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When and where does language change? Syntax, phonology, acquisition and diachrony

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Where does language change? I’m not going to be talking about geography… Rather, I focus on the question of what the locus (or loci) of linguistic change is (or are) in the chain of language transmission from generation to generation in a speech community. It is common in theoretical work on diachrony to place the exclusive explanatory focus on first language acquisition, so that change always involves a crucial discontinuity between the linguistic states of the pre-change older generation and the post-change younger generation. (Such ideas are clear in the work of David Lightfoot and Mark Hale, for historical syntax and phonology, respectively, for example.) In this talk, I challenge this assumption, which I dub ‘acquisitionism’. I argue that, at least for phonology, there is good reason to believe that the adult so-called ‘steady-state’ grammar can change (this is sometimes called ‘lifespan change’). On the acquisitionist assumption, the language-specific linguistic structure of a pre-change state cannot place a direct constraint on change, yet there are cases of change where this clearly seems to occur. I further argue, finally, that this may be another area where syntax and phonology are different.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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