Linguistics and English Language

Linguistic Circle

Speaker: Lisa Gotthard (University of Edinburgh, LEL)

Title: Syntactic change in the history of Scots – Contact effects or independent developments? Or: Can we blame it all on the English?

Abstract: The contact situation between English and Scots in the 16th-18th century presents an interesting case study for gaining more insight into syntactic outcomes of contact between closely related languages – how do we determine what changes come about through influence across languages, and what changes due to parallel internal developments? I try to address this, very large, question by zooming in on syntactic change during the anglicisation of Scots.

Scots anglicisation typically denotes the process in which English features are increasingly favoured over Scots in Scottish writing (e.g., Murison 1979; Macafee and Aitken 2002), which had considerable effects on Scots lexis and orthography (e.g., Devitt 1989; Meurman-Solin 1993). This process is still obscure within Scots syntax research; quantitative investigation of syntactic change often requires syntactically annotated (parsed) corpora. We can now begin to fill this gap, aided by the construction of the new Parsed Corpus of Scottish Correspondence, 1540-1750 (PCSC; Gotthard 2022). This talk presents results from two case studies, using PCSC data, which reveal dramatic changes in 16th-18th century Scots subject-verb agreement system: the decline of the Northern Subject Rule (NSR) and the rise of do-support.

The NSR was a near-categorical system in pre-anglicisation Scots, inherited from Old Northumbrian (e.g., de Haas 2011, Pietsch 2005, Rodriguez Ledesma 2013-2017). The system is recognisable from Standard English (StE) by its tendency to have -s inflection with plural nominal subjects (1a), and with certain pronouns when they were not linearly adjacent to the agreeing verb (1b). In the PCSC data, this system is found to decline in favour of StE agreement (Gotthard, forthcoming; Gotthard and Wallenberg, in prep).

1 a.         The girls sing-is (NSR) vs.  the girls sing-ø (StE)

   b.         I/we/you/they sing and dance-s (NSR) vs. I/we/you/they sing and dance-ø (StE)

In English, do-support emerged as a means of establishing subject-verb agreement after the loss of verb raising (2). Its emergence involved the grammaticalisation of the inherited Old English auxiliary do, which earlier had different stylistic and syntactic functions, until it became a “dummy” auxiliary with the function to pronounce tense and agreement features (e.g., van der Auwera and Genee, 2002; Ecay 2015; Ellegård 1953; Denison 1985; Garrett 1998; Kroch 1989; Poussa 1999). In Scots data, the loss of verb raising and rise of do-support took place during the period of anglicisation, nearly 200 years later than in English (Meurman-Solin 1993; Jonas 2002; Gotthard 2019, 2023, in prep). 

2.            Alex eats not cake > Alex does not eat cake

The likelihood of these changes being anglicisation outcomes is evaluated by assessing the results against criteria for contact-induced change (e.g., Thomason and Kaufman 1988; Thomason 2001; Pa-Tel 2013; Robbeets and Cuyckens 2013; Poplack and Levey 2010). The social context in which these changes took place, together with the timing of the changes, indicate that these are likely contact-induced changes. The situation regarding do-support, however, is more complex: early Scots do shows similar behaviour to early English do, which may suggest that Scots do is following the same type of trajectory as the English auxiliary, and is not a transferred feature.

Further information

Please join us for a reception after the talk in the Dugald Stewart Building, 7th Floor common area.

Contact details

Linguistic Circle committee

Nov 30 2023 -

Linguistic Circle

2023-11-30: Syntactic change in the history of Scots – Contact effects or independent developments? Or: Can we blame it all on the English?

G.04 Screening Room, 50 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LH; online