difference in form without difference in meaning

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Thu Aug 4 22:29:53 UTC 2011

Many if not all examples of on-going grammatical change are like that, 
Fritz (as is the English ex. you cited). And therefore the phenomenon 
must be massive--because you can find MANY constructions in the grammar 
that are are RIGHT NOW/THEN in the midst of change. At that point, some 
people would call this "free variation". Out of which there are two 
major venues: (a)  the old firms will obsolesce; (b) the two forms will 
diverge in meaning. I've also seen people trying to describe this 
presumably-transitory stage as "a conservative dialect vs. a progressive 
dialect". But as I go now over my Ute texts, I find numerous examples 
where the same (old) speaker, in the same text, uses either the more 
conservative form or the more progressive one without batting an 
eyelash, sometime in consecutive sentences that repeat the very same 
material. So, cognitively, we've got to assume that during this 
(presumably transitory)stage, speakers know both forms, and know that 
they have the same semantic & pragmatic value.

Now, is this stage really all that transitory? Tony Naro has noted that 
such "coexisting forms" can go for a long time, with the dominant old 
form comprising 90% of the text-instances and the innovative form(s) 
5-10%. Then at a certain point there is a very rapid shift in 
frequencies. This gives you an "S-shaped learning curve", much like in 
the psychology of learning. Most of us who observed this curve don't 
know what triggers the beginning of the rapid change.  TG


On 8/4/2011 3:17 PM, Frederick J Newmeyer wrote:
> Dear Funknetters,
> I am looking for convincing examples of where two syntactically-related sentence-types manifest clearly identical meanings, where 'meaning' is taken in its broadest sense, including discourse-pragmatic aspects. Another way of putting it is to say that I am looking for two sentence types that in early TG would have been related by 'optional rules', but which absolutely do not differ in meaning. It's not so easy to come up with good examples, once differences in topicality and focus are allowed as meaning differences. One possible example that comes to mind are sentences with or without complementizer-deletion, such as 'I knew that he'd be on time', vs. 'I knew he'd be on time'. But even here there have been argued to be meaning differences.
> One possibility that has been suggested to me is from Early Modern English, when many speakers could say both 'Saw you the bird?' and 'Did you see the bird?' Does anybody have evidence that there were subtle meaning differences here?
> I had always been quite skeptical of Dwight Bolinger's idea that differences in (lexical and syntactic) form always correlate with meaning differences. But I have become less skeptical recently.
> Thanks,
> --fritz
> Frederick J. Newmeyer
> Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
> Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
> [for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

More information about the Funknet mailing list