Loss of inflection

Project Overview


Loss of inflection

Project members:

Dr Matthew Baerman
Dr Oliver Bond
Prof Greville G. Corbett
Dr Helen Sims-Williams

Period of award

May 2016 - May 2019


Arts and Humanitites Research Council

A major point of contrast between languages comes from the role played by inflection. For example, in a language with inflection, like Spanish, there are dozens of verb forms that express differences in categories such as subject person and tense, as in bebo 'I drink', bebes 'you drink', bebiste 'you drank'. In a language without inflection, such as Vietnamese, the corresponding verb will have just one form: uong 'drink'. But this is not just a property that characterizes individual languages, it also distinguishes different historical stages of the same language. Over the last 1200 years English has lost nearly all of its complex inflectional system, radically transforming its character, and similar developments have occurred in the histories of language all across the world. At first glance this looks simply like decay, and this is often how it figures in the public imagination, as complaints about the death of the who ~ whom distinction in English can attest. But the loss of inflection is a complex and multidimensional process. From the perspective of the word, an inflectional paradigm is a system of interlocking parts, whose network of relationships change in response to any change in its constituents. And from the perspective of the grammar as a whole, a loss in the expressive properties of words will have to be compensated for somehow, for example by using word order and function words to do the same job. The processes of inflectional loss are a potential source of insight into the workings of grammar, seen from a unique perspective. We exploit this through the following research questions.

(1) Are some morphosyntactic features more likely to be lost than others?

(2) Are some types of morphological marking more likely to be lost than others?

(3) Does the complexity of an inflectional system affect its stability?

(4) What is the relationship between inflectional loss and syntactic change?

(5) Is the 'natural' loss of inflection different from contact-induced change?

Although many languages have lost some or all of their inflectional systems over the course of their history, we lack satisfactory answers to these questions. This is partly due to the fact that the morphological particulars of each language are idiosyncratic, discouraging large-scale generalizations. And of course the obvious imperfections in the historic record leave large gaps in our knowledge. Therefore we adopt two parallel research strategies. One is to compile a cross-linguistic sample of instances of inflectional loss, comprising all the plausible examples so far described. These will form the basis of a cross-linguistic database whose parameters will be organized around the five research questions. This will ensure breadth of coverage, and allow us to compare sets of examples that previously had been studied only in isolation. The second strategy will be to look in detail at the morphological, syntactic and discourse factors involved. Because this would be difficult or impossible to recover from most of the available data (which is based on textual evidence or reconstruction), we can gain a fair picture of the mechanisms by studying contemporary variation across related languages or varieties of a language, where different degrees of conservation and innovation mirror the historic processes. Therefore we will conduct five in-depth case studies of individual language and dialect groups, in close consultation with chosen experts in these areas.