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Micro-cues of language evolution: A Multifactorial model of V2 loss in Central Romance – MICLE

Submission summary

Why do languages change? How does a fully functional language like Latin evolve to become e.g. French or Italian? And how does the evolution of central characteristics such as word order illuminate the cognitive mechanisms that make language change possible? These fundamental questions are answered through the novel reconstructive method and multifactorial model proposed by this project. Going beyond the current routine research into language change that aggregates different text types from diverse regions to return irregular and elongated curves of change, our new Calibrated Method (CaM) controls for variation by selecting specific text types from given regions to identify stable testimonies of evolution. By excluding non-structural factors of variation, more regular curves of evolution are documented, and causal models can be formulated and tested. CaM is piloted through the systematic investigation of the loss of verb second (V2) word order that characterizes early French and Italian. One specific text type is investigated from the Normandy and Venetian regions for French and Italian from the earliest available texts to the 1550s. The examination in the extended bilingual annotated corpus, to be made publicly available, supports a novel multifactorial model (MuM) of language change. The idea is that multiple cues provided by related configurations make abstract grammatical characteristics like word order learnable (Lightfoot 2009): it follows that changes in these configurations impact the currency and distribution of the relevant word order. The cues that we select on the basis of the literature and of ongoing work are asseveration particle si and Object-Verb word order. Changes in behavior of these cues are predicted to prefigure the loss of V2 word as measured by quantitative and qualitative evolution of each phenomenon. Verification of the predictions of the model is achieved by identification of occurrences, annotation of their morphosyntactic properties and use of correlational statistical methods applied to rates of use across the period. The results of the MuM and CaM provide i. the comparative behavior and chronology of a major grammatical change in two closely related languages, ii. the identity, trajectory and degree of influence of the cues that promote these changes, iii. an assessment of the validity of a general causal model of word order change. The high risks in assembling an annotated corpus of texts from specific types and regions for two languages over three centuries, and identifying and weighting some of the cues involved, bring about the high gains of optimizing research methods and significantly furthering the understanding of language evolution. Building synergy from the complementary expertise of both sites to develop a finer-grained conceptual framework, this project gets us one step closer to understanding how grammatical change is possible.

Project coordinator


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

Help of the ANR 376,380 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: May 2021 - 36 Months

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