Dealing With Variation: Grammar and Syntax

Terttu Nevalainen, Department of English/VARIENG, University of Helsinki

Reconstructing syntactic change across varieties of English: a corpus-linguistic perspective on periphrastic do

My discussion of syntactic change will largely focus on the Early Modern English period, 1500-1700, which provides us with a rich array of public and private writings. A selection of them has been sampled for the multigenre Helsinki Corpus of English Texts (HC); facilitating varietal comparisons, the Helsinki Corpus of Older Scots (HCOS) follows the same period divisions with a similar spread of genres. The early modern period is also covered by correspondence corpora, which are specifically designed for the study of social variation in language use.

Studies based on these corpora have yielded both divergent and convergent histories on the rise of the auxiliary of do in English. It is of interest to find that its only optional context of use today, affirmative declaratives, had a major role to play in the process. The discussion will be rounded off with data from some present-day English corpora. My conclusions are twofold: despite the supralocal nature of this syntactic change, we cannot necessarily generalize the findings based on one variety to all other varieties of the same language. It also remains to be seen how robust our current findings are. The answers lie in larger, next-generation corpora, some of which are tagged and parsed, thus facilitating the study of the changing English grammar.