Research team

Grammar and Pragmatics

Expertise

Language change. Broad expertise on, mostly, English (all periods, both at the aggregate level and that of individual mental grammars), but also (selectively) Dutch, German, French, and language change generally. Quantitative and qualitative corpus methods, including scripting (Perl), concordancing software, statistics (R), best practices.

Complexity in complementation: understanding long-term change in verb complementation in terms of inter- and intra-individual variation. 01/01/2021 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

The main objective of this proposal is to establish the impact of inter-individual differences in cognitive representations on long-term population-level language change. In examining how the individual and community levels interact, the project seeks to contribute to a theory of language as a complex adaptive system. This theory views language as a self-organizing network which at the macro-level shows properties that are not recurrent at the individual level and yet emerge out of complex behaviour at that level. A more specific goal is to chart, and explain, the range of variation in the English complementation system by studying variation between patterns such as 'I remember that a detective came in' and 'I remember a detective coming in'. While a certain amount of variation can probably be accounted for by a desire of varying itself, it has been shown that the choice between complement variants is influenced by factors such as animacy (human or abstract) or clause length. At the same time existing studies have experienced difficulties with robustly accounting for the variation by means of population-level (social) variables only. When social clues are insufficient to determine usage, cognitive mechanisms may come into play that are different between individuals and therefore cannot easily be averaged over. This project seeks to advance our insight in the functionality of abstract grammatical variation of this kind by putting individual-level analysis more central.

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Research and Training programme Historical Sociolinguistics 01/01/2017 - 31/12/2021

Abstract

The aim of this FWO Scientific Research Network application is threefold: (1) to consolidate the Historical Sociolinguistics Network (HiSoN) and firmly secure the position of Flemish expertise in the research network internationally; (2) to initiate a range of new activities as part of a broader Historical Sociolinguistics Research and Training Program, with a distinct focus on postgraduate training and joint research initiatives; (3) to expand the existing network interdisciplinarily and attract young and established scholars from neighboring disciplines. The research unit Mind-Bending Grammars (https://www.uantwerpen.be/mind-bending-grammars/) will contribute with its unique expertise on the interaction of sociolinguistic and cognitive factors in language variation and change. To this purpose MBG makes use of state-of-the-art methods from computational and corpus linguistics, including data-driven identification of social networks and communities of practice.

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Project website

The dynamics of correlated multiple grammatical changes in Early Modern English writers (MindBendingGrammars). 01/09/2015 - 31/08/2021

Abstract

Mind-Bending Grammars examines change in mental grammars of 17th century individuals across their lifespan as attested in their writings. The project treats grammar as a self-organizing network of form-meaning schemas continuously fine-tuning itself, where activating one schema may prime formally or functionally associated ones. In analyzing multiple grammar changes in healthy adults it aspires to make a breakthrough in the cognitive modelling of grammar, and is expected to bear on views of cognitive plasticity and self-organizing systems (e.g. ecosystems). To reach these goals it will determine (i) how change in one part of an individual's grammar relates to change in another; (ii) to what extent grammar change in individuals is possible and attested beyond childhood. This is still unsettled. Formal models hold that change occurs in language acquisition, social ones that it mainly results from adult interaction. The first ignore too much adult usage, the second grammar as a system.

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Project website

CATCH 2020: Computer-Assisted Transcription of Complex Handwriting. 01/05/2018 - 30/04/2021

Abstract

CATCH 2020 aims to provide a working infrastructure for the computer-assisted transcription of complex handwritten documents. It will do so by building on the existing Transkribus platform for Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) – which allows us to process handwritten textual documents in a way that is similar to how OCR processes printed textual documents.. Rather than producing flat transcripts of digital facsimile images, however, CATCH 2020 will produce structured texts, providing tools to add textual and linguistic dimensions to the transcription by combining the state of the art of the research field of textual scholarship with the state of the art of the research field of computational linguistics.

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Project website

To do or not to do? A corpus-based study of cognitive economizing in grammatical change across the lifespan. 01/10/2016 - 30/09/2020

Abstract

The main goal of the proposed project is to determine the extent to which individual speakers economize their mental grammar by reinterpreting local patterns as belonging to more widely applicable grammatical rules, as manifested in the further generalization of these local patterns. Conversely, analysing this will also lead to insight into which patterns in individuals behave as niches resisting such a realignment to more regularity. These goals tie in with and test psychological assumptions that abstract rules and concrete exemplars (instances accessible in memory) are simultaneously at work in grammatical cognition. The case study that will be analysed to reach this goal is that of the introduction and diffusion of do as a grammatical word in Early Modern English (ca. 1550-1700). Before this period, do was largely limited to its lexical use, illustrated in (1). During this period, however, do was increasingly more often used in, among others, questions (2a) and negative statements (3a), as an alternative to the older structures (2b) and (3b). (1) I already did my homework. (2) a. Do you love me? b. I do not love you. (3) a. Love you me? b. I love you not. By the end of the 17th century do had become more or less obligatory in these uses. As such, it is one of the shibboleths of the English language, not only distinguishing it from other Germanic languages, but exploiting a grammatical option that is very rare across the worlds' languages. The project focuses on the stages of the diffusion of do, where do was already established as an option, but much variation was to be found in the speech community. This poses the fundamental research question of which factors guide this variation at the level of individual speakers. It is examined if, and to what extent, the choice for do is primed by frequent use of modal auxiliaries (will, shall, may, must, can), which typically appear in similar syntactic environments. Together, they could be seen as syntactic markers of all non-neutral statements, i.e. statements that are not (non-emphatic) declaratives. Additionally, it is examined in what contexts patterns like (2b) and (3b) resist the insertion of do the longest. Together, these analyses are expected to considerably advance our knowledge of how much change is possible in abstract cognitive schemas such as grammar across the adult lifespan, and by what kinds of existing regularities this change is guided.

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Functional and Cognitive Linguistics (grammar and typology). 01/09/2015 - 31/08/2020

Abstract

The research project Mind-Bending Grammars innovatively combines language change research with research on the individual mind. In the past linguistics has overwhelmingly treated change as happening to an abstract object 'language'. But it is the minds of actual people that change language. Mind-Bending Grammars will greatly contribute to our understanding of the adaptive powers of adult cognition. The project specifically aims at making a breakthrough in two key issues in linguistic theory by tracing with the utmost detail step-by-step changes in grammatical constructions.

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