Pragmatics in Language Change

The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters and the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics host a symposium.

The symposium focuses on the role of pragmatics in language change, a role that is often underrated. By pragmatics we mean, on the one hand, cognitive factors influencing discourse processing, including inferential processes, and on the other, sociopragmatic factors such as interpersonal relations. The symposium aims at providing a clearer understanding of the context types favouring language change and the correlation between specific pragmatic factors and specific types of language change.


Thursday, April 7

Venue 1

The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, H.C. Andersens Boulevard 35


Welcome and introduction


Eva Skafte Jensen

Attention-seeking word formation in Danish


Nele Poldvere

On the importance of dialogue and dialogicity in language change




Richard Waltereit

Imperatives turning into discourse markers




Transfer to the university – taxis or your bike if you have one


Venue 2

The Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen, Karen Blixens Plads 8, room 12-2-62

Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen

From interjections via tags to particles of epistemic modality: evidence from Japanese Sign Language – and Danish Sign Language




Salvador Pons Bordería

Tío > macho: cyclicity, a fancy writer, a rough hood and the troubled days of the Spanish transición


Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen

Of hearers, contexts and frequencies: reanalysis revisited




Friday, April 8

Venue 1

The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, H.C. Andersens Boulevard 35

Malte Rosemeyer

Modeling change in interaction on the basis of quantitative historical data




Lobke Ghesquière

A good deal of change: on the development of degree and quantity modification`


Peter Juul Nielsen

Indexing roles in the context: speech act dimensions in the development of the Danish free indirect object




Eitan Grossman

On the diachronic lateness of symmetric negation




Kasper Boye

Grammaticalization as conventionalization of discursively secondary status



Panel discussion






Kasper Boye (University of Copenhagen) Grammaticalization as conventionalization of discursively secondary status
Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen (University of Copenhagen) From interjections via tags to particles of epistemic modality: evidence from Japanese Sign Language and Danish Sign Language
Eitan Grossman (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) On the diachronic lateness of symmetric negation
Lobke Ghesquiere (KU Leuven) A good deal of change: on the development of degree and quantity modification
Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen (The University of Manchester) Of hearers and contexts: reanalysis revisited
Eva Skafte Jensen (Dansk Sprognævn, Bogense) Attention seeking word formation in Danish
Peter Juul Nielsen (University of Southern Denmark) Indexing roles in the context: speech act dimensions in the development of the Danish free indirect object
Nele Pöldvere (Lund University) On the importance of dialogue and dialogicity in language change
Salvador Pons Bordería (Universitat de València) Tío > macho: cyclicity, a fancy writer, a rough hood, and the troubled days of the Spanish transición
Malte Rosemeyer (Freie Universität, Berlin) Modeling change in interaction on the basis of quantitative historical data
Richard Waltereit (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin) Imperatives turning into discourse markers



Kasper Boye

Grammaticalization as conventionalization of discursively secondary status

Everybody knows approximately what grammaticalization is: the diachronic development of grammatical elements. But nobody knows exactly what it is. One problem is that a precise understanding of what grammaticalization is presupposes a precise understanding of what a grammatical element is. A second problem is that even with a precise understanding of what a grammatical element is, it is not clear that grammaticalization is a distinct kind of phenomenon. Campbell (2001) offers the following characterization of this problem:

It is not necessary for the kinds of changes most commonly encountered in grammaticalization to be present in order for a change to qualify as an instance of grammaticalization, and these kinds of changes are encountered commonly also in instances of changes which have nothing to do with grammaticalization. (Campbell 2001: 151; cf. e.g. Hopper 1991: 21; Newmeyer 1998: 237-260; Newmeyer 2001; Joseph 2001)

In Boye & Harder (2012), we offered a solution to the first problem, arguing for an understanding of grammatical elements as defined by conventionalized discursively secondary status (roughly, attentional background status). But we circumvented the second problem. Rather than attempting to define grammaticalization as a diachronic phenomenon, we defined it in terms of its result: as “the diachronic change that gives rise to linguistic expressions that are by convention ancillary and as such discursively secondary” (Boye & Harder 2012: 22).

