The Middle Danish language in the light of a modern theory of grammaticalisation (Midgram)

The purpose of this project is first to investigate the typologically most important changes leading from Middle Danish grammar to Modern Danish, and second to do this by developing and applying a new theory of grammaticalisation, i.e. a theory of grammatical status and of grammatical development.

The project develops and applies a functional theory of linguistic change to material that has been until now mainly the domain of philology. Both morphology and syntax will include descriptions of the semantics and main functions of paradigms and constructions.

The text is about reliable women facing the task of deciding whether a widow is pregnant with a possible heir.

iafuær them um oc skil them um    
doubt them about and disagree them about           

hwat hældær hun ær mæth (barn) ællær ey
whether she is with child or not

’Are they in doubt and do they disagree whether she is pregnant or not’

The example above illustrates a syntactic construction no longer found in Danish: the inactive construction, peculiar by not having an argument 1 subject, but instead of this an argument 1 in the oblique case (them), not in the nominative (the).

The inactive construction leads to the insight that Middle Danish case was typologically different from the present system. Danish constructional syntax after the mid-18th century is transitive or causative, but Middle Danish and Old Norse in general preserved inactive constructions.

Case meaning potential differs depending on its construction type and valence bearer (governing predicate). Although this was not foreseen in its full consequence at the start of the project in 2017, it is now a central focus of the project.

The text below summarises the theoretical consequenses of this focus and its importance for the empirical investigations. This serves as an entrance to other texts and links to publications on this home page.


Case analysis and constructional analysis based on a theory of indexical and symbolic case

  • Middle Danish case points indexically to the difference between inactive construction and transitive construction. Present-day Danish has symbolic case (Heltoft 2021a; Heltoft 2021b; Heltoft 2021c; Heltoft 2022). The indexicality of case is applied in detailed descriptions of reanalyses (Hansen 2022).
  • The development of the indirect object (IO). IO is marked by case in Middle Danish; in later Danish, a position in the word order system is interpreted as the expression of the IO, and indexicality is taken over by this position. This change marginalises the so-called free indirect object.
    (Nielsen & Heltoft 2022; Nielsen 2019; Nielsen (ongoing project)).
  • Detailed studies of case development in East Danish (Scanian) case changes in early 15th century manuscripts (Hansen 2021ab; Hansen 2022).

Word order changes based on a theory of iconic focus

  • Testing of the theory of iconic focus through data showing information structural coding of the clause’s middle field.
  • Testing of a hypothetical scenario of the rise of the specific word order in subordinate clauses: the sentence frame for subordinate clauses (Line Dalberg, Ph.D.-thesis). The positions and information structural codings are formed as a copy of the middle field to the position preceding the finite verb.
  • Designing a sentence frame for Middle Danish and Renaissance Danish: a model built on indexicality and iconicity, in which positions have both symbolic meaning and indexical meaning.
  • An initial test version of the model, applied to Old English (Heltoft, 2018).  Empirical investigation of the relation between construction type and positions for sentence members (Heltoft, ongoing).

Indexicality: reference to situational or linguistic context

Indexicality is a concept from Peircean linguistic philosophy. From the mid 20th century onwards its importance for historical and synchronic linguistics is clear, especially in morphology (Raimo Anttila, Henning Andersen). In Midgram it is generalised to word order and constructional syntax (Nielsen 2019, Heltoft 2019, Hansen 2021).



Hansen, Bjarne Simmelkjær Sandgaard

Heltoft, Lars

  • Heltoft, Lars et al. (eds.) 2019. Perspectives on Language Structure and Language Change: Studies in honor of Henning Andersen. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, Bind 345. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • 2019. Word order as grammaticalised semiotic systems. L. Heltoft et al. (eds.), 151-178.
  • 2021a. From indexical to symbolic case in Danish: A content analysis. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia 53(2). 
  • 2021b. Kasussystemet i Jyske Lov. Allerede det samme som i nutidsdansk? Nogle betænkninger om dansk sprog og litteratur: Festskrift til Marita Akhøj Nielsen. Bjerring-Hansen, J., Skovgaard Boeck, S. & Jensen, E. S. (eds.),  195-214. (Universitets-Jubilæets Danske Samfund. Skriftserie; Nr. 604). Universitets-Jubilæets danske Samfund.
  • 2021c. The typology of Old Norse revisited - the case of Middle Danish. NOWELE 74(2), 242-277. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  •  2022. The semantic reorganisation of case paradigms and word order paradigms in the history of Danish. Paradigms regained: Theoretical and empirical argument for the reassessment of the notion of paradigm. G. Diewald & K. Politt, K. (red.), (Empirically Oriented Theoretical Morphology and Syntax; Nr. 10). 201-244. Berlin: Berlin Language Science Press.

Nielsen, Peter Juul

  • 2019a. Diachronic morphology, indexical function and a critique of the morphome analysis : The content and expression of Danish forstå.  L. Heltoft et al. (red.), 125-150.

  • 2019b. Indirekte objekt i moderne dansk talesprog: En korpusundersøgelse af frit indirekte objekt. Ny forskning i grammatik 26: 4–22.

  • 2021. Det indirekte objekt i Jammers Minde: Et nedslag i en diakron proces. Ny Forskning i Grammatik 28: 101-120 

  • Nielsen, Peter Juul & Lars Heltoft (udkommer 2022, indsendt 2019). Indexicality across the boundaries of syntax, semantics and pragmatics: The constructional content of the Danish free indirect object. Ditransitive Constructions in Germanic Languages : Diachronic and Synchronic Aspects. Timothy Colleman & Eva Zehentner (red.). John Benjamins. 36 s.

Further publications by Peter Juul Nielsen of relevance to the project:

Out side the formal framework of the project, the semantic field of the indirect object has been further investigated in the following publications:

  • Nielsen, Peter Juul (2018). Få + supinum som interessentkonstruktion i dansk. Ny Forskning I Grammatik 25: 148-165 .
  • (to appear 2022). ). The affactive få ’get’ construction in Danish: Afficiaries, agentivity and voice. In V. Dekalo, D. Czicza & G. Diewald (eds.), Variation and Grammaticalization of Verbal Constructions, Special Issue, Constructions and Frames, John Benjamins.



  • 2018, January. Danish-Norwegian seminar on historical linguistics. Schæffergården, Copenhagen.
  • 2018, November. Scandinavian Network of Historical Syntax. University of Copenhagen, arr. project Midgram.
  • 2019, February. Perspectives on Language Structure and Language Change. 18.2. 2019. University of Copenhagen. Seminar to honor professor Henning Andersen. Arr. projekt Midgram.
  • 2020, May. Internal working seminar with advisors Eva Skafte Jensen and Kathrine Thisted Petersen as critical readers.



  • 2019, July. ICHL Conference in Canberra.
  • 2019, August. SLE Conference Leipzig. Workshop on paradigms.
  • 2020, January. Danish-Norwegian seminar on historical linguistics. Lysebu, Oslo.
  • 2021, August. Virtual conference SLE, workshop on Indexicality. Arr. by Peter Juul Nielsen and María Sol Sansiñena (KU Leuven)




Name Title Phone E-mail

Bjarne Simmelkjær Sandgaard Hansen, postdoc Nov 1, 2017 – Oct 30, 2019, associate professor Nov 1, 2019 – June 30, 2020.


Peter Juul Nielsen, associate professor, University of Southern Denmark.

Funded by

Project period: 01/10/2017 - 01/04/2023.

DFF project description (pdf)

PI: Lars Heltoft