An analytic-synthetic spiral in the history of English

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Drawing on techniques familiar from quantitative morphological typology (Greenberg 1960), this contribution marshals usage- and frequency-based, aggregative measures of grammatical analyticity and syntheticity to profile the history of grammatical marking in English between circa AD 1100 and AD 1900, tapping into the Penn Parsed Corpora of Historical English series. Results indicate that the post-Old English period is clearly not characterized by a linear drift towards more analyticity and less syntheticity. Instead, analyticity was on the rise until the end of the Early Modern English period, but declined subsequently; the reverse is true for syntheticity. In terms of typological analyticity-syntheticity coordinates, 20th century English texts are actually fairly similar to 12th and 13th century English texts. I suggest that this historical pattern can be interpreted in terms of a Gabelentz-type spiral.


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