In this presentation, I propose a definition of grammaticalization, which is still based on the understanding of grammatical elements in Boye & Harder (2012), but which targets the nature of grammaticalization as a diachronic phenomenon: Grammaticalization is a distinct kind of conventionalization, namely the conventionalization of discursively secondary status.

I argue that in addition to avoiding problems intrinsic to result-based definitions, this definition allows us to be precise about 1) the distinction between grammaticalization and grammatical change, 2) whether grammaticalization basically consists in loss or gain or both, 3) in which respects grammaticalization is a continous change, and in which respects it represents a discrete transition, and 4) the role of pragmatics in grammaticalization.


Boye, Kasper & Peter Harder. 2012. A usage-based theory of grammatical status and grammaticalization. Language 88.1. 1–44.

Campbell, Lyle. 2001. What’s wrong with grammaticalization? Language Sciences 23.2–3 (Special issue, Grammaticalization: A critical assessment, ed. L. Campbell). 113–161.

Hopper, Paul J. 1991. On some principles of grammaticization. In: Elizabeth C. Traugott & Bernd Heine (eds.), Approaches to Grammaticalization, Vol. 1. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 17–35.

Joseph, Brian D. 2001. Is there such a thing as ‘grammaticalization’? Language Sciences 23.2–3 (Special issue, Grammaticalization: A critical assessment, ed. L. Campbell): 163–86.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1998. Language Form and Language Function. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2001. Deconstructing grammaticalization, Language Sciences 23.2–3 (Special issue, Grammaticalization: A critical assessment, ed. L. Campbell) 187–230.

Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen

From interjections via tags to particles of epistemic modality: Evidence from Japanese Sign Language - and Danish Sign Language

Native deaf signers express epistemic modality by different means in different signed languages: mental-state words, clause-internal particles, signs with conditional meaning, and more or less conventional facial expressions of doubt. The data for this study come from two unrelated sign languages, Japanese Sign Language (JSL) and Danish Sign Language (DTS).

Based on the multifunctionality of some word forms in JSL (i.e. internal reconstruction), the origin of some epistemic modal particles can be traced to lexical signs (same, different, mean) via interjections (yes, no, that-makes-sense) and tags. I see this as a grammaticalization process motivated by interaction and found in unrelated spoken languages (e.g. Germanic languages and Mohawk, cf. Mithun 2012). It goes hand in hand with a reduction in expressive material (from two-handed to one-handed signs). In terms of (inter-)subjectivity the signs go from a nonsubjective to a more intersubjective function with “SP/W’s [speaker/writer’s] attention to AD/R [addressee/reader] as a participant in the speech event, not in the described situation” (Traugott 2003: 128), and ends with an intraclausal more subjective function where meanings are “based in the SP/W’s subjective belief state or attitude toward what is being said and how it is being said” (Traugott 2003: 125). That is, the particles appear to have changed from intersubjective to subjective meaning, contrary to Traugott’s diachronic route nonsubjective > subjective > intersubjective.

Signers of DTS use a gesture known in most western cultures, the Open Hand Supine (Kendon 2004) or Palm Up (Müller). The gesture is multifunctional in Danish Sign Language, used in interjection-like and tag-like functions and in expressions of epistemic modality, but does not have a lexical meaning. In contrast to the JSL particles of epistemic modality, Palm Up has not grammaticalized as a marker of epistemic modality. In my talk I shall discuss reasons for the difference between the two languages.


Kendon, A. 2004. Chapter 13 “Two gesture families of the open hand”. In A. Kendon. Gesture: Visible action as utterance, 248-283. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mithun, M. 2012. Tags: Cross-linguistic diversity and commonality. Journal of Pragmatics, 44, 2165-2182.

Müller, C. 2004. Forms and uses of the palm up open hand: A case of a gesture family? In C. Müller & R. Posner. Eds. The semantics and pragmatics of everyday gesture: Proceedings of the Berlin conference, April 1998, 233-256. Berlin, Germany: Weidler Buchverlag.

