The diffusion of linguistic changes in real time: leaders, laggards, and the in-betweens

Terttu Nevalainen, Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, Heikki Mannila

University of Helsinki, Finland


The diffusion of linguistic changes in real time: leaders, laggards, and the in-betweens

The aim of this paper is to trace general diffusion patterns for linguistic changes by examining the behaviour of three groups of speakers: leaders, laggards, and the in-betweens or ‘average’ speakers, for over two centuries. The six processes we have analysed involve morphological and syntactic changes that were in progress in English between c. 1450 and 1700.

In recent years, the discussion of the diffusion of linguistic changes has largely focused on the most progressive speakers, e.g. in Labov (2001), the “movers and shakers” in the community. We would like to extend the analysis to conservative individuals and those who cannot be characterized as either progressive or conservative. Our paper provides the overall patterns and distributions of the different types of language user during the various phases of a change in progress on the macro level, and gives a background analysis of the people involved on the micro level.

The material for this study stems from the 2.7-million-word Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC; c. 1410-1680), created at the University of Helsinki for research in historical sociolinguistics (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 2003; Raumolin-Brunberg & Nevalainen 2007). The changes studied include (1) loss of the nasal in first- and second-person possessives (mine enemy -> my enemy), (2) the replacement of the second person subject pronoun by the object form (ye -> you), (3) change in the third-person singular indicative suffix (she goeth -> she goes), (4) loss of the preposition of in the object of the gerund (writing of the letter -> writing the letter), (5) change in the form of the relative pronoun which (the which -> which), (6) loss of multiple negation (we cannot see nothing -> we cannot see anything).

The computational methods developed for this study include Bayesian and bootstrap techniques. For methodological comparisons, see Hinneburg et al. (2007).


Hinneburg Alexander, Heikki Mannila, Samuli Kaislaniemi, Terttu Nevalainen & Helena Raumolin-Brunberg 2007. How to handle small samples: bootstrap and Bayesian methods in the analysis of linguistic change. Literary and Linguistic Computing 22: 137-150.

Labov, William 2001. Principles of Linguistic Change. Social Factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Nevalainen, Terttu & Helena Raumolin-Brunberg 2003. Historical Sociolinguistics. Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Longman.

Raumolin-Brunberg Helena & Terttu Nevalainen 2007. Historical sociolinguistics: The Corpus of Early English Correspondence. In J.C. Beal, K. Corrigan & H. Moisl (eds.) Creating and Digitizing Language Corpora: Diachronic Databases. Volume 2. Palgrave. 148-171.

Session: Paper session
Sign Langages Archives / History
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 09