Filling empty distinctions of expression with content
This article opens with a brief discussion of the fundamental issues of usage, structure, grammaticalization and reanalysis and then introduces the key concept of an empty distinction, which is defined as a conventionalized distinction of expression that has lost its former motivation (semantic or non-semantic, in particular phonological) as the result of a change. Three change scenarios involving a stage with an empty distinction are considered. The first case study is concerned with the reinterpretation of Old High German umlauted vs. non-umlauted vowel as a marker of number, thus exemplifying an empty distinction originating in a change of the sound system. The second case study considers the complicated development of the inflectional morphemes for the nominative plural of Polish masculine nouns, and it is shown that this change scenario involves a stage with an empty distinction originating in a degrammation. Finally, the third case study discusses the alternation between the accusative and the genitive in the A2 (argument 2) slot in the history of Russian and suggests an analysis involving an empty distinction resulting from domain narrowing of another distinction. In the conclusion the results of the analyses are interpreted in terms of a speakers’ strategy.