Traugott, E. C. 2003. From subjectification to intersubjectification. In R. Hickey. Ed. Motives for language change, 124-139. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lobke Ghesquière

A good deal of change: On the development of degree and quantity modification

Intensification phenomena have received great attention in the literature, both from more formal and more functional-cognitive approaches. Despite the wide variety of intensifying constructions, ranging from adverbs and adjectives (absolutely wonderful, utter fool) over lexical and semantic repetition (very very many, tiny little steps) to morphemes (hypersensitive), the most researched area by far is that of intensification expressed by adverbs. Intensification is then roughly equated with the modification of the degree of a quality expressed by an adjective. The focus in much of this work has been the classification of these adverbial intensifiers into different semantico-pragmatic categories according to their upscaling, downscaling or approximating function (a.o. Stoffel 1901; Bolinger 1972; Quirk et al. 1985; Paradis 1997).

The scope of this study will be somewhat wider as the focus will lie on intensification uses of adjectives rather than of adverbs and it will cover both degree modification and quantity modification. Intensifying adjectives have received quite some attention in the past few decades (Paradis 2000, 2001; Ghesquière 2010, 2014; Davidse & Ghesquière 2011; Castrovieja & Gehrke 2019), but predominantly as degree modifiers, as in (1) and (2). This study will also explore the use of adjectives as quantity modifiers, as in (3) and (4), where the adjectives modify a quantity expressed by a quantifier.

  • With this deluxe version of the best-selling Sonique system, whole patches of unwanted hair can be removed instantly all the way to the root. (WB sunnow)
  • The three of them enjoyed some bar food and washed it down with a good amount of stout. (WB sunnow)
  • There are a whole lot of wannabes. (WB sunnow)
  • Well, you and I have known each other for a good many years, haven't we? (WB brbooks)

The basis for this paper are a number of diachronic corpus studies that have been carried out in recent years on whole, very and good (Ghesquière 2010, 2021; Breban & Davidse 2016; Ghesquière et al. 2016) as well as on a preliminary study of great, based on data retrieved from the OED quotations database. These data studies on the prenominal uses of these adjectives suggest that there is a recurring pathway of change leading from descriptive modification (a good/great husband) over degree modification (a good blow/a great majority) to quantity modification (a good/great many people). On the basis of observations regarding changes in the adjectives’ syntactic features, semantico-pragmatic behaviour and collocational patterning, their semantic and structural diversifications and developments will be described and interpreted in the light of grammaticalization and subjectification theories.


OED = Oxford English dictionary

WB = Collins WordbanksOnline


Bolinger, D. 1972. Degree words. The Hague: Mouton.

Breban, T. & K. Davidse. 2016. The history of very: The directionality of functional shift and (inter)subjectification. English Language and Linguistics 20(2). 221-249.

Castroviejo, E. & B. Gehrke. 2017. “Good” as an evaluative intensifier. Paper presented at GLOW—Workshop Compositionality at the Interfaces, 14 March, Leiden.

Ghesquiere, L. 2010. On the subjectification and intersubjectification paths followed by the

adjectives of completeness. In K. Davidse, L. Vandelanotte & H. Cuyckens (eds.), Subjectification, intersubjectification, and grammaticalization, 277-314. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Ghesquiere, L. 2014. The directionality of (inter)subjectification in the English noun phrase: Pathways of change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Ghesquière, L. 2021. A good deal of intensity: On the development of degree and quantity modifier good. Journal of English Linguistics 49(2). 159-181.

Ghesquiere, L. & K. Davidse. 2011. The development of intensification scales in noun-intensifying uses of adjectives: Sources, paths and mechanisms of change. English Language and Linguistics 15(2). 251-277.

Ghesquiere, L., K. Davidse, N. M. Njende & T. Breban. 2016. Degree and quantity modification: The diachronic development of very and whole. Paper presented at ISLE 4, 18-21 September, Poznań.

González-Díaz, V. 2021. Intensificatory tautology in the history of English: A corpus-based study. Journal of English Linguistics 49(2). 182-207.

Paradis, Carita . 1997. Degree modifiers of adjectives in spoken British English. Lund: Lund University Press.

