The decline of the Deontic nci construction in Late Modern English
Towards a radically usage-based perspective on constructional attrition
Starting from a traditional corpus-based investigation of an example of constructional attrition, i.e. of a sustained drop in the frequency of use of a construction in a language’s history, this paper argues that usage data which make abstraction from individual speakers can no more account for this kind of constructional change than they can for constructionalization, the creation of new constructions. A more ‘radically’ usage-based approach to diachronic construction grammar implements the cognitive commitment of this subdiscipline of cognitive linguistics and ultimately explains all constructional change with reference to individual speakers’ grammars. Since no two speakers’ experience-based constructicons are identical, it is hypothesized that, very similar to constructionalization, constructional attrition starts from interpersonal variation and the paper encourages the use of idiolectal historical corpora to find corroboration for this. The case of constructional attrition presented in descriptive detail is that of the English Deontic nci construction, which is instantiated by such forms as be compelled to, be forbidden to, be obliged to and be permitted to. Previous research established this schema to have grown in frequency and productivity from the 14th until the 18th century and the current paper documents the start of its subsequent decline with data from the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts. It goes on to ask whether a usage-based approach should stop at offering cultural explanations for such developments and proposes a more genuinely cognitive line of explanatory attack.
Keywords: diachronic construction grammar, usage-based model, constructional attrition, periphrastic modals, deontic modality
Published online: 12 July 2019
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