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Diachronic shifts in agreement patterns of collective nouns in 19th-century American English
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Department of Languages.
2015 (English)In: ICAME 36: Words, words, words – corpora and lexis.  Trier, 27-31 May 2015, 2015Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

English collective nouns and their agreement patterns, as illustrated in (1)–(3) below, have received a great deal of attention in corpus linguistics. Previous research has found evidence of variability within and across the different varieties of English (e.g. Levin 2001, 2006; Depraetere 2003; Hundt 2006, 2009; Bock et al. 2006; Fernández-Pena 2014).  

(1)        …and the police has not yet been aroused from its lethargy. (COHA; 1822; Magazine)

(2)        The police claim to know where he is, but they will not tell. (COHA; 1894; Newspaper)

(3)        “Here comes the Police! here they come!” shouted the boys,… (COHA; 1859; Fiction)

This paper fills research gaps identified in previous studies. The first is the lack of diachronic research on agreement patterns. Up to now, only two large-scale studies with a diachronic focus exist (Liedtke 1910, Dekeyser 1975). They, however, were conducted before the era of systematically collected corpora. Secondly, conclusions drawn in several investigations relate the varying agreement within the different varieties of English to the lexical characteristics of the collective nouns themselves (e.g. Depraetere 2003: 124; Bock et al. 2006: 101; Levin 2006: 339). This motivates further research with a focus on intra-linguistic factors (e.g. a semantic perspective). Furthermore, there is a need for further research on extra-linguistic factors that could have influenced agreement with collective nouns. In this study, such an approach is realised by an interdisciplinary socio-historical investigation of collective nouns and the concepts they represent combined with a study on the effects of 19th-century normative grammars.

This paper investigates the agreement patterns and concepts of several collective nouns from four semantic domains, which are 1) PUBLIC ORDER (e.g. police, watch), 2) MILITARY (e.g. cavalry, army), 3) FAMILY (e.g. family, couple) and 4) EMPLOYEES (e.g. staff, crew), by combining historical corpus linguistics, sociolinguistics and socio-historical perspectives. The vast majority of the investigated material is taken from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA). In order to obtain a reasonable sized amount of material that allows quantitative and qualitative analyses, the investigated time frame of this study was limited to the first 100 years available in COHA, i.e. from 1810 to 1910.

Preliminary results indicate that the variability of some collective nouns can indeed be explained by lexical, socio-linguistic and socio-historical factors. The results show that the agreement pattern of police changed from being variable towards a preference of plural agreement, due to changes made in the organisation of the police patrols prior to the 1870s, which resulted in a shift from singularity towards plurality with regards to the public perception of ‘the patrolling police officer’. Contrarily, the agreement pattern of family suggests highly variable agreement in the early 1800s but that the proportion of plural verbs decreases significantly in the latter decades of the 19th century. Finally, results indicate that even language-internal constraints advocated by 19th-century prescriptivism affected agreement patterns of collective nouns – a finding that highlights the importance of the role normative grammars play in language change processes of the time.

References

Bock, K., Butterfield, S., Cutler, A., Cutting, J. C., Eberhard, K. M., & Humphreys, K. R. (2006). Number agreement in British and American English: Disagreeing to agree collectively. Language, 82(1), 64-113.

Dekeyser, X.  (1975). Number and Case Relations in 19th-Century British English. A Comparative Study of Grammar and Usage. Antwerpen/Amsterdam: De Nederlandsche Boekhandel.

Depraetere, I. (2003). On verbal concord with collective nouns in British English. English Language and Linguistics, 7(1), 85-127.

Fernández-Pena, Y. (2014). Verbal agreement with collectives taking of-dependents: A corpus-based analysis. Paper presented at ISLE3, University of Zürich, August 2014.

Hundt, M. (2006). The committee has/have decided …On concord  patterns with collective nouns in inner and outer circle varieties of English. Journal of English Linguistics, 34(3), 206-232.

Hundt, M. (2009). Concord with collective nouns in Australian and New Zealand English. In P. Peters, P. Collins & A. Smith (Eds.), Comparative Studies in Australian and New Zealand English: Grammar and beyond (207-224). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Levin, M. (2001). Agreement with collective nouns in English. Lund: Lund University Press.

Levin, M. (2006). Collective nouns and language change. English Language and Linguistics, 10(2), 321–343.

Liedtke, E. (1910). Die numerale Auffassung der Kollektiva im Laufe der englischen Sprachgeschichte. Königsberg: Karg & Manneck.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2015.
National Category
Specific Languages
Research subject
Humanities, English; Humanities, Linguistics
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-49998OAI: oai:DiVA.org:lnu-49998DiVA: diva2:907945
Conference
ICAME 36: Words, words, words – corpora and lexis. Trier, 27-31 May 2015
Available from: 2016-03-01 Created: 2016-03-01 Last updated: 2016-03-02Bibliographically approved

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