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Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory

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Entrenchment and persistence in language change: the Spanish past subjunctive

Malte Rosemeyer
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of Linguistics, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  • Romanisches Seminar, Albert-Ludwigs-Universitaet Freiburg, Freiburg im Breisgau, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
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/ Scott A. Schwenter
Published Online: 2017-02-14 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cllt-2016-0047


In this paper, we demonstrate that, like frequency, morphosyntactic persistence can have a conserving effect on language change. To substantiate this claim, we analyze the alternation between the Spanish past subjunctive forms ending in –ra and –se (as in comiera and comiese ‘had eaten’). Due to the ongoing replacement of –se by –ra, persistence and frequency are the best predictors of the alternation in our data. First, the persistence effect of a prior –se is significantly greater than the persistence effect of a prior –ra. Second, although –se is basically restricted to third person singular morphology in contexts without persistence, when primed by –se this restriction is drastically reduced. Our results also shed light on the relationship between frequency and persistence in language change. Although both result in conservation, the conserving effect of frequency causes irregularity such as the paradigmatic atrophy of Spanish –se forms. In contrast, persistence can temporarily re-establish paradigmatic regularity and consequently strengthen the cognitive representation of obsolescing constructions. However, this resuscitating effect of persistence appears to be restricted to low-frequency –se forms; because they are generally more entrenched, the activation of high-frequency –se forms relies less on persistence effects.

Keywords: language change; persistence; priming; frequency; usage-based linguistics; past subjunctive; Spanish


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About the article

Published Online: 2017-02-14

DFG Graduate School GRK 1624/1 “Frequency effects”; Research Fund Flanders (FWO), award K1G3316N; 2015–16 OSU Arts and Humanities Larger Grant Award for the project “Persistence and the Maintenance of Linguistic Variation.”

Citation Information: Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory, ISSN (Online) 1613-7035, ISSN (Print) 1613-7027, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cllt-2016-0047.

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