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Mind-Bending Grammars: The dynamics of correlated multiple grammatical changes in Early Modern English writers

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - MindBendingGrammars (Mind-Bending Grammars: The dynamics of correlated multiple grammatical changes in Early Modern English writers)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

The Mind-Bending Grammars project is a linguistic take on the problem of where different ways of thinking originate and what it is that constrains the adoption of innovative thought patterns. Is the future to the children of new generations, whose brains that are not yet matured give more opportunity for adopting innovations? Or is it adults’ involvement in social networks that is more crucial? The project compares different behavior in different generations to lifespan development to identify the respective roles of children and adults in long-term cognitive developments. As real-time data in a five-year timespan are inssuficient, data are taken from 50 prolific authors spanning five generations born in the 17th century.

We are all creatures of habit, and the older we grow, the harder it gets to get rid of them. Yet innovation is also always in part building on routine. It's the same way that groundbreaking art is based on a thorough basis of classical training. A linguistic example would be that of blends like Brexit. Brexit is intelligible precisely because it is built on familiar words. We effortlessly learn new coinages like these well into old age. However, to what extent grammar changes like this is far less known. Language users (subconsciously) prefer grammatical patterns that are somehow similar or familiar, which facilitates storage in memory. Processes of grammatical change have so far only been researched at the level of language as a monolithic object. For instance, we know that in the case of passives that end with a preposition, complex patterns like 'he was made fun of' come historically later than simpler ones such as 'he was sent for'. What we don’t know is to what extent such innovations are picked up across the lifespan of individual speakers.

Similarities are also looked for across different structures. Once linked through similarity, structures may become even more similar and converge. A recent example is the emergence of 'I’m gonna', 'I gotta' and 'I hafta', whose similar uses are probably an important reason why they now also sound so similar. Besides brain economy, language habits are also shaped by social interactions. We tend to pick up language behavior from close contacts or imitate people we admire. This is a major way in which innovative language use spreads through a community. However, such novel language use is at odds with our current habits. Together with age, social distance from the innovator, and personality, motivations of economy will then either be so strong that the speaker does not change their habits, or social motivations win out, and the innovation will be adopted.

In addition to getting at grips with the interaction between generational and lifespan change, the project subscribes to a recent interest in viewing aging as a more constructive process, in line with Ramscar and colleagues’ paper 'The myth of cognitive decline' (published in Topics in Cognitive Science), where it is argued that the decreasing reaction times are not merely the effect of cognitive decline, but also reflect an increase in experience and the higher load of scanning all this experience.
The most important results concern the interaction between lifespan and generational change, as exemplified in the history of 'be going to'. The original meaning of 'go', still very much around, is ‘move towards a goal’. When combined with a purpose, as in I’m going (to the market) to buy meat, motion recedes in the background. In the seventeenth century, increase in such backgrounding led to a new structure in which 'be going to do X' holistically expresses a future intention or plan, and go no longer refers to motion. Results further show that innovators at first do not fulfil the full potential of this new generalization, but accommodate to their more conservative elder peers. Conversely, elder peers adopt some innovative behavior, but are increasingly hampered by their habits as they age. What is interesting about grammatical patterns is that they exist below the level of awareness and there are few incentives for adopting them. The dynamics of their adoption, therefore, provides a picture of how easily we continue to adopt new patterns semi-spontaneously. Likelihood of adoption is for instance correlated with the functional distance between novel and original use. Next to the emergence of new structures, where both uses are already known to language users, and the change only affects the respective frequency of their use, no clear age restrictions have been found.

On a more general level, the project has shown that there is no such thing as the average language user, and interindividual differences are bigger than commonly assumed. Apart from differences attributable to style and personality, the results also corroborate past research in observing a relation between innovative behavior and social networks: urban life (in our data primarily living in London) promotes change and innovation more, as there is more exposure to a greater variety of linguistic behaviors.

Next to the scientific results, the project produced a number of more widely useful tools/methodologies. First the 90 million word corpus Early Modern Multiloquent Authors (EMMA) was compiled, consisting of the collected works of 50 prolific authors. With its unprecedented per individual sample size, EMMA can be used for in-depth longitudinal analysis of linguistic behavior in individual language users. EMMA is currently being used by more than 50 researchers from 19 different countries. The project also developed a method to trace the emergence and development of novel grammatical patterns quantitatively (Petré & Van de Velde 2018). Finally, to facilitate linguistic analysis, an innovative query and annotation tool was developed alongside with the corpus, called Cosycat (Collaborative Synchronized Corpus Annotation Tool), with improved synchronization between researchers’ analytical work as compared to alternative annotation tools.

In terms of dissemination, results were presented at 64 international conferences, and were published in 18 internationally peer-reviewed publications. In 2018, an international workshop was organized in Paris, with a subsequent special issue of the top journal 'Cognitive Linguistics' devoted to the project's core research questions, and in 2021, the 11th edition of the International Conference on Construction Grammar was organized with the help of the project around three of its core topics.
Mind-Bending Grammars investigated to what extent adult language users innovate their grammatical behavior across the lifespan, contributing to our knowledge of cognitive plasticity. It established how much innovation is possible and attested at different ages, to what extent innovative or conservative behavior results from general principles of cognition, and to what extent it depends on speakers' position in the social network. Our results, including the observation of innovation past adolescence, the effect of social inertia, and the increased realization of innovative potential as the impact of conservative speakers fades out, provide novel empirical evidence that help modelling the complex process of language change. So far models that try to combine these factors (cognitive, social, demographic) have mostly worked on the basis of computer simulations, but lacked robust empirical evidence.
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