative clause type shows variation of d- and w-forms, indicating that language users categorize these different relative clause types as subtypes of the relative clause. Constructional diffusion partly determines the degree to which constructions are affected by the ongoing change, yet there is no type of relative clause completely escaping the change. W-relativizers already make up 44% of all relative clauses, suggesting that we are dealing with a family of constructions, held together by the very fact that they are relative clause constructions.

Moreover, the neat social distribution as established in Figure 1, with a gradual diachronic rise of w-forms in each social rank as well as similar distances between the social classes, also suggests that the abstract relative clause is a valid analytical category. Figure 1 presents a textbook example of gradient stratification by social class (Tagliamonte 2012: 27). If decades of variationist research have shown that linguistic variables often pattern in this way in a language community, we could perhaps turn the line of reasoning upside down, and consider such a pattern, once established, as an indication that we have found a linguistic variable. In other words, and at the risk of circularity, since the distribution of all d- and w-relativizers taken together in both subcorpora patterns in a way so familiar from sociolinguistic research, we might consider this evidence that language users employ an abstract category “relative clause construction”. A major issue in constructional approaches to grammar and to language change is what levels of schematization need to be or can be assumed. How abstract is speakers’ knowledge of grammar, and at what level of schematization does language change take place (e.g. Traugott 2008: 35-36)? We have argued that constructional diffusion is a helpful notion when describing the trajectory of change. We also believe that the neat social distribution in Figure 1 suggests that there is, in addition, an overarching category of relative clause constructions within which this change takes place. In other words, Figure 1 provides sociolinguistic evidence that may help decide on the level of schematicity that needs to be assumed for relative clauses in the history of Dutch. If this can be extended to other languages and types of change, it would imply that constructionist approaches to grammar may gain from the results of sociolinguistic research.

 
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