difference in form without difference in meaning

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Fri Aug 5 16:31:57 UTC 2011

John did an excellent job in showing some of the complexities involved 
in the actual process of change. One possible implication is, perhaps, 
that such complexity can be captured in neither the Generative nor 
Varb-rule perspective. The cognitive implication outstrip the 
theoretical machinery of either of these "theories".

Perhaps one thing to remember concerns the time-course issue: The 
data-base for the study of 16th Cent. English is, exclusively,written 
texts. That genre tends to be, sometimes, centuries behind the actual 
changes, which took place, almost exclusively, in the spoken language. 
Often, the low-frequency variants characteristic of the slow first part 
of the S-shaped curve are completely ignored in the written language, 
which tends to go with the higher-frequency (well-established) form, and 
thus appears to be "more generative". This gives a false impression of a 
much faster curve of , i.e., the middle portion of the SW-shaped curve. 
Lynn Yang & I made this observation when studying the rise of the 
GET-passive in English. It was nigh impossible to find examples in 
19th-century writing--till we got to sampling Huck Finn, which is 
deliberately pitched toward the colloquial. All of a sudden, seemingly 
with no gradual prep time, the frequencies jumped up. Which suggested to 
us that the mature (tho still largely adversive) GET-passive 
construction may have been lurking around for a long time prior, perhaps 
centuries, in the spoken language . Cheers,  TG


On 8/5/2011 2:25 AM, john at research.haifa.ac.il wrote:
> 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.
> John
> 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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