Paradis, C. 2000. Reinforcing adjectives: A cognitive semantic perspective on grammaticalization. In R. Bermudez-Otero, D. Denison & R. M. Hogg (eds.), Generative theory and corpus studies: A dialogue from 10 ICEHL, 233-258. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Paradis, C. 2001. Adjectives and boundedness. Cognitive Linguistics 12(1). 47-65.

Quirk, R., S. Greenbaum, G. Leech & J. Svartvik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.

Stoffel, C. 1901. Intensives and down-toners: A study in English adverbs. Heidelberg: Winter.

Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen

Of hearers, contexts, and frequencies: reanalysis revisited

The concept of reanalysis has been subject to a variety of criticisms in the past couple of decades, some going so far as to suggest that the concept is not useful to historical linguistics. This paper defends a view of reanalysis as a key empirical phenomenon in language change, including not only (morpho-)syntactic change, but also meaning change. I conceive of reanalysis as a mechanism of change that is fundamentally driven by hearers and by pragmatics, and I argue that an interactionist point of view offers independent justification for this assumption.

I will start by proposing a Constructionalist definition of reanalysis, which will be illustrated with examples of changes at the levels of both word meaning and grammar.

I will discuss in some depth the roles played by context and by frequency in reanalysis.

Time permitting, I will briefly seek to place the phenomenon of reanalysis within an overall typology of forms of language change, partly with a focus on forms of change that do not constitute reanalysis, and what makes them different from the latter, and partly with a focus on the relationship between reanalysis and grammaticalization.

Eva Skafte Jensen

Attention seeking word formation in Danish

Some linguistic innovations are made to be noticed. This talk concerns what tentatively could be called “attention seeking word formation” in Danish.

In Danish, the two primary ways of forming new words are compounding and derivation, and every day, Danish language users make new words to cover some need. A compound noun like ingefærentusiasme ‘enthusiasm for ginger’ is relatively uncomplicated and carries a transparent and rather simple meaning. A derived adjective like chokolademæssig ‘chocolate-wise’ is also semantically transparent. Even if these two words are only used once, they fully succeed in serving a primarily denotational purpose in some situation. Danish-speaking people can constantly make new words by compounding and derivation and these new words may not attract special attention.

However, some new words are designed to prompt attention. In my talk, I will explore two different types of neologisms where this is the case.

In one type, an intensifying word is added to an adjective as a compounding element, e.g. branddrukken ‘very (lit.: fire) drunk’, knippelgod ‘very (lit.: billy club) good’, megaflot ‘very (mega) nice-looking’. In adding the first component, the language user draws extra attention to the value of the adjective in much the same manner as is known from intensifying adverbials; just like in the case of intensifying adverbials, after a while, the attention generating quality by the intensifying element loses ground due to overexposing, resulting in a constant need for new recruits, a process referred to as renewal. This pattern is highly productive.

The second type of neologism concerns another productive pattern, namely the type where one of the word formation components carries an extended and specialized meaning. An example is compound nouns with the component -gate, where -gate as a compounding element means ‘scandal’ (e.g. hestegate‘horse-gate’, a scandal where a journalist had a horse moved across the Atlantic at the taxpayers’ expense). Other examples are skabs- ‘closeted, hidden, secret’ (e.g. skabskatolik ‘secretly wanting to be catholic’, skabsoptimist ‘secretly optimist’), and -istisk ‘as concerns some overt or covert ideology’ (e.g.aktivistisk ‘activistic’, veganistisk ‘veganistic’). This second type of neologism is also designed to create attention. Many things can be characterized as aktive‘active’ without being particularly noteworthy. In adding the extra syllables (e.g., aktivistisk ‘activistic’), the speaker makes a point of the meaning of the adjective carrying some special meaning, thus prompting an implicature that could be phrased ‘not the stereotypical meaning of the adjective aktiv ‘active’’. Just like in the first type, there appears to be a steady need for new recruits (compounding and derivational components). In my talk, I will show examples of this and discuss differences and similarities.

