The spark or the fuel?

On the role of ambiguity in language change

Keywords: reanalysis, ambiguity, analogy


In many theories of language change, ambiguity is put forward as one of the main causes of change. It is thought to be the trigger for syntactic reanalysis, and it is also assumed to cause semantic change. This paper reconsiders the role of ambiguity in change, arguing that its role in change is more complicated. To show this, the role of ambiguity is investigated in the history of English over, as it shifted from preposition to adnumeral marker (as in we have been discussing trivial matters for over three hours). Although syntactic ambiguity between adnumeral and prepositional readings is common, ambiguous uses cannot be shown to significantly predate unambiguously new uses. At the same time, once adnumeral over began to appear in the historical record, it spread more readily to ambiguous contexts. The findings show that syntactic change does not necessarily depend on ambiguous contexts as a trigger of innovation, but the same contexts can facilitate the subsequent spread of an innovation. These conclusions fit a model of change that depends more heavily on analogy as its driving force. It is suggested that similar effects may be at play in semantic change. Finally, it is clear that the mere observation of ambiguity in the historical record is not conclusive evidence of a reanalysis-through-ambiguity type of innovation.
Special Issue: Whither Reanalysis?