H4: Modelling lexical diffusion in syntax: non-finite complementation in Modern English
University of Konstanz


This project aims to better understand the development of different patterns of non-finite complementation in English since 1500, working towards an explanatory theory of why and how these patterns diffused through the verbal lexicon in the way that they did. Concretely, the project links language change to language acquisition by hypothesizing that the Sufficiency Principle (Yang 2016; see below) plays a crucial role in determining the productive generalizations that the child acquirer of (Early) Modern English is able to form. The precise conditions under which a particular matrix verb takes a particular type of complement remain obscure, and we propose that, rather than categorically reflecting semantic factors, the broad-brush generalizations that the child attains are input-driven and tolerate a certain number of exceptions: the diachronic developments then involve lexical diffusion, constrained in a principled way by the Sufficiency Principle. Methodologically the project will be based on large historical corpora; special attention will be paid to contact, specifically new verbs copied7 from languages such as Latin and French throughout the period, as these may play a key role in pushing construction types over or under the threshold of productivity. The overarching research question for this project is:

Did new types of non-finite complementation spread in post-1500 English via lexical diffusion? If so, how?

In terms of SILPAC’s key features, the project links the Sufficiency Principle model of acquisition to intergenerational language change (key features 1 and 4), investigating non-finite complementation as a subdomain of argument structure (key feature 3), and looking at inter-individual and lifespan differences to try to identify the agent(s) of change (key feature 2).