These two types of neologisms share the property that pre-paved ways are there to follow. In the first type, a specific slot is available for filling in and new fillers are found among a wide variety of candidates not in themselves carrying any attention seeking meaning. The intensifying function comes from the placement in the slot. In the second type, however, it is exactly the word formatting components in question (be it compounding or derivational) that are associated with special meaning and thus result in the whole word being subjected to special attention.

In my talk, I will analyze how and to what extent GCI’s and PCI’s play a role in these word-formatting processes.

Peter Juul Nielsen

Indexing roles in the context: speech act dimensions in the development of the Danish free indirect object

 The talk examines how features of the speech act context have been integrated into the rules governing the use of free, i.e., non-valency-governed, indirect objects (IOs) in Danish in the development of the free IO from the 18th century to the present day. A key point is that, after the diachronic change, the valency-governed IO and the free IO share the property of having indexical meaning, the change establishing a parallel between indexing of language-internal lexico-syntactic properties and indexing of language-external pragmatic properties.

In a process similar to the development in other Germanic languages (Barðdal 2007; Colleman 2011), the Danish IO has undergone a semantic and syntactic narrowing. Having lost the earlier broad Beneficiary meaning, by the mid-19th c. the IO has Recipient meaning, and in addition to its occurrence as a valency-governed argument, it can be relatively freely added as a non-valency-governed extension to clauses designating obtainment or production with a monotransitive verb such as købe ‘buy’ (Heltoft 2014). Such free IOs designate an Intended Recipient (2).

(1)                 Naar              Moder-en      hav-de           køb-t              ham               en                  ny                      Kasket           …

                      when             mother-def    have-pst        buy-prf.ptcp  him                a                    new                      cap

            ‘when the mother had bought him a new cap …’ (authentic example from Heltoft 2014)

By the late 20th c., the free IO option is much more restricted, and examples like (1) are rare and considered old-fashioned. However, the free IO option is not entirely lost. Based on a study of free IO occurrences in the 10-million-word LANCHART corpus of late 20th c. and early 21st c. spoken Danish (Gregersen 2009), Nielsen & Heltoft (forthc.) show that while the free IO is rare, the attested occurrences are of a type that fits a description of the preconditions for free IOs in terms of speech act properties. Present day free IOs presuppose the pragmatic context of the regulative speech act where either speaker or hearer must have an interest in becoming the recipient of the entity designated by the direct object. This is not met by simple assertions as (1), but it is a preparatory condition of, e.g., directive speech acts (Searle 1969) that readily allow for free IO as in (2) with the monotransitive verb finde ‘find’ (Nielsen & Heltoft, forthc.).

(2)                 kunne            du                  find-e             os                  et                   eller               andet             at                      drikk-e?        

                      can.pst           you                find-inf         us                  one                or                   other             to                      drink-inf       

          ‘could you find us something to drink?’ (authentic example from the LANCHART corpus)

Rather than simply designating, and establishing, a recipient entity, the free IO now points to a contextually given recipient role. In Peircean terms (cf. Andersen 1980, 2008), the change in the constructional semantics of the free IO is a semiotic shift from Intended Recipient as symbolic meaning to the indexical meaning of pointing to the pragmatic context and the interactional relation between speaker and hearer. The change is a reanalysis of the free IO construction with the result that the free IO cannot in and by itself supply the argument role for the NP referent (as it could earlier, cf. (1)) but must pick up a role provided by the context. In this way the free IO now parallels the valency-governed IO that picks up its argument role from the governing verb. Crucially, this parallel is established across the boundary between structure-internal argument dependencies and pragmatic preconditions of interactional moves. In the talk, this parallel between the two types of IO is analysed as two types of the same semiotic property now common to both types of IO and indeed all NP arguments in Danish (subject, direct object, IO): they do not provide an argument role on their own – viz. symbolically – but point to a contextual role provider, they are all indexical.

The reanalysis of the free IO construction is thus based on analogy with an established pattern (cf. Itkonen 2005; De Smet 2012) found in the semiotics of argument syntax, but it also relies on an association in usage between the free IO extension of clauses with obtainment or production meaning and regulative speech acts that establish speaker or hearer as (assumed) potential Recipient. This role of speech act association in the process will also be addressed in the talk.


