Ongoing work by Professor Bettelou Los (Head of LEL and AMC Steering Committee member)
The flexible syntax of Old English makes various positions available for subjects, objects and adverbials, so that there are options for all of these to appear at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of their clauses. This allows the speakers maximum scope to position constituents in the clause according to whatever information-structural plan they prefer: new information first and old information last, or – as is the more usual situation – old information first and new information last. At later stages of the language, the various syntactic functions become increasingly associated with information-structural statuses: subjects become the preferred expression for old information, objects or complements become the preferred expression for new information, and clause-initial adverbials increasingly function as frame setters (term due to Chafe) as in (1) rather than links to the previous discourse (example from Krifka 2007:45):
- A: How is business going for Daimler-Chrysler?
B: [In GERmany]FRAME the prospects are [GOOD]FOCUS,
but [in AMErica]FRAME they are [losing MOney]FOCUS.
Framesetting sets up the background that limits the scope of a proposition, hence the sense of contrast evoked by the adverbials in Germany, in America (‘here, but not there’). Note that these adverbials are forward-looking and do not link to previous discourse. Framesetting adverbials have always been possible in English, but were a minority pattern; as discourse-linking adverbials decreased, framesetting adverbials became the majority pattern.
Old and new information in Old English
Ælfric, our most accomplished Old English author (floreat ca. 1000), uses a range of syntactic functions to encode links to the previous discourse. Of particular interest to me are adverbial linkers, such as Be ðisum þeawum ‘by these habits’ in (2):
from a man who is inhabited by the spirit of a cruel devil.’
Old English has a version of the verb-second rule that is slightly different from the form in which it is found in its continental cousins, Dutch or German: as in those languages, the finite verb may move to C in focus contexts (questions, negation); unlike Dutch and German, however, Old English finite verbs move to a lower position in cases like (2), where the finite verb mæg ‘may’ (in bold) serves to demarcate the old information (the adverbial discourse link ‘by these habits’, the pronominal subject ‘one’) from the new information of the clause (‘the man who’). When the subject in such a configuration is new information rather than a pronoun, like cristene men ‘Christian men’ in (3), it will follow the finite verb (beoð ‘are’, in bold):
(The details of the OE version of V2 have first been worked out by van Kemenade 1987, and has been updated in her subsequent research, see below, and see also Haeberli 2002. For evidence that man is a pronoun in Old English, see van Bergen 2003).
This type of adverbial discourse linking decreases in frequency after the Old English period (Los & Deschler 2012: Dreschler 2015); a modern translation of (2) would probably prefer a subject as linker, e.g. This conduct shows whether a man is inhabited by God’s spirit or by the spirit of a cruel devil. This example also demonstrates a possible connection between the loss of the “ultra-indefinite” pronoun man in Middle English (Los 2002), the decline in adverbial linking, and the rise of subject linking in the history of English. Statements with generic man can be reworded by passives in OE (as in Dutch and German), e.g. (3), and Ælfric alternates wordings as in (2) and (3) to introduce his expositions.
Clause linking in Old English
Examples like (2) and (3) also show up another phenomenon that fascinates me: the loosely-constructed system of linking clauses together. To show you what I mean, look at (4):
- holy feast
The pronominal adverb þæron ‘about that’ appears to be anticipatory and cataphoric, linking to the following how-clause which explicates the content of sum andgit. This is a type of CLAN (“Clause-and-Nominal”, see Warner 1982) where an underspecified nominal element in one clause has its semantics spelled out in a second clause that is syntactically quite loosely constructed. This type of anticipatory clause linking by means of adverbial vanishes from English rather abruptly, around 1200 (Lenker 2010). The underspecified NP þæne man in example (2) is also part of a CLAN-configuration: the exact identity of the man is further defined by a following clause that is only loosely connected; PDE would be more likely to either have relative clauses as in the PDE translation of (2), or a tighter-constructed indirect question: This conduct shows whether a man is inhabited by God’s spirit or by the spirit of a cruel devil. If you compare the gloss of (3) with its PDE translation, you’ll see that this is a similar case – its counterpart in PDE would be much more likely to be tightly constructed. These developments are part of changes in conventions for written as opposed to spoken discourse, but can also be linked to changes in the syntax of the English clause: the loss of OV orders in early Middle English, which led to the loss of a large “middle field” where adverbials could be stacked and old-information-objects could be “scrambled”; and the loss of the verb-second (V2) rule in the fifteenth century, which led to restrictions on how sentences start, leaving the subject as the only grammatical function to express links to the previous discourse in an unmarked way.
