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Misreading and language change: a foray into cognitive historical linguistics?

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One of the consequences of the sociolinguistic turn in historical linguistics has been a revisiting and revaluation of the status of prescriptive grammar. The Milroys’ argument that ‘when we view language as fundamentally a social phenomenon, we cannot then ignore prescription and its consequences’ (Milroy & Milroy, 1985:11) has been developed and amplified since 2000 by studies that actively challenge traditional binarisms of ‘descriptive vs prescriptive’ rules of grammar and ‘natural vs unnatural’ kinds of language-change. More ambitiously, Curzan has proposed the goal of ‘integrating’ prescriptivism ‘into the study of ‘language change’ in the history of English’ (Curzan 2014:9) Methodologically, much of this revisionist work has concentrated on examining the relation between precept and practice to find out whether prescriptivism does actually impact on usage (as usage is reflected in individual or socially representative corpora). But there is ample evidence to suggest that speakers’ usage is by no means an accurate guide to their internalised grammar. How then do we create a window into cognition? Where can we look for empirical evidence that a change of usage reflects an internalised change of grammar? This paper explores the possible usefulness of data drawn from acts of misreading. I will distinguish between two types of misreading recognised as analytic tools in other disciplines, the first as a tool of Freudian psychoanalysis (and literary theory), the second as a tool of textual criticism/reconstruction. It is the second that seems to me of potential interest to historical linguists. In textual criticism, the term banalisation refers to the hypothesis that any copyist (whether scribe, printer or quoter) when faced with the linguistically deviant/unexpected will simplify the text, usually by defaulting to some more conventional norm of expression. So given the choice between two variant readings, the textual critic is advised to prefer the one that is prima facie more problematic (lectio difficilior potior). If we transfer the notion of banalisation to historical linguistics, it amounts to a hypothesis along the following lines: at any given historical moment, speakers are overwhelmingly habituated to the form of the language which they themselves have internalised, so that when encountering texts from earlier and different varieties of the language, they are liable to default to construals compatible with their own. If this is the case, then the value of misreadings is that they can give us insight into the grammatical presuppositions and expectations of historical readers, including the degree to which they have internalised new rules of grammar (whether ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’ in origin). The case-study I have selected to illustrate this approach – the regulation of relative and personal pronouns in the 18th century – has its own independent interest as a chapter in the history of what Poussa christened the Great Gender Shift in English (often summarised as the evolution ‘from grammatical to natural gender’). The formal stages of this development are well-known but our understanding of 18th century developments has been bogged down by the prescriptivist vs descriptivist controversy. If the evidence of banalisation can help us to bypass this controversy, it might open the way for more interesting questions about the nature of ‘the pronoun’ as a part of speech and about the way certain pronouns changed their meaning/function between Early Modern and Late Modern periods.

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

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