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ven. 16/10/2020 Séminaire du laboratoire
Language change without innovation
ISH, amphi Marc Bloch
Conférence de :
  • Ferdinand von Mengden (Freie Universität Berlin)

In this paper, I argue for an emergent view on language and language change as sketched by Hopper 1987. In contrast to structuralist tenets, which see language as a pre-established system that exists prior to usage (‘langue’, ‘competence’), Emergent Grammar implies that the linguistic system “is always deferred, always in a process but never arriving, and therefore emergent” (Hopper 1987: 141).

While recent usage-based approaches to language change have taken the variability and the dynamic character of language into consideration, they have remained structuralist in spirit in that they still see language change as a transition between default stages (‘while A becomes B, there is a transitory period in which A and B coexist’). Concepts like ‘bridging contexts’, ‘switch contexts’ (Heine 2002; Diewald 2002) and the idea of invited inferences (Traugott/Dasher 2002) suggest that, when a linguistic form changes its function or meaning, this requires contexts in which both old and new function constitute part of the interpretation of an utterance. For example, English since, usually encodes causality on the basis of a temporal relation on the propositional level. This view has been a great advantage over earlier accounts on language change, in which change is simply seen as a difference between an earlier and a later “stage” in a language’s history without making any statement on how form or meaning of expressions change.

This view, however, does not account for the fact (among other things) that those attestations of since which are unambiguously either exclusively temporal or exclusively causal are extremely rare. In my talk, I would therefore like to go a step further. I will argue that the linguistic sign is inherently negotiable, underspecified and subject to interpretation. Rather than striving for logical clarity, interlocutors generally handle ambiguities through clues provided by the respective context. Language change, then, does not require innovation but ‘recontextualization’ – that is, the use of an existing sign / construction in a different context (rather than the use of a new or altered sign). I will discuss well-documented cases of language change and demonstrate that canonical types of changes (e.g. the grammaticalization / reanalysis in I’m going to Lyon > I’m gonna like Lyon) do not require any innovative behaviour on part of a speaker, but reflect the use of one and the same construction being constantly recontextualized. A beneficial theoretical side effect of this claim is that the notion of ‘recontextualization’ is well-compatible with other systems that have been described as ‘emergent’ in various fields outside linguistics. Partly under different notions (‘flexible transfer’, ‘bricolage’), the concept has been described in diverse fields such as primate behavior studies or cultural anthropology (Kuhle 2019; von Mengden & Kuhle 2020).

Because, as Emergent Grammar implies, language does not exist outside usage and since context is part of usage, the contextual conditions of each speech act (conversation) are essential for (rather than external to) the linguistic sign. Rather than speaking of an impact of context on language change, Emergent Grammar suggests a symbiotic relationship between the sign and the context of usage. Context, in other words, is a necessary ingredient of language which allows for communication with inherently vague, variable and ambiguous signs.


Diewald, Gabriele. 2002. A model for relevant types of contexts in grammaticalization. In New Reflections on Grammaticalization. Edited by Ilse Wischer & Gabriele Diewald. Typological Studies in Language. 49. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 103-20.

Heine, Bernd. 2002. On the role of context in grammaticalization. In New Reflections on Grammaticalization. Edited by Ilse Wischer & Gabriele Diewald. Typological Studies in Language 49. Amsterdam; Philadelphia, Pa.: Benjamins. 83-101.

Hopper, Paul J. 1987. Emergent Grammar. In Berkeley Linguistic Society. Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Meeting, February 14-16, 1987: General Session and Parasession on Grammar and Cognition. Edited by Jon Aske, Natasha Beery, Laura Michaelis, Hana Filip. 13. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistic Society. 139-57.

Kuhle, Anneliese. 2019. Tool Intelligence as an Explanation of Cross-Linguistic Variation and Family Resemblance: An Evolutionary and Typological Investigation. Lanham, My.: Lexington.
von Mengden, Ferdinand & Anneliese Kuhle. 2020. Recontextualization and Language Change. Folia Lingusitica Historia 41.2020.

Traugott, Elizabeth C. & Robert B. Dasher. 2002. Regularity in Semantic Change. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 96. Cambridge: CUP.



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