The NWO project
Some of the developments described above were investigated in the NWO (The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) -funded project “Syntax and Information Structure: Discourse Options after the Loss of Verb-Second”, 2008-2012, by me and Ans van Kemenade (Radboud University Nijmegen). The project produced two dissertations:
Erwin Komen (2013) Finding Focus: A Study of the Historical Development of Focus in English (LOT Dissertations 330), Utrecht: LOT
Gea Dreschler (2015) Passives and the Loss of Verb Second (LOT Dissertations 402), Utrecht: LOT
And a number of papers, most notably:
Komen, E, R. Hebing, A. van Kemenade & B. Los (2014). Quantifying information structure change in English. In: Information Structure and Syntactic Change in Germanic and Romance Languages. Bech, K. & Eide, K. G. (eds.). John Benjamins, 81-110.
In The Oxford Handbook of the History of English, edited by Terttu Nevalainen & ElizabethTraugott (New York: Oxford University Press; Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics), 2012:
- Los, B. & Dreschler, G. A. The loss of local anchoring: From adverbial local anchors to permissive subjects. p. 859-871
- Los, B. & Komen, E. R. Clefts as resolution strategies after the loss of a multifunctional first position. p. 884-898
- Hinterhölzl, R. & A. van Kemenade. The interaction between syntax,information structure and prosody in word order change. Lead paper for the Interfaces section, p. 1154-1182.
- van Kemenade, A. Rethinking the loss of V2. Interfaces section, p. 1182-199.
In Information Structure and Syntactic Change, edited by Anneli Meurmann-Solin, Bettelou Los, Maria José López-Couso (New York: Oxford University Press; Oxford Studies in the History of English 1), 2012:
- Los, B., López-Couso, M. J. & Meurman-Solin, A. On the interplay of syntax and information structure: Synchronic and Diachronic considerations, p. 3-18.
- Los, B., The Loss of Verb-Second and the Switch from Bounded to Unbounded Systems, p. 21-46
- van Kemenade, A. & M. Westergaard. Syntax and Information Structure: Verb Second variation in Middle English, p. 87-118.
van Kemenade, A. & Tanja Milicev (2012). Syntax and discourse in Old and Middle
English word order. In Dianne Jonas, Andrew Garrett and John Whitman (eds.)
Grammatical Change: Origins, Nature, Outcomes. Oxford University Press, 239-254
Biberauer, T. & A.van Kemenade (2011). Subject positions in English: formalising sensitivity to Information Structure. In: Montse Battlori and Maria Luísa Hernanz (eds.) Generative Diachronic Syntax: Word Order and Information Structure. Catalan Journal of Linguistics Monograph, 1-53
van Kemenade, A. (2009). Discourse relations and word order change. In Roland Hinterhölzl
and Svetlana Petrova (eds.) Information structure and language change. Berlin: Mouton de
Los, B. (2009). The consequences of the loss of verb-second in English: information structure and syntax in interaction. English Language and Linguistics 13, 97-125.
van Bergen, L. (2003). Pronouns and word order in Old English, with particular reference to the indefinite pronoun man. London: Routledge.
Haeberli, E. (2002). Observations on the loss of verb second in the history of English. In: Studies in Comparative Germanic Syntax: Proceedings from the 15th Workshop on Comparative Germanic Syntax, edited by C. Jan-Wouter Zwart and Werner Abraham, 245–72. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
Kemenade, A. van (1987). Syntactic Case and Morphological Case in the History of English. Dordrecht: Foris.
Krifka, M. (2007). Basic notions of information structure. In Caroline Féry, Gisbert Fanselow & Manfred Krifka (eds.), The notions of information structure (Interdisciplinary Studies on Information Structure 6; Working Papers of The Sonderforschungsbereich 632), 13–55. Potsdam: Potsdam Universitätsverlag.
Lenker, U. (2010). Argument and Rhetoric: Adverbial Connectors in the History of English (Topics in English Linguistics 64). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Los, B.L.J. (2002). The loss of the indefinite pronoun man: Syntactic change and information structure. In: Teresa Fanego, María José López-Couso and Javier Pérez-Guerra, English Historical Syntax and Morphology. (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory Series 223), 181-202. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
Warner, A. (1982). Complementation in Middle English Syntax and the Methodology of Historical Syntax. London: Croom Helm.