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Change, Choice and Functional Ecology: The case of the historical present

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In 1791, Alexander Tytler dismissed the historical present (the use of the present tense to report past events) as ‘contrary to the genius of the English language’ and therefore not to be used in translating the form when it appears in French or Latin narratives. A contributor to a modern translation website seems to agree with him: “I am currently translating a French text on psychotherapy whose author uses the historic present when describing her interation with a patient in a clinical session: ‘Il me dit…’ ‘Je vois comment…’ ‘Il me regarde…’ and so on. Can I use the present in English here? The events of course are all in the past, the session happened some time ago. French often uses the present tense in this way, but I’m not sure about using it in English. It sounds a bit ‘breathless’. What do other people think?”

Despite these doubts, the historical present was common in Middle English literary narrative and is well-attested in conversational narrative in contemporary spoken English as well as in contemporary novels. On the other hand, its presence in Old English is disputed, it occurs only rarely in novels written before the mid-19th century (Dickens and Bronte), and its frequency in recent writers (such as Hilary Mantel) has been deplored by Philip Pullman and others as a temporary fashion or a form of ‘cultural affectation’.

The descriptive section of this paper will try to make sense of a tranche of the history of the historical present by charting its synchronic/diachronic variation with other verb forms that seem adapted to the function of making the non-present present, notably ‘gan’ in Middle English and the ‘was-now paradox’ in Early and Late Modern English (i.e. the simple past tense in combination with present time adverbials).

On the theoretical level, I hope the data presented will bring together and illuminate a number of unresolved controversies: a) whether the function of the historical present is primarily to mark aspectual distinctions or to demarcate narrative event-units; b) whether the linguistic strategies of of oral and literary narration are ‘contradictory and mutually exclusive’ (such that the historical present should not be considered a unified phenomenon); or whether (as Fleischman argued) there is an ‘oral residue’ that ‘persists in written texts and takes on new functions as textuality evolves from more oral to more literate’; c) whether linguistic elements undergoing functional-pragmatic change follow a pathway leading from non-pragmatic to pragmatic (Traugott’s view) or in the reverse direction (Hopper’s view).

As my title indicates, I will be particularly interested in the light this case-study sheds on the relation between language change and stylistic choice and on the question of whether the outcome of their interaction is to maintain or disrupt a language’s functional ecology.

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

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