Skip to main content

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

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MindBendingGrammars (Mind-Bending Grammars: The dynamics of correlated multiple grammatical changes in Early Modern English writers)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-02-29

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, 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 longitudinal data cannot be harvested in a timespan of a five-year project, data have been taken instead from 50 prolific authors spanning five generations born in the 17th century, and active in London upper-class circles.
Our brains have their own rules of economy. We are all creatures of habit. With every repetition they become even more tenacious, so the older we grow, the harder it gets to get rid of them. Yet, paradoxically, routine also helps to innovate, as long as the innovation is somehow connected to it. It's the same way that groundbreaking art by people like Picasso is based on a thorough basis of classical training. In language, a familiar instance of this kind of innovation is that of blends like Brexit. Brexit is intelligible precisely because it is built on existing and familiar words. We learn new coinings like these with little effort and well into old age. However, to what extent similar things happen in grammar is far less known. And yet grammar changes too. Language users (subconsciously) prefer grammatical patterns that are somehow similar or familiar, which because of their familiarity can be stored more easily in memory. So far such processes of change have only been researched at the level of the 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. Research on individual speakers has so far focused on intergenerational differences, but hardly on longitudinal change within individuals.
The economical quest for similarity goes beyond building single routines, as similarities are also looked for across different structures. Once linked through similarity, the structures may become even more similar and converge. A recent example in English is the emergence of forms like 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 for instance Michael Ramscar and colleagues’ paper The myth of cognitive decline in the leading cognitive science journal Topics in Cognitive Science. In this article it is argued that the slower reaction times of elderly people are not merely the effect of cognitive decline, but also reflect a huge increase in experience: the older you are, the more (subconscious) choices you have to make when retrieving information from memory. Similarly, the insights that will come forth from Mind-Bending Grammars may contribute
The most important result of the Mind-Bending Grammars project so far concerns the interaction between lifespan and generational change. The nature of this interaction has been laid bare in the history of be going to/gonna, an important player in current English grammar. The original meaning of go, which is still very much around, is ‘move towards some goal’. When combined with a purpose, as in I’m going (to the market) to buy chocolate, motion recedes in the background, as it is the purpose that is key. Based on this backgrounding tendency, a new structure gradually started to emerge in people’s minds in the seventeenth century. In this new structure be going to do X holistically expresses a future intention or plan, and go no longer refers to motion. These innovators could, in theory, say things like I’m going to love it – as we all can today. Our research, however, shows that innovators do not at first fulfil the full potential that comes with this new generalization, but keep socially accommodating to their more conservative elder peers. Conversely, these older pre-innovators, as they are increasingly exposed to innovators, do adopt some of the innovative behavior, but depending on their age are increasingly hampered by their past habits. What is interesting about grammatical patterns is that there are few incentives of adopting them: while it may make you sound younger, you will not get any money out of it. In that respect the dynamics of their adoption gives a good picture of how easily we still adopt new patterns semi-spontaneously after we already learned to speak. As it turns out adoption is easier with novel uses that are more similar to the original uses. The oldest of 38 contemporary authors to adopt motionless uses type I’m going to love it up is 63, but the highest age at which an author was found to adopt inanimate subjects (type This is going to be great) is twenty years younger, at 43 (controlling for the different times when these features were innovative). This is most likely because the mental distance to be travelled is considerably bigger, because in the original motion use of go subjects are in control of what they do.
Next to the emergence of new structures, robust shifts have also been found in structures with two well-established different functions, where their relative weight gradually shifts across the lifespan, in line with a trend in the larger community. 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 research has shown that there is no such thing as the average language user. Instead, interindividual differences may be bigger than commonly assumed. Apart from random differences attributable to style and personality, we also were able to corroborate past research that observes a direct relation between innovative behavior and social networks or demography: people who live in a large city tend to have a social network with more weak ties. Such people are exposed to a greater variety of linguistic behaviors and as a result are less averse to adopting novelties. In our data we see a direct correlation between degree of innovative behavior and time spent in London.

The most important methodological enhancement so far has been the development of a method to measure to which degree a certain structure exhibits behavior that is typical of a language’s grammar, and goes beyond the sum of the meaningful words contained in that structure. The future meaning of this is going to be great resides holistically in this utterance and cannot be attributed to a single word, making the structure more grammatical than I am going to buy meat, which is to a higher extent composed of meaningful parts (since going can still refer to motion here).

In order to be able to investigate the issue of how grammatical innovation and its consolidation emerges throu
The project Mind-Bending Grammars investigates to what extent adult language users innovate their grammatical behaviour across the lifespan, contributing to our knowledge of cognitive plasticity. It will establish how much innovation is possible and attested at different ages, to what extent innovative or conservative behaviour results from general principles of cognition (e.g. Y may be adopted only if X is already used; adults beyond 60 are less likely to adopt grammatical novelties), and to what extent such behaviour depends on their position in the social network. It also aims at establishing how various grammatical innovations interact and correlate with each other.

Our results so far, 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 particularly the weight of the many factors that are involved in 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 lack robust empirical evidence. In the remainder of the project more results will add to the refinement of this model, and it will also become possible to make the observations more robust by looking into what is shared or not between case studies.