Andersen, Henning. 1980. Morphological change: Towards a typology. In J. Fisiak (ed.), Historical Morphology. The Hague, Paris, New York: Mouton Publishers, 1-50.

Andersen, Henning. 2008. Grammaticalization in a speaker-oriented theory of change. In Th. Eythórsson (ed.), Grammatical Change and Linguistic Theory. The Rosendal papers. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 11-44.

Barðdal, Jóhanna. 2007. The semantic and lexical range of the ditransitive construction in the history of (North) Germanic. Functions of Language 14.1, 9-30

Colleman, Timothy. 2011. Ditransitive Verbs and the Ditransitive Construction: A diachronic perspective. Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 59, 387-410.

De Smet, Hendrik. 2012. The course of actualization. Language 88, 601-633.

Gregersen, Frans. 2009. The Data and Design of the LANCHART Study. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia 41.1, 3-29.

Heltoft, Lars. 2014. Constructional change, paradigmatic structure and the orientation of usage processes. In E. Coussé & F. von Mengden (eds), Usage-Based Approaches to Language Change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 203-241.

Itkonen, Esa. 2005. Analogy as structure and process: Approaches in linguistics, psychology and philosophy of science. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nielsen, Peter Juul & Lars Heltoft. Forthcoming. Indexicality across the boundaries of syntax, semantics and pragmatics: The constructional content of the Danish free indirect object. In T. Colleman, M. Rothlisberger & E. Zehentner (eds). Ditransitive Constructions in Germanic Languages: Diachronic and Synchronic Aspects. Studies in Germanic Linguistics, John Benjamins.

Searle, John. 1969. Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nele Pöldvere

On the importance of dialogue and dialogicity in language change

This talk draws on my work on dialogic aspects of language change as observed in large collections of contemporary English dialogues. Dialogicity is an important aspect of human sense-making, with each utterance being linked to prior or successive discourse in one way or another; however, some constructions have become so tied up with the surrounding discourse that they have incorporated these dialogic properties into their constructional representation. One such construction is the reactive what-x construction, illustrated in (1).

(1)                 A:                  have you ever been out there before

B:                  what to Russia

A:                  mm

B:                  no

The reactive what-x construction has interesting form–meaning properties: it comprises what and a subsequent phrasal or clausal complement x, which, importantly, always form one and the same tone unit. The dialogic properties manifest themselves in several ways such as the sequential placement of the construction in the surrounding discourse (the construction is responsive and always follows an immediately preceding turn by another speaker) and its meaning potential (i.e., to react to the preceding turn in order to negotiate and call it into question). In addition, the dialogic embedding of the construction in different discourse contexts has given rise to several dialogic functions, of which requests for verification is only one (the example above). In this talk, I explore the diachronic processes by which the construction has acquired these properties. In doing so, I propose an extension to Diachronic Construction Grammar to go beyond form–meaning properties in the strict lexical–semantic sense and into the domains of dialogicity, prosody and social interaction. In addition, I present a corpus of contemporary English dialogues, namely, the London–Lund Corpus 2 of spoken British English, which together with the first London–Lund Corpus provide an excellent resource for the study of short-term language change.

Salvador Pons Bordería

Tío > macho: Cyclicity, a fancy writer, a rough hood, and the troubled days of the Spanish transicíon

In the early eighties, a cyclic change led to a change in vocatives in Peninsular Spanish. The innovation macho (lit. ‘male’) was substituted by an even newer innovation: tío (lit. ‘oncle’). In this change, internal and external causes deem equally relevant. Among the first, changes in micro-constructions, increase of scope and colonization of discourse positions. Among the second, a time: the late 70s; a city: Madrid; a neighborhood: Vallecas; a writer: Francisco Umbral, and a paper: El País. Plus junkies, youngsters, and gangsters.

This talk assumes that any attempt to explain certain linguistic changes in absence of their context will produce an incomplete explanation. Explanations in terms of frequencies, S-shaped or not, risk to fall within this group.

