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Lecture | LUCL Colloquium - Fall 2015

LUCL Colloquium: Micro-Perspectives On Linguistic Change

  • Alexander Bergs (Osnabrück University)
Friday 30 October 2015
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
Room 147

"A small leak will sink a great ship" Micro-perspectives on linguistic change


What do social network analysis and Construction Grammar have in common? They both allow us to zoom in on linguistic change. Social network analysis moves away from social aggregates and instead focuses on individual speakers and their ties with other people. Construction Grammar as a usage-based framework can look at individual language use and can distinguish between constructions at different levels of granularity: from individual, concrete micro-constructions to general and highly abstract macro-constructions. This talk aims to demonstrate that both approaches are perfect complements for each other in the study of linguistic change.

It will be argued that one important source of linguistic change is the individual speaker manipulating (concrete) micro-constructions. This manipulation may either be in the form of innovations (the creation of completely new constructions) or of altered replication, i.e. additions, deletions or simply changes to existing constructions. Successful innovations lead to new micro-constructions or even the development of new meso- and macro-constructions on a more abstract level in the constructicon of the individual speaker. Construction Grammar allows for the discrete and precise modeling of changes on both the form and the meaning side of constructions.

Similarly, social network analysis offers us a micro-perspective on the social origin and diffusion of linguistic changes. By looking at the language use of individual speakers and correlating this with the quality and quantity of their network ties we can identify various different agents in linguistic change: innovators, bridges, early adopters and the like. Moreover, we can also follow linguistic changes as they spread through the network from speaker to speaker, and even across networks and through communities of practice. Construction Grammar, with its emphasis on language use, on frequency and on exposition, can add to this a cognitively and psycholinguistically plausible adoption and learning mechanism for linguistic structures.

This programmatic talk aims to outline this novel and exciting research perspective: on the basis of some case studies from the history of English it shows that the combination of Construction Grammar and social network analysis can give us unique and highly interesting insights into the whys and hows of linguistic change. Construction Grammar provides us with excellent tools for the study intralinguistic micro changes, while social network analysis allows for a microscopic view on the extralinguistic side of language change. After all, change does not happen on a grand scale only, and sometimes even a small leak will sink a great ship, as Benjamin Franklin once said.

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