Language change through "ignorance"

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Jun 19 16:25:29 UTC 2003

ron butters provides an instance of "in tack" for "intact" (a new one
for me, too), saying

 >It illustrates perfectly Arnold Zwicky's recent comment to the
 >effect that language change takes place in part because EVERYBODY
 >sometimes marches to a different drummer.

much as i'd like to take credit for this observation, it's in no
way original.  it's a commonplace among scholars of language variation
and change.

it *is* some of the enduring themes of my research, especially my
research on the details of particular constructions (stranded
infinitival TO, quasi-serial verbs in english, vocatives, auxiliary
reduction, accent in noun-noun compounds, etc.) and on casual
speech. so i'm happy to be known as someone who emphasizes the extent
of individual variation in grammars. (just so i'm not misunderstood
here: i'm not saying that variability is all there is, or the most
important thing.  the inevitability of, indeed need for, variability
is always in a constantly shifting balance with the need for
uniformity; it's important, indeed necessary, that people in a social
group have a lot of their grammars in common.)

recently i've taken up looking at a few english constructions that
probably arise in part from actual errors, in production or perception
("wh that", as in "I don't know how many people that were at the
party", and "go to go", as in "She's going to San Francisco and talk
on firewalls").  but then i have a long-standing interest in speech
errors (on a narrow definition of "error").  and i don't think that
such error-based changes are especially frequent.

while i have the microphone, so to speak, i'll add a note on examples
like "Seems to me that..." (similarly, "Time was...", "Thing is,..."
and various other types).  no, these aren't ignorance-based.  in the
value-laden terms of the proscriptionists, they arise from *laziness*.
(in less value-laden terms, they illustrate the motive of *brevity* in
speech and writing, ever in a constantly shifting balance with the
motives of clarity and expressiveness.)

what's going on here is, of course, that predictable material is
"omitted" - in more neutral terms, speakers and writers choose a zero
option, that is, they choose not to supply material that they might
have.  when you look at such cases, it almost always turns out that
the zero option isn't just something you can do whenever you can get
away with it, but is subject to (language- or dialect-specific)
conditions, that is, is highly conventionalized.  "Seems to me..."
but (for many people) not "Occurs to me..."; "Problem is,..." but (for
many people) not "Issue is,..."; and so on.  in a few cases the short
versions have become completely frozen, in perfectly standard-language
idioms that most people no longer appreciate the origins of: for
example, "no doubt" in "No doubt you've been following..." (the first
sentence of my open letter to andrea lunsford, quite deliberately
framed this way).

proscriptionists routinely characterize zero options as "lazy",
"sloppy", etc. *when they're associated with casual speech (the
examples above) or nonstandard varieties (the zero copula in AAVE)*
but are largely mute on all other types of zero options, like the
"that"/zero alternation in complements ("I've always believed (that)
pigs can't fly") and relative clauses ("the flying pigs (that) we
saw"), the "the"/zero alternation in some nominal predicatives ("Beth
is now (the) chair of my department"), the "to"/zero alternation in
complements to "help" ("I'll help you (to) fix that"), the "do
so/it/that"/zero alternation with auxiliaries ("They told me to clean
my room, but I wouldn't (do so/it/that)"), the rather stiff verb/zero
Gapping alternation ("I ate sushi, and Kim (ate) sashimi"), and many
other types found in standard english. (proscriptionists are rightly
concerned when some genuinely troublesome ambiguity or garden-pathing

linguists tend to roll their eyes and whimper at this point - not at
the observation that some types of zero option are characteristic of
casual speech or nonstandard varieties (that's a simple fact,
recognized by everyone, and it means that these types of zero option
are not good choices for someone who aims to produce formal standard
written english), but at the charge that these types of zero option,
and these only, result from laziness, inattentiveness, and lack of
education, with the implication that these types of zero option are
unstructured, without system, and that people who use them are
inferior, defective.  it's that big leap from how things are in
established formal standard written english to the claim that things
are this way because that's the best, or the only, possible way for
them to be.  that's illogical.

arnold (zwicky at, stopping short of Full Rant mode

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