Legacies of syntactic change in a conservative dialect, York, England





York English, obsolescing dialect features, syntactic change, unified approach, dialectology, language variation and change, syntactic variation and change, historical corpus linguistics, theoretically-informed dialect syntax, sociolinguistic corpora, zero definite article


Several linguistic traditions have yielded important insights into syntactic change: these include historical linguists (e.g. Meillet 1967), historical dialectologists (e.g. Fisiak 1988), theoretically-informed dialect syntax (e.g. Henry 1995), and variationists (e.g. Labov 1969). We advocate an approach that draws strategically from the principles and techniques of these practices in order to refine the method for probing syntactic change, to employ vernacular speech as syntactic data, and to understand syntactic change in terms of structure as well as social and discourse context. We demonstrate how different perspectives provide essential and complementary contributions to understanding linguistic change. We use a case study of a linguistic feature that has been undergoing syntactic change through obsolescence in the variety of English spoken in York, England: the non- standard use of a zero form with singular count nouns (e.g. They used to follow Ø river) which we refer to as a ‘zero definite article’. The path from the emergence of a syntactic feature towards its demise is typically a protracted development. Historical (corpus) linguistics can trace the first attestations of a feature and its earlier meanings, historical dialectology its geographical distribution, and theoretically-informed research on dialect syntax can circumscribe its syntactic structure. We highlight the additional benefit of a variationist sociolinguistics approach, which focusses on community-based samples of spoken vernacular language data and quantitative methods. For example, in this case study we can document the last vestiges of the zero definite article in a conservative dialect and capture grammatical changes in the process of loss by comparing older to younger generations of speakers.

Author Biographies

Sali A. Tagliamonte, University of Toronto

SALI A. TAGLIAMONTE is Canada Research Chair in Language Variation and Change and a Full Professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, a Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America, a former Killam Research Fellow (2013-2015) and Past President of the American Dialect Society (2017-2019). She is the author of six books, including: “Making Waves”, Variationist Sociolinguistics” (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, 2015) and “Analysing Sociolinguistic Variation”, “Roots of English” and “Teen Talk” (CUP 2006, 2013, 2016). She has published on African American varieties, British, Irish and Canadian dialects, teen language and television across the major journals of the field. Her research has been funded by agencies in Canada, the US and UK. Her most recent research program is the Ontario Dialects Project, which focuses on cross-community and apparent time comparisons in corpora of spoken vernacular dialects to explore linguistic change.

Laura Rupp, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Laura Rupp is Associate Professor of English Linguistics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Her research focuses on historical and contemporary functions of grammatical dialect features. She has developed a special interest in the different ways in which grammatical dialect features may obsolesce or be retained over time. She is the author of three books, including "Linguistic perspectives on a variable English morpheme: let's talk about -s", which she co-authored with Professor David Britain. She was a FRIAS Senior Fellow and Marie Curie Fellow of the European Union. Her research has been funded by agencies in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands.