Studying real-time change in the adverbial subjunctive

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The dearth of real-time studies of the histories of transatlantic English varieties can be attributed to the lack of readily accessible, electronic corpora. However, for Canadian English (CanE) we now have the Bank of Canadian English (BCE), which consists of c. 2.5 million words from written and spoken sources extending from 1505 to the present. As a lexicographic database, the BCE does not constitute a balanced corpus, but from the onset it was designed to serve as a tool for corpus linguistic study. This paper seeks to determine the utility of the BCE for such study with a test case: the use of the subjunctive in adverbial (if) clauses. After first establishing that CanE patterns with American English (AmE) in having higher rates of subjunctive use in the present-day, the paper analyzes historical data extracted from the BCE to show that CanE, like British English (BrE) shows an increase in subjunctive forms in the first half of the eighteenth century (perhaps the continued effects of prescriptivism) followed by a significant decline beginning in the second half of the century. The generally higher use of the subjunctive in both AmE and CanE may in fact be evidence of “colonial revival” rather than “colonial lag”. There is tentative evidence in the BCE of a twentieth-century revival of the subjunctive, which has also been postulated for AmE (Leech et al. 2009). The developmental patterns in the BCE thus parallel those found in much larger corpora and give us quite accurate information about the history of this particular post-colonial variety.


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