restricted access The social and structural dimensions of a syntactic change
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THE SOCIAL AND STRUCTURAL DIMENSIONS OF A SYNTACTIC CHANGE Anthony J. Naro Pontificia Universidade Católica and Universidade Federal, Rio de Janeiro This paper proposes a model of syntactic change based on a quantitative study of the rule of subject/verb agreement in spoken Brazilian Portuguese. Among speakers of the lower socio-economic levels, this rule is currently undergoing a process of elimination from the grammar. The model postulates that syntactic change starts at a point where surface differentiation between the old and new systems is zero (or nearly so); later it spreads throughout the language in inverse proportion to the degree of saliency of the surface differences between these systems in each particular environment. Thus 'natural' clusters of linguistic features arise only gradually. 1. Introduction. Since syntactic change produces a finite number of discrete variants, it cannot be a process of gradual replacement of minutely differing forms, operating unobserved over time.1 In general, there is no surface continuum of realizations to be dealt with; rather, a certain (usually small) number of non-overlapping distinguishable variants can be identified and categorized . This circumstance, which makes syntactic change an ideal site for observation of linguistic change-in-progress, has not been utilized in diachronic research. Even in recent times, historical syntax has been heavily inclined to a change-over-the-centuries methodology which makes it impossible to study the social and structural dimensions that shape the initiation and diffusion of a change; this has led to a distorted view of the process, in which only the endpoints are seen. Furthermore, since the usual endpoints are relatively sta- ' The central notion of syntactic diffusion along the axis of saliency, upon which the structural portion of this paper is based, was sketched in Naro & Lemle 1976. In that work, only three speakers, with a total of less than ten hours of recorded speech, were studied. Later, much more extensive tests, involving twenty speakers and 140 hours of speech, were made as part of the 'Competencias Básicas do Portugués' research project (sponsored jointly by the Fundaçâo Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetizaçâo and the Ford Foundation office in Brazil, administered by Miriam Lemle of the Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro). The results of these tests appear in the final report of the project (Lemle & Naro 1977:17-50). In the present paper, I use the same data base as in earlier versions, with only minor corrections and additions; but I report somewhat different results because of the inclusion here of social variables and some changes in the morphological categorization. I am grateful to Lemle for allowing me to use the data gathered during her project, as well as for many insightful discussions during the course of the work; without her keen intuitions into the workings of Portuguese, this research would not have been possible. I am likewise grateful to Gregory Guy, to whom I owe my initiation into the use of statistical techniques in linguistics, as well as many hours of fruitful collaboration; and to Shana Poplack and David Sankoff for comments and suggestions that have profoundly affected the final form of this paper. Michael Stanton of the Departamento de Informática of PUC/RJ has patiently helped me learn how to communicate with a computer in a manner to which it will respond more or less appropriately, even if not always willingly and quickly. All calculations reported here were carried out on the IBM/370-165 installed at the Rio Datacentro, to which PUC/ RJ generously provided me free and unlimited access. Differences between this and previous versions reflect what I consider to be improvements or corrections. 63 64LANGUAGE, VOLUME 57, NUMBER 1 (1981) bilized standard languages, a deceptive appearance of categorical regularity is produced. The goal of this article is to present a detailed quantitative study of one particular on-going syntactic change—the loss of 3rd person subject/verb concord in modern Brazilian Portuguese—and to suggest (on the basis of this and other evidence) a general hypothesis about syntactic change. 2. Subject/verb concord. In standard Portuguese, a finite verb must agree with its subject, whether this latter element be present or deleted, preposed or postposed...


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