Today’s innovations, tomorrow’s conventions

Thematic workshop at the 9th BICLCE, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Workshop organisers: David Lorenz (Rostock), David Tizón-Couto (Vigo)

The conventional structures of present-day English result from the linguistic innovations and changes made by generations of speakers. However, innovation and change are not just a thing of the past. What is new or in flux in contemporary language may presage the norms and variational patterns of a future stage of the language.

In cognitive approaches to language, linguistic structures are never stable; they are constantly emergent from usage events and become entrenched and conventionalized through repetition (i.a., in slightly varying flavors, Hopper 1998; Bybee 2006; Auer & Pfänder 2011; Diessel 2019; Schmid 2020). There is no principled distinction between synchronic states of a language and diachronic change from one state to another (cf. Diessel 2019: 4; Hilpert 2019: 110). Under these premises, we can study contemporary language use with a perspective of potential and incipient change.

There is consensus that outright predictions about language change are impossible; trajectories of on-going developments can be estimated, albeit with caution (cf. the contributions in Sanchez-Stockhammer (ed.) 2015). But there are generalizations that link longitudinal developments to language use in the here-and-now. Language change in the long term often involves developments with at least an appearance of directionality. Recurring mechanisms of change have been observed (e.g. chain shifts in phonetics/phonology, analogical levelling in morphology, cliticization, pathways of semantic change, etc.), which necessarily have their basis in synchronic usage preferences and are probably driven by cognitive and communicative strategies (e.g. analogical and metaphorical thinking, pragmatic inferencing, articulatory reduction and sufficient discriminability, social indexing, etc.).

While historical research can point to these motivations, it runs the risk of overstating their effects due to its focus on ‘successful’ instances of language change (cf. Fischer 2000). Studies of on-going developments can also provide ‘negative’ evidence of the suspected direction of a change (cf. Mair & Leech 2006: 321). Likewise, we can seek empirical evidence that a possible or hypothesized change is or is not being initiated, which sheds light on the limits of the mechanisms of change – for example, chunking and reduction produce new forms, but these will only become conventional under favourable circumstances (cf. Bybee et al. 2016; Lorenz & Tizón-Couto 2017).

In addition, as change depends on innovation, innovation depends on current conventions: New uses, forms and structures are more likely to be replicated and transmitted when they are easily inferable from established uses, forms and structures (cf. De Smet 2016). Current language use can then tell us something about potential next steps of change, the chance of success of new variants, or whether and how a suspected change is being initiated. This in turn opens up possibilities for experimental testing of hypotheses about change and its cognitive mechanisms – to name two examples, Croft (2010) found that morpho-syntactic innovations in an experimental setting correspond to grammaticalization paths; Hilpert & Correia Saavedra (2018) found no evidence for a supposed mechanism, asymmetric priming, in language processing.

Observing synchronic language use with a view of language change therefore allows us to test cases of potential or incipient change and to make plausible statements about likely future trajectories of on-going variation. Finally, it can bring synchrony and diachrony together in a usage-based perspective by taking stock of the dynamic nature of language.

The aim of this workshop is to spark an exchange of ideas about how to think of present-day English (and its varieties) not as locked in time but as dynamic and emergent: a system which is constantly being rearranged and adapted in communication, subject to changes that are guided by cognitive mechanisms but also constrained by convention.
The workshop includes contributions that:

  • present instances of on-going change and their likely further trajectory;
  • study current or recent innovations with a view of their potential actuation and propagation;