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How variation at the grammatical and word level guides the interpretation of our written and spoken language

Prof. Helen de Hoop, Professor in Linguistics

A fundamental question about language is how variation at the grammatical and word level guides the interpretation of written and spoken utterances. Interpretation is not locked in words and sentences, but arises through an interplay of form and meaning in context. CLS researchers unravel this interplay by looking at language as it is used in natural settings. Professor Helen de Hoop, “Interpretation always depends on the communicative setting. Speakers use a specific linguistic structure while being aware of the contextual factors, and hearers interpret the linguistic structure within that setting. Language is therefore to be understood in its context.”

Helen de HoopDiscovering patterns
For example, a speaker of Dutch might have a choice between using ‘zij’ (they) and the ‘incorrect’ ‘hun’ (them) as a subject. The CLS researchers discovered that a single speaker typically uses both forms, depending on the communicative setting – and even depending on meaning, as ‘hun’ was found to be used only for living beings. De Hoop, “If we ignore or condemn variations, we miss out on such interesting patterns.”

Contextual approach
Taking the role of context into account is challenging, however the group studying language variation has succeeded in developing a viable research paradigm. They combine theoretical studies with corpus analyses and experiments. Moreover, they study language in a variety of natural contexts, such as spoken conversations and literary fiction.

One of the successes resulting from this contextual approach is the identification of a pattern in evidentiality marking in Dutch. Evidential markers are linguistic signals of how certain a speaker is about the information provided to the listener, and to what extent that information is backed up by evidence, such as ‘I think’ in the sentence “I think John is ill”. A clear pattern was found in the difference between ‘Jan is ziek, denk ik’ (John is ill, I think) and ‘Jan is ziek, dacht ik’ (John is ill, I thought): the present tense indicates the speaker’s evidence is found in the present, whereas the past tense indicates that this evidence is to be found in the past. De Hoop, “A finding like this is highly relevant as it shows that the interaction between different categories of linguistic elements, in this case evidentiality and verb tense, causes interpretation differences. Studying differences and similarities in these interactions, both within and across languages, advances our understanding of language systems.”

Understanding hypercorrection
One of the goals for the near future is to understand how and under what conditions language variation leads to language change. Prescriptive grammar operates on linguistic variation by explicitly making a choice between one structure or another. “It is our ambition to clarify the co-existence of grammatical structures as prescribed by grammar books and their counterparts in natural language use. Specifically, we aim to understand the process by which hypercorrect forms find their way into a language and how they can ultimately become accepted as standard forms,” says De Hoop.

An example of hypercorrection in Dutch is the avoidance of the correct ‘als’ in equative constructions, due to its frequent use in comparative constructions where prescriptive grammar demands the use of ‘dan’.

'als' vs. 'dan'
Incorrect but common use of als in comparatives: Marie is groter als Peter.
Correct: Marie is groter dan Peter. (Mary is taller than Peter)
Hypercorrect avoidance of als in equatives: Marie is twee keer zo slim dan Peter.
Correct: Marie is twee keer zo slim als Peter. (Mary is twice as smart as Peter.)

A relevant question is whether and how the correct use of ‘als’ in these equative constructions might become suppressed by the hypercorrect alternative ‘dan’. De Hoop, “Language is flexible and it can change continuously. It’s amazing to see how subtle linguistic changes and variations steer the interpretation of language.”