Krielke, Marie-Pauline; Fischer, Stefan; Degaetano-Ortlieb, Stefania; Teich, Elke

System and use of wh-relativizers in 200 years of English scientific writing

10th International Corpus Linguistics Conference, Cardiff, Wales, UK, 2019.

We investigate the diachronic development of wh-relativizers in English scientific writing in the late modern period, characterized by an initially richly populated paradigm in the late 17th/early 18th century and a reduction to only a few options by the mid 19th century. To explain this reduction, we take the perspective of rational communication, according to which language users, while striving for successful communication, seek to reduce their effort. Previous work has shown that production effort is directly linked to the number of options at a given choice point (Milin et al. 2009, Linzen and Jaeger 2016). This effort is appropriately indexed by entropy: The more options with equal/similar probability, the higher the entropy, i.e. the higher the production effort. Similarly, processing effort is correlated with predictability in context – surprisal (Levy 2008). Highly predictable, conventionalized patterns are easier to produce and comprehend than less predictable ones. Assuming that language users strive for ease in communication, diachronically they are likely to (a) develop a preference for which options to use and discard others to reduce entropy, and (b) converge on how to use those options to reduce surprisal. We test this for the changing use of wh-relativizers in scientific text in the late modern period. Many scholars have investigated variation in relativizer choice in standard spoken and written varieties (e.g. Guy and Bayley 1995; Biber et al. 1999; Lehmann 2001; Hinrichs et al. 2015), in vernacular speech (e.g. Romaine 1982, Tottie and Harvie
2000; Tagliamonte 2002; Tagliamonte et al. 2005; Levey 2006), and from synchronic and diachronic perspectives (e.g. Romaine 1980; Ball 1996; Hundt et al. 2012; Nevalainen 2012, Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2002). While stylistic variability of the different options in written present day English is well known (see Biber et al. 1999; Leech et al. 2009), we know little about the diachronic development of relativizers according to register, e.g. in scientific writing. Also, most research only considers most common relativizers (e.g. which, that, zero) still in use in present day English. Here, we study a more comprehensive set of relativizers across scientific and “general language” (mix of registers) from a diachronic perspective. Possible paradigmatic change is analyzed by diachronic word embeddings (cf. Fankhauser and Kupietz 2017), allowing us to select items affected by change. Then we assess the change (reduction/expansion) of a paradigm estimating its entropy over time. To check whether changes are specific to scientific language, we compare with uses in general language. Finally, we inspect possible changes in the predictability of selected wh-relativizers involved in paradigmatic change estimating their surprisal over time, looking for traces of conventionalization (cf. Degaetano-Ortlieb and Teich 2016, 2018).