Some grammatical changes have been argued to proceed in cycles. Probably the best known and earliest was put forward by Jespersen (1917), who suggested that there was a cycle of sentential negation such that negators ‘wore out’ and were replaced by more substantial elements, typically adverbs or nominal items. The major question that this raises for a theory of syntax is to know how far, and within what constraints, this process of language change is inevitable, as is apparently the case assuming Jespersen’s cycle. Should all languages be expected to follow the same trajectories? What factors might intervene in the history of particular languages in such a way as to affect outcomes? Should the same range of triggering factors be seen as responsible for driving change? It could be that certain features or constructions are unstable in a way that regularly calls for a new realization. This would account for the existence of diachronic cycles, which have been identified not only for negation, but also proposed for aspectual marking by Brinton and Traugott (2006), and could be envisaged for subject marking: the subject system would have come to a full circle in some contemporary varieties of French where the affix status of former clitics (Auger 1995, Miller 1992, Rowlett 2007) implies non obligatory subject, as was the case before the subject had become compulsory in Middle French.
If cycles illustrate necessary changes, questions arise as to discrepancies between the pathways taken by particular languages. Obligatory subject expression never developed in Italian, despite almost doing so in the 16th century (Freedman 1983). Other Romance languages for example, have not shown the equivalent of the loss of preverbal non in Old French. The short preverbal negative marker, lost in Middle English and in Germanic languages more widely, has been retained in French and Slavic languages. A head negator and polarity indefinite system is favoured by Modern English along the lines of early Germanic (Ingham 2007). A key question is to what extent the negation cycle is accompanied by separate processes affecting the evolution of indefinites (Martins 2000), and to what extent this would be tied to the changes of verbal negative markers.
The discrepancy between languages may however be less acute where data more closely reflecting ordinary usage are considered. Stylistic variation has been incorporated into the British historical linguistic tradition through the adoption of corpus analysis to develop a more empirically supported picture of language change. This is not the case with research on the history of French, which has been essentially based on literary texts. We seek to provide a forum for the presentation and discussion of work on a wider range of material so as to satisfy a demand for sources closer to everyday usage. The importance of such endeavours is demonstrated by the results of Martineau and Mougeon (2003) who showed that preverbal negation in non-literary French becomes optional quite considerably earlier than literary texts might lead one to expect. Appropriate data might reduce the apparent discrepancies between rates of changes.
More generally, changes affecting grammatical categories must be accommodated by the structure of the sentence, of the phrase and in semantics potentialities of items. Changes in sentence structure are crucial for negation placement, and so may determine cycles of negative marking. The phrasal relationships that make up sentences have been proposed for the discontinuous marking of sentential negation in French (Pollock 1989). Such a functional projection can account for cycles by positing a succession of head / dependent marking (Rowlett 1997). This raises the difficult question of the criteria defining the status of items in a negation phrase. Whether a negation phrase is present at all stages of a language has been questioned, and parsimony has advised some to retain a projection only where co-occurrence of markers is the norm (Zeijlstra 2004). Such co-occurrence affects the semantic status of each of the items involved. That several n-words may be used in a single negative sentence has led some to analyse them as ambiguous between a negative and a polarity interpretation; while this is problematic for contemporary French (Larrivée 2003), there is a diachronic case that n-words were once polarity items (Roberts 2007). When a polarity item becomes a negative needs to be assessed through criteria. These criteria allow us to consider how markers 'wear out', both in their phonetic and semantic aspects. The idea that markers may lose their semantic features is troubling in that it supposes possible uses of an item making no contribution to interpretation.
The evolution of negation is thus crucially linked to the status of items and phrases. The first objective of the network sessions is: (1) the definition of criteria establishing when a polarity item becomes a negative element. The complementary intervention of formal and semantic bleaching and enrichment as well as reanalysis demands delineation. The other will be: (2) to define the means to recognise the presence of a negative phrase. These criteria are all the more necessary in historical linguistics, where, in the absence of native speakers, theoreticians need to use texts that reflect ordinary usage as far as possible. The comparative perspective allows commonly defined criteria for phenomena, and consideration of the fine-grained steps that shed light on the factors that determine change and those that accompany actuation.
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