Individuality in syntactic variation: An investigation of the seventeenth-century gerund alternation

Lauren Fonteyn
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  • Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL), Leiden University, Leiden, 2300 RA, Netherlands
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and Andrea Nini
  • Department of Linguistics and English Language, University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
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Abstract

This study investigates the extent to which there is individuality in how structural variation is conditioned over time. Earlier research already classified the diachronically unstable gerund variation as involving a high fraction of mixed-usage speakers throughout the change, whereby the proportion of the conservative variant versus the progressive variant as observable in the linguistic output of individual language users superficially resembles the mean proportion as observable at the population level. However, this study sets out to show that there can still be heterogeneity within such a centralized population in terms of how each individual conditions the observed variation. A random forest and conditional inference tree analysis of over 14,000 gerunds uttered by nineteen seventeenth-century authors is presented to show that, while the most important language-internal factors conditioning the gerund variation are adopted by (and shared between) all authors, we can still attest inter-individual variation (i) at lower levels of variable importance, and (ii) in the breadth of the range of contexts individual authors employ to condition the attested variation.

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Cognitive Linguistics presents a forum for linguistic research of all kinds on the interaction between language and cognition. The journal focuses on language as an instrument for organizing, processing and conveying information. It is devoted to high-quality research on topics such as the structural characteristics of natural language categorization and the functional principles of linguistic organization.

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