Constraints on Old English Genitive Variation

  • Andrea Ceolin University of Pennsylvania


Syntactic variation has been described as the result of competition between different grammars (Kroch 1989, 2001), which produces S-curves over time when the relative frequency of one variety is plotted on a two-dimensional graph. In a few instances, scholars have pointed to syntactic alternations which are not associated with different grammars, but can still exhibit S-shaped curves over time (Tagliamonte and D'Arcy 2009). In particular, recent works have focused on English genitive alternation as a case of syntactic variable which must be analyzed with reference to semantic (Stefanowitsch 2003), information (Biber 2003), weight (Rosenbach 2005), animacy (Rosenbach 2008), register (Jankowski 2013, Szmrecsanyi 2013) and phonetic (Jankowski and Tagliamonte 2014) factors. We might ask whether looking at historical corpora, we can always distinguish between syntactic alternations which are a symptom of grammar in competition, and alternations for which extra-grammatical explanations are required instead. Interestingly, the alternation between prenominal and postnominal genitives can be traced back to Old English. In particular, while early Old English manuscripts exhibit both prenominal and postnominal genitives, it has been noted that postnominal genitives were reducing in frequency in favor of prenominal ones in late manuscripts. In the light of the new work on Present-day English genitive variation, we might ask whether this change in frequency was the result of a grammar in competition scenario, or if this change requires an extra-grammatical explanation.