Nikolaus Ritt og Eva Zehentner (Wiens Universitet): To foredrag om sprogudvikling i teori og praksis – Københavns Universitet

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Nikolaus Ritt og Eva Zehentner (Wiens Universitet): To foredrag om sprogudvikling i teori og praksis

To gæster fra forskergruppen Naturalist Studies In the Diachrony of English (NatSIDE) holder foredrag om sprogudvikling i teori og praksis.

Nikolaus Ritt: Diachronic (Mor-)phonotactics: Schwa loss & the evolution of final consonant clusters in Middle English

Eva Zehentner: (Un-)cooperativeness in communication and the explanation of subjectification in semantic change

Nikolaus Ritt er professor i engelsk historisk sprogvidenskab ved Wiens Universitet ( og leder af gruppen NatSIDE som forsker i engelsk sproghistorie med udgangspunkt i Natural Linguistics ( I sin alsidige forskning har han bl.a. beskæftiget sig med diakron fonologi, morfologi og morfonologi, darwinistiske modeller for sprogudvikling, komplekse adaptive systemer og sprog og kognition. Han har bl.a. udgivet Selfish sounds. A Darwinian approach to language change (Cambridge University Press, 2004) og været redaktør for Folia Lingustica Historica.

Eva Zehentner er postdoc. på afdelingen for engelsk ved Wiens Universitet ( og ph.d. på afhandlingen On competition and cooperation in Middle English ditransitives som undersøger udviklingen af relationen mellem indirekte objekt og to-objekt (’the dative alternation’) fra et konstruktionsgrammatisk og et evolutionsteoretisk perspektiv. Hun er mag.phil. i engelsk og indoeuropæisk, og hendes forskningsinteresser omfatter bl.a. diakron morfosyntaks, spilteoretiske modeller for sprogudvikling og evolutionær pragmatik.


Nikolaus Ritt (Wiens Universitet):

Diachronic (Mor-)phonotactics: Schwa loss & the evolution of final consonant clusters in Middle English

Sequences of two or more consonants, such as /vz/ in wives, /pt/ in apt, or /ksθ/ in sixth, are difficult to pronounce. Since the contrasts between their constituents are also difficult to perceive, it is easy to understand why many languages prefer to do without them (Maddieson 2013).Yet, they seem to be stably established in others, and English is among them. So why do its speakers take the trouble?

My talk discusses this question – and related ones – by looking at the historical development of word final consonant clusters in English during the Middle and the Early Modern periods. I argue that speakers and hearers of clusters do get something for their trouble after all, namely information on the morphological structure of word forms. For instance, when you hear an English word that ends in /vz/, you know immediately that it must be complex, for example the plural of wife, or the third person singular of love. Of course, this works only because /vz/ never occurs at the end of simple word forms. In the case of /pt/, on the other hand, it does not work quite as well: while final /pt/ signals complexity in past tense forms such as regular hoped or mapped, and irregular slept, or kept, it also occurs in simple apt or adapt. Might that explain why slept and kept have become irregular? Or has the frequency of past tense forms like kept and slept lead to their lexicalisation and thereby prepared the tongues and ears for accepting final /pt/ also in simple forms?

One idea, known as the Strong Morphonotactic Hypothesis (Dressler & Dziubalska-Kołaczyk 2006), is that speakers prefer segment sequences that are produced by morphological operations, so called ‘morphonotactic sequences’ to be different from the ‘purely phonotactic’ sequences that occur in simple word forms. Therefore, they manage to minimize overlap in various ways, such as by pronouncing morphontactic sequences (such as the /nd/ in I was fin+ed twenty Euros) more carefully than phonotactic ones (as the /nd/ in I couldn’t find twenty Euros) and thereby simplifying the latter (/faɪnd/ --> [faind] --> [fain], Labov 1994), or by using unproblematic words such as suitable or fitting instead of morphotactically ambiguous ones such as apt.

Conversely, it has been proposed that frequent morphonotactic models such as the /nd/ in past tenses like sinned, rained help to stabilize purely lexical counterparts as well, so that we still have /nd/ at the end of words like find or sound, while final /mb/ as in climb and /ng/ as in sing have been simplified to /m/ and /ŋ/ (Hogg & McCully 1987).

To test the predictions implied by such hypotheses, a project team in Vienna (ECCE), has built a diachronically layered corpus derived database of English word forms that (might have) ended in consonant clusters between the 12th and the 18th centuries. That period lends itself for the purpose, because the inventory of word final consonant clusters was radically enlarged at its beginning through the loss of schwas in final unstressed syllables and came to be gradually reduced again afterwards. As my talk will show, our data not only make it possible to investigate how preferences for morphonotactic and purely phonotactic clusters to differ from each other, interact with mechanisms by which the former stabilize the latter and vice versa, but also throw light on some otherwise puzzling phenomena, such as the fact that the English plural suffix is voiced /z/ rather than voiceless /s/, or why verbs such as spill or feel developed the irregular past forms spilt and felt.


Dressler, Wolfgang U. & Dziubalska-Kołaczyk, Katarzyna. 2006. Proposing Morphonotactics. Wiener Linguistische Gazette 73, 69 -87.

ECCE: Ritt, Nikolaus, Bauman, Andreas & Christina Prömer. Evolution of Consonant Clusters in English. Austrian Science Fund (FWF) Project P27592-G18.

Hogg, Richard M. & McCully, Christopher B. 1987. Metrical Phonology: A Course Book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of linguistic change. Internal factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Maddieson, Ian. 2013. Syllable Structure. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The world atlas of language structures online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Minkova, Donka. 1991. The history of final vowels in English: The sound of muting (Topics in English linguistics 4). Berlin, New York: M. de Gruyter.

Eva Zehentner (Wiens Universitet):

(Un-)cooperativeness in communication and the explanation of subjectification in semantic change

This paper investigates the mechanisms involved in diachronic subjectification. This phenomenon is defined as the development by which the meanings of words or constructions “become increasingly based in the SP[eaker]/W[riter]’s subjective belief state or attitude to what is being said and how it is being said” (Traugott 2003: 125). A typical example of subjectification from the history of English is the rise of ‘epistemic’ meanings (1b) in ‘deontic’ modals (1a) (Traugott 1989).

(1)    a.   John must work hard to survive. (objective necessity)

         b. John looks tired. He must be working hard. (speaker’s subjective certainty)

While we acknowledge that subjectifications represent a frequent type of semantic change, however, we take issue with the assumption that they predominantly reflect the need of speakers to express their inner selves (cf. e.g. Lyons 1982: 102; Traugott 2010: 35). Instead, we propose that the role of listeners in this process might be more crucial than has been recognised so far, and that the facts of diachronic subjectification can be derived just as stringently (and more plausibly) from listener interest as from speaker interest.

The more specific hypothesis to be put forward is based in evolutionary pragmatics (Scott-Phillips 2014), and is inspired by studies of animal communication (Dawkins & Krebs 1984). Thus, we pursue the possibility that subjectifications reflect pragmatically motivated inferences which listeners draw about the attitudes and beliefs of speakers even when such inferences are not invited by the latter. The subsequent semanticisation of more subjective readings, in contrast, represents the response of speakers, who come to anticipate the ways in which they are ‘second guessed’. Since this approach predicts the same phenomena as established accounts of subjectification, we test its soundness not by empirical data analysis but by modelling it in terms of evolutionary game theory (cf. e.g. Hofbauer & Sigmund 1998, 2003; Nowak 2006; Jäger 2004, 2007; Deo 2015).

Our model assumes interlocutors who may intend or interpret a message as either objective (about external reality) or subjective (about beliefs etc.). Furthermore, they always act rationally, i.e. in their own self-interest, but may be cooperative or uncooperative. While cooperative speakers are honest, uncooperative ones lie. Cooperative listeners, on the other hand, are credulous, whereas uncooperative ones disregard the encoded message, but nevertheless try to infer speaker beliefs. The evolutionary dynamics of the interlocutor population are modelled as an asymmetric role game with two positions (speaker and listener) and two strategies (subjective and objective), yielding four different behaviour types (subjective speaking/ subjective listening; objective speaking/ subjective listening, etc.). This results in a 4-by-4 game with 16 different encounter types. Payoffs resulting from the interactions are calculated based on the assumption that information about external reality is more valuable when true (and more harmful when false) than information about intentional states, and are divided into four ordinal categories (no benefit/loss, small benefit/loss, medium benefit/loss, and large benefit/loss). Finally, for each combination of cooperative or uncooperative individuals choosing one of the available strategies, payoff is determined heuristically and weighted according to the assumed proportions of cooperative and defective players.

An analysis of the dynamics predicted by the model reveals that if the proportion of cooperative players does not exceed a certain threshold, the behaviour type ‘objective speaking/ subjective listening’ is the only evolutionarily stable strategy combination. We take this to suggest that subjectification may just as plausibly be driven by listeners’ interests in (possibly deliberately hidden) beliefs and intentions of speakers as by speakers’ desires to express themselves.


Deo, A. 2015. The semantic and pragmatic underpinnings of grammaticalizationpaths: the progressive and the imperfective. Semantics and Pragmatics 8: 14, 1-52.

Hofbauer, J. & K. Sigmund. 1998. Evolutionary games and population dynamics. Cambridge: CUP.

Hofbauer, J. & K. Sigmund. 2003. Evolutionary game dynamics. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 40(4), 479-519.

Jäger, G. 2004. Evolutionary game theory for linguists: a primer. (unpublished manuscript). University of Tübingen. (03 april 2017).

Jäger, G. 2007. Evolutionary game theory and typology: a case study. Language 83(1), 74-109.

Krebs, J. R. & R. Dawkins. 1984. Animal signals: mind reading and manipulation. In J. R. Krebs & N. B. Davies (eds.), Behavioural ecology: an evolutionary approach. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 380-402.

Lyons, J. 1982. Deixis and subjectivity: Loquor ergo sum? In R. Jarvella & W. Klein (eds.), Speech, place and action: studies in deixis and related topics. New York: Wiley, 101-124.

Scott-Phillips, T. C. 2014. Speaking our minds: human communication and the evolutionary origins of language. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Traugott, E. C. 2003. From subjectification to intersubjectification. In R. Hickey (ed.), Motives for language change. Cambridge: CUP, 124-139.

Traugott, E. C. 2010. (Inter)subjectivity and (inter)subjectification: A reassessment. In K. Davidse, L. Vandelanotte & H. Cuyckens (eds.), Subjectification, intersubjectification and grammaticalization. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 29-74.