Martin Hilpert (Université de Neuchâtel): Unidirectionality in grammaticalization and asymmetric priming

Martin Hilpert er professor i engelsk lingvistik ved universitetet i Neuchâtel, Schweiz. Hans forskningsinteresser omfatter konstruktionsgrammatik, korpuslingvistik, sproghistorie og kognitiv lingvistik. Martin Hilpert har i de seneste par år især markeret sig som en af de mest indflydelsesrige forskere inden for konstruktionsgrammatik og grammatikalisering.


In a programmatic paper, Jäger and Rosenbach (2008) appeal to the psychological phenomenon of asymmetric priming in order to explain why semantic change in grammaticalization is typically unidirectional, from more concrete and specific meanings towards more abstract and schematic meanings. In this talk, I will re-examine the asymmetric priming hypothesis in the light of experimental and corpus-linguistic evidence.

Asymmetric priming is a pattern of cognitive association in which one idea strongly evokes another, while that second idea does not evoke the first one with the same force. For instance, given the word 'paddle', many speakers associate 'water'. The reverse is not true. Given 'water', few speakers associate 'paddle'. Asymmetric priming would elegantly explain why many semantic changes in grammar are unidirectional. For instance, expressions of spatial relations evolve into temporal markers (English be going to), and expressions of possession evolve into markers of completion (the English have‐perfect); the inverse processes are unattested (Heine and Kuteva 2002). The asymmetric priming hypothesis has attracted considerable attention (Chang 2008, Eckardt 2008, Traugott 2008), but as yet, empirical engagement with it has been limited.

The experimental results that will be presented rely on reaction time measurements from a maze task (Forster et al. 2009). It was tested whether asymmetric priming obtains between lexical forms and their grammaticalized counterparts, i.e. pairs such as 'keep the light on' (lexical keep) and 'keep reading' (grammatical keep). On the asymmetric priming hypothesis, the former should prime the latter, but not vice versa. We collected data from 200 native speakers of American English via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. All participants were exposed to 40 sentences with different pairs of lexical and grammatical forms (keep, go, have, etc.). Mixed-effects regression modeling (Baayen 2008) was used to assess the impact of priming, lexical/grammatical status, and text frequency on speaker’s reaction times. Contrary to the asymmetric priming hypothesis, the results show a negative priming effect: Speakers who have recently been exposed to lexical keep are significantly slower to process grammatical keep.

The second part of the talk will present a corpus-based test of the asymmetric priming hypothesis. The analysis draws on frequency data and distributional semantics. Specifically, token-based semantic vector space modeling (Heylen et al. 2012) is used as a tool that allows us to test whether two subsequent uses of the same linguistic form show systematic asymmetries with regard to their meanings. In the analysis, we observe several priming effects: lexical variants and grammatical variants strongly prime themselves, but lexical forms do not prime their grammatical counterparts.

The results suggest that the semantic unidirectionality that is in evidence in many instances of grammatical change is in all likelihood not due to priming. In the final part of my talk, I will discuss a number of possible alternative explanations that future work should address.                       


Baayen, R. Harald 2008. Analyzing Linguistic Data: A Practical Introduction to Statistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chang, Franklin. 2008. Implicit learning as a mechanism of language change. Theoretical Linguistics 34/2, 115-123.

Eckardt, Regine. 2008. Concept Priming in Language Change. Theoretical Linguistics 34/2, 123-133.

Forster, Kenneth, Christine Guerrera, and Lisa Elliot. 2009. The maze task: Measuring forced incremental sentence processing time. Behavior Research Methods 41/1, 163–171.

Heine, Bernd and Tania Kuteva. 2002. World lexicon of grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Heylen, Kris, Dirk Speelman, and Dirk Geeraerts. 2012. Looking at word meaning. An interactive visualization of Semantic Vector Spaces for Dutch synsets. In Proceedings of the EACL-2012 joint workshop of LINGVIS & UNCLH: Visualization of Language Patters and Uncovering Language History from Multilingual Resources, 16-24.

Jäger, Gerhard and Anette Rosenbach. 2008. Priming and unidirectional language change. Theoretical Linguistics, 34/2, 85-113.

Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 2008. Testing the hypothesis that priming is a motivation for change. Theoretical Linguistics, 34/2, 135-142.