Malte Rosemeyer

Modeling change in interaction on the basis of quantitative historical data

The present talk takes a methodological perspective on the role of pragmatics in language change, namely the question of how linguistic change that arises in interaction can be modeled using quantitative historical data. Many theories of semantic change assume that such changes are not random, but arise from specific communicative strategies in interaction such as expressiveness (Detges and Waltereit 2002), discourse organization (Rosemeyer and Grossman 2017, Rosemeyer and Grossman 2021) or economy (e.g., Haspelmath 1999). However, when applied to actual historical data, these accounts of semantic change are difficult to verify. This is due to the fact that written documents that have survived until today can almost never be said to represent data from actual spontaneous linguistic interaction. I contend that in order to be able to assess the relevance of each of these hypotheses for historical changes, we need to develop methods that enable us to describe to which extent the analyzed historical data can be said to reflect routines in spoken interaction at the time in question.

On the basis of prior studies (Rosemeyer 2019, Rosemeyer and Becker In press), I propose that by applying register analysis (Biber and Finegan 1997, Biber and Finegan 2004) to a large corpus of theater plays, it is possible to describe the degree to which these theater plays approximate actual spoken interaction at the time of composition of the play. Focusing on the development of interrogative constructions and the present perfect in Brazilian Portuguese, I demonstrate the relevance of this approach. In particular, incorporating register-related aggregate measurements of formality into quantitative longitudinal analyses of language change allows determining which constructional changes can be described as having originated in informal interaction, and which seem to be the result of indirect indexing, corresponding to stylistically marked “changes from above” (Meyerhoff 2006: 222-225).


Biber, D. and E. Finegan (1997). Diachronic Relations among Speech-Based and Written Registers in English. To Explain the Present: Studies in the Changing English Language in Honour of Matti Rissanen. T. Nevalainen and L. Kahlas-Tarkka. Helsinki, Finland, Societe Neophilologique: 253-275.

Biber, D. and E. Finegan (2004). Historical drift in three English genres. Corpus Linguistics: Readings in a Widening Discipline. G. Sampson and D. McCarthy. London, Continuum: 67-77.

Detges, U. and R. Waltereit (2002). "Grammaticalization vs. reanalysis: a semantic-pragmatic account of functional change in grammar." Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft 21(2): 151-195.

Haspelmath, M. (1999). "Explaining Article-Possessor Complementarity: Economic Motivation in Noun Phrase Syntax." Language 75(2): 227-243.

Meyerhoff, M. (2006). Introducing Sociolinguistics. London, New York, Routledge.

Rosemeyer, M. (2019). "Actual and apparent change in Brazilian Portuguese wh-interrogatives." Language Variation and Change 31(2): 165–191-165–191.

Rosemeyer, M. and M. Becker (In press). The Brazilian Portuguese present perfect: from nominal to verbal pluractionality. Indefinites in Romance and Beyond. O. Kellert and M. Rosemeyer. Berlin, Language Science Press.

Rosemeyer, M. and E. Grossman (2017). "The road to auxiliariness revisited: the grammaticalization of FINISH anteriors in Spanish." Diachronica 34(4): 516-558.

Rosemeyer, M. and E. Grossman (2021). "Why don’t grammaticalization pathways always recur?" Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 17(3): 653-681. Ahead of print.

Richard Waltereit

Imperatives turning into discourse markers

Discourse markers (DMs) are normally in a polysemy pattern with an item in a different word class from which they historically originate (cf. Hansen 1998), e.g. French bon ‘good’ – DM, Italian guarda ‘look!’ – DM. These source constructions for DMs can be from a wide variety of word classes, as the examples suggest. One very common source construction though are imperatives, e.g. Italian guarda ‘look!’, Spanish mira ‘look!’, French écoute ‘listen!’, etc. Since one of the key tasks of DMs is the joint coordination of activity in discourse, I will argue that imperatives are particularly suited for being used as discourse markers (Detges / Waltereit 2016).


Detges, U., Waltereit, R. (2016). Grammaticalization and pragmaticalization. Manuals of Romance Linguistics: Grammatical interfaces. Ch. Gabriel, S. Fischer, eds. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 635-658.

Hansen, M.-B. M. (1998): The function of discourse particles. Amsterdam: Benjamins.