difference in form without difference in meaning

Angus Grieve-Smith grvsmth at panix.com
Fri Aug 5 00:15:58 UTC 2011

On 8/4/2011 6:29 PM, Tom Givon wrote:
> 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".

     Yes, Bill Croft discusses these three possibilities in his 2000 
book, but he describes the third possibility more generally (page 177):

"Speakers will divide the community or set of communities and associate 
the distinct forms with distinct communities.  For example, I heard a 
historical linguist suggest that /grammaticalization /tends to be used 
by European-trained historical linguists and their students, while 
/grammaticization/ tends to be used by American-trained historical 
linguists and their students."

> 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

     I'm skeptical that the coexisting forms have the same meaning 
during that entire time.  In my theatrical data on French negation, 
before 1600 /ne ... pas/ is used to negate sentences between 10-20% of 
the time, but almost never in contexts where it unambiguously represents 
predicate negation.  Instead, it is used to deny a presupposition, while 
/ne/ alone is used for predicate negation.

     Once /ne ... pas/ starts being used for predicate negation, it 
seems to be considered "the same" as /ne/ alone.  That is also the time 
when the S-curve starts (what Weinreich, Labov and Herzog 1968 call 
"actuation").  I discuss this in greater detail in my dissertation:


				-Angus B. Grieve-Smith
				Saint John's University
				grvsmth at panix.com

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