Zoek in de site...

Linguistic variations and historical changes in language

Prof. Ans van Kemenade, Professor in English Language and Culture

Ans van Kemenade

The CLS group of researchers working on language variation and change is primarily interested in linguistic variations related to discourse factors and historical changes in grammar and information structure. Professor Ans van Kemenade, “The most exciting part of our research is testing theories about language variation by examining the historical development of a language. This is a highly dynamic enterprise, dealing with the interaction between sentence structure, discourse ordering, and the evolving socio-historical surroundings in which a language changes.”

Scientific breakthroughs
In testing their theories, the researchers use large collections of old texts in which all linguistic elements are thoroughly described and categorized. These so-called corpora are suitable for detailed analyses of language patterns and language developments. Studying data in this way has resulted in several breakthroughs in recent years, in particular in improving our understanding of word order variation.language change

Example sentence from the Penn-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Middle English (PPCME2).

These breakthroughs relate to verb-second variation. In languages with verb-second order, such as Present-day Dutch, the finite verb takes the second position in a main clause. Middle English texts feature some striking variation with respect to verb-second word order, prior to its loss towards the end of the Middle English period. This variation has been shown to be crucially influenced by a combination of structural factors, information ordering, and changes in rhythm and stress.

New technologies
The rise of new technologies has opened doors for new, innovative pursuits in the field of language variation and change. “Working together with researchers from various disciplines, we aim to combine historical linguistics with psycholinguistics and with computational linguistics,” says Van Kemenade. Approaching large data collections with computational techniques, CLS researchers can clarify historical language variation and change in a robust, yet linguistically responsible way. By integrating demographic information about a given population in a specific historical period on the one hand, and information about the different grammatical systems brought in by the various members of that population on the other, they develop comprehensive models to simulate situations of language contact. Van Kemenade, “These models will help us to achieve our goal of gaining fundamental insights into the relation between language systems and language use.”