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A constructional analysis
The synchronic analysis of what with constructions considers these patterns to be conventional symbolic units, a general definition of constructions (Langacker 1987, Croft 2005). Constructions are ordered in a taxonomic network; this network may be minimally described using the following constructional levels, the macro-, meso-, and micro-construction, as well as the notion of construct (Traugott 2007, 2008a, b; see also Fried 2008). The construct is an attested instance of language use; a set of constructs forms a type, the micro-construction; groups of similarly-behaving micro-constructions form a meso-construction; and the macro-construction is the largest construction relevant to the process undergoing change. Elsewhere, constructions have been described in terms of dimensions of atomicity and schematicity (Croft and Cruse 2004: 255), fully atomic and substantive constructions being examples such as red 'red' (i.e. the form red arbitrarily linked to the meaning 'red'), traditionally associated with items in the lexicon, and fully complex and schematic constructions being examples such as the Double Object Construction (Goldberg 1995), traditionally associated with syntax. The what with construction sits somewhere between these two extremes: it is partially specified by virtue of the initial phonetic sequence [wt wi0], but the remainder of the construction is schematic (taking a range of different complement types) and phonetically underspecified. It
Figure 1. The what with NP and NP micro-construction
is a complex, not atomic, construction; crucially, it is a construction in which the range of potential complement-types has increased over time.
The particular argument proposed here is that the various what with constructions form a network of linguistic knowledge (Hudson 2007); specifically, that speakers abstract away from instances of use (constructs) to form constructions of varying degrees of generality. For instance, speakers abstract away from what with constructs such as (14a)-(14c), all taken from COCA:
(14) a. Sometimes she wondered if Anastasia were gay, what with the piercing and diet. (2005 Jill Rosenberg, The Land of Sunshine and Flowers; COCA)
b. Everyone was busy with the Rep and Dem candidates, what with the various scandals, the shooting and the attempted kidnapping.
(2008 Wayne Wightman, A Foreign Country; COCA)
c. Computers are discarded fairly easily these days, what with constant innovation and greater affordability.
(2002 Jean Thilmany, Keeping in touch [Mechanical Engineering]; COCA)
to form a micro-construction, what with and a coordinated nominal complement. These formal properties of the pattern (that is, the specific phonetic opening sequence, the morphological form of the complements, and their syntactic behaviour with regard to co-ordination) are associated with particular meanings. With this micro-construction, the referents of the NPs denote the reasons associated with the state of affairs designated by the proposition in the matrix clause to which the what with construction is attached. This is an inherent part of the semantics of this micro-construction. However, as discussed above and elsewhere in the literature (for example Kortmann 1991, Felser & Britain 2007), the extent to which the speaker evaluates the matrix proposition neutrally, negatively or positively is pragmatically variable, and thus underspecified, and established only in a specific context of use. This pragmatic feature of the construction is complemented by various discourse features, namely the construction's typical association with informal speech or writing. The levels and properties of the micro-construction may be represented diagrammatically as in Figure 1.
As we have seen, not all of the constructions involving what with have these properties; some do not have NP complements, some are absolute constructions, some involve the speaker's positive evaluation of the state of affairs denoted by the proposition in the main clause, and so on. Based on the existing studies of what with constructions discussed in this section, we can identify the following constructional types:
a. those involving purely nominal complements (cf. (8a));
b. those where the non-finite verb has a different subject from the verb in the main clause (cf. (8b));
c. those where the non-finite complement has a subject co-referential with that of the finite verb in the main clause (cf. (8c)).
Each of these represents the prototypical meso-construction, a grouping together of various micro-constructions. For instance, within group (a) there are two types of micro-construction, one with co-ordinated NP complements, and one with a single NP complement; each of these is a micro-construction. Furthermore, the nature of the constructional network allows intersection of the constructional types. This is illustrated by example (15):
(15) The fort did look like a fair, what with all the tents and folks selling knives and blankets and stone jewelry. (COCA)
This construct is the product of the intersection of meso-construction types (a) and (b).
As for the macro-construction, the relevant abstraction here would be across the meso-construstions (b) and (c), a macro-construction which encompasses all non-finite clausal complements of what with. And as for the diachronic development, the hypothesis is that there will be a trajectory from (a) to (c) above, since the development of co-referential subjects shared between clauses is an indication of increased grammaticalization (see further Killie & Swan 2009 on the development of converb clauses involving -ing participles in the history of English). Evidence of yet further grammatical change would be a development of a new constructional type (d), where the complement of what with is a finite clause. This would involve speakers abstracting yet further: The macro-construction that is the generalisation across (b) and (c) would be insufficient as the most general construction relevant to the change, because the most general construction would have to license both finite and non-finite clausal complements.
I suggest, therefore, that what with constructions are constructions, in that they constitute conventional symbolic units, formed as a result of abstractions across usage events. They are infrequent, and involve a network of form-meaning pairings. This network is the product of historical evolution: The productivity of the different synchronic patterns is a reflection of aspects of diachronic change. The hypothesis regarding the historical development is that the complexity of what with constructions observed by Felser & Britain (2007) in their synchronic corpus analysis is a product of grammatical constructionalization (see further Section 4.2 below). The micro-steps involved in change produce an array of related constructions at any synchronic moment. In order to test this hypothesis, the following section provides a presentation and discussion of the historical data from corpora of English.
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