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Grammatical constructionalization: A cognitive approach to language change

In this section, I summarise some of the changes that emerge from the data presented in the preceding section (4.1). An account of those changes is given in 4.2 from the perspective of grammatical constructionalization.

Summary of the principal changes

Two major types of change are evident in the development of what with constructions. One involves narrowing or reduction, the other broadening or expansion.

The narrowing involves the set of prepositions which co-occur with what. In the earlier history of English, a more general what + P pattern was available to speakers; over time this has narrowed. Some of the patterns have simply fallen out of use (for example, what by and what from); others have developed a variant without what (for example, between his job and his family, it's no surprise they moved). This process suggests a greater entrenchment of a particular subvariant of the more general historical pattern what + P, where entrenchment is to be understood as the product of frequency of successful use (Langacker 1987: 59) resulting in a unit status as what with is used with greater and greater frequency in comparison to related patterns such as what between and what by as ways in English of introducing reason clauses, the status of what with as a grammatical unit increases. In traditional grammaticalization terms, this may be considered as a kind of univerbation, the obligatorification of a particular form selected from a set of related structures. This aspect of the change fits well with Haspelmath's definition of grammaticalization as "a diachronic change by which parts of a constructional schema come to have stronger internal dependencies" (Haspelmath 2004: 26) the bonds between what and other prepositions in this construction are weakened, while the bond between what and with is strengthened. This narrowing is part of a more general change affecting the range of items which could augment absolute constructions (Visser 1972: 1158, 1271-7; Kortmann 1991: 199). As Kortmann (1991: 199) notes, augmentation of absolutes in contemporary English is restricted to with and without, the use of what with and and being even more marginal.

This notion of grammaticalization as obligatorification, and as reduction is common in the traditional grammaticalization literature. But as Traugott (2010) observes, grammaticalization has also been shown to involve expansion and growth, particularly with reference to the development of discourse markers and clause connectives. We see this clearly in the development of the complements of what with in this construction. In the early history of the construction, the most frequent type of complement was a coordinated nominal (that is, what with NP and NP); over time, two constraints have been loosened one constraint is that the form of the complements be NPs, the other is that the complements be coordinated. The change may be represented schematically as (29):

(29) what+with + NP + NP >what+with + XP (+ XP)

where XP is either a nominal or clausal complement (or, in the framework adopted by Felser & Britain (2007), where X stands for either D or T). This diachronic development of what with is consistent with Himmelmann's expansion model (Himmelmann 2004) involving host-class expansion, syntactic expansion, semantic-pragmatic expansion. Host-class expansion involves changes in collocation

Syntactic developments associated with the what with construction

Figure 4. Syntactic developments associated with the what with construction

restrictions, exemplified here by the shift from nominal complements to clausal complements. Syntactic expansion often involves positional change, but here might be extended to include the possibility of a non-coordinated complement. Semantic-pragmatic extension may involve processes such as subjectification. In the case of what with, there appears to be an on-going change whereby the what with construction may attach to matrix clauses whose proposition does not denote a negative state. As noted by Kortmann (1991: 202), noted above in Section 2, what with constructions do appear to be marked as subjective the negative (or other) evaluation of the implications of the proposition in the matrix clause are associated with the speaker's perspective or world view. The syntactic changes are summarized in Figure 4.

 
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