difference in form without difference in meaning

john at research.haifa.ac.il john at research.haifa.ac.il
Fri Aug 5 08:25:55 UTC 2011

A long time ago (early 1980s), together with Tony Kroch and Susan Pintzuk I did
a study of how 'do' came to be used as a question marker, a change which was
was for the most part started and completed in the course of the 16th century.
DURING the 16th century, there was a lot of variation between the older
VS question and the newer do-construction, the most significant factor being
whether the subject was a pronoun or noun, whether there was a direct object,
and if so, whether the direct object was a noun or pronoun. There was also a
clear tendency for the do-construction to become more common as the century
went on. But there was also an effect of the semantic type of the verb, with
the do-construction being associated with active verbs and the VS construction
associated with stative verbs. It was very difficult to say anything concrete
about this, because the variation was affected by so many non-semantic factors,
but in some sense at the time, to the extent that any difference in meaning
could be suggested, 'Did you see the bird?' would have implied that the subject
took some action to intentionally see the bird (like going to a place where the
bird was), whereas 'Saw you the bird?' would imply that the bird passed in
front of the subject's field of vision. It's difficult to get a parallel
difference in meaning in the present tense. Additionally, there was at the time
a strong tendency to use 'ye' as a clitic-like subject form, so that in general
'See you the bird?' would have been disfavored because in involved a non-clitic
subject form intervening between the verb and the object. 'Saw ye the bird?'
would have been much more normal. And the semantic alternation would have been
clearest in the middle of the change, whereas earlier and later than this,
stylistic factors were more important--I would guess that there were no more
than two generations when there was something like a productive
semantically-based alternation.

Quoting jess tauber <phonosemantics at earthlink.net>:

> Hi folks. I'll admit at the outset that this isn't my area, but just on the
> face of it, to my sensibilities, the difference between 'Saw you the bird?'
> and 'Did you see the bird?' is one of directness and/or formality. The first
> seems to me more intimate, informal, less 'accusing' usage, at least for my
> modern English. Maybe easier to see with 'See (you) the bird?' vs. 'Do you
> see the bird?'. With 'do' the question seems (at least potentially) as much
> about the bird as my ability/willingness to see it, while without it perhaps
> its more about the speaker's needs. I know that in many instances pronominal
> paradigms have been reshaped to reflect unwillingness to appear
> confrontational in conversation. It would be interesting here from the
> typological perspective to know whether there is any linkage between
> constructional switching and the degree to and direction in which discourse
> has to be negotiated. More formality structurewise= more formality
> interrelationally? Languages with the least morphology more context sensitive
> and all that rubbish.
> Jess Tauber
> goldenratio at earthlink.net

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