Cycles and continua: On unidirectionality and gradualness in language change

Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero and Graeme Trousdale

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of English

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199922765
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Cycles and continua: On unidirectionality and gradualness in language change

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  • Linguistics
  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics


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The history of English exhibits numerous instances of changes that proceed along crosslinguistically recurrent pathways, notably the life cycle of phonological processes and grammaticalization clines. These pathways of change bear striking resemblances to each other: both are predominantly unidirectional, and both produce ‘layering’ effects in which old and new patterns come to coexist in the synchronic grammar. We provide English examples of key stages in the life cycle of phonological processes, including the rise of new gradient processes of phonetic implementation, their stabilization as categorical phonological rules, and the narrowing of their morphosyntactic domains. Understanding this life cycle enables us to rethink classic problems, such as the history of word-final prevocalic consonants. We also examine the grammaticalization cycles in the development of grammatical words, clitics and affixes in English, and the micro-steps involved in the creation of new grammatical constructions. As with the discussion of phonological change, we explore continua (within and between morphosyntactic categories), and directionality, and show how such rethinking is relevant for our understanding of classic problems in the history of English morphosyntax, such as the development of markers of negation, and the s-genitive. The parallels between phonological and morphosyntactic change which we address suggest new ways of thinking about the nature of grammatical change.

Keywords: continua; domain narrowing; gradience; gradualness; grammar change; grammaticalization; life cycle of phonological processes; phonologization; stabilization; unidirectionality; linguistics; English

Article.  11402 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Historical and Diachronic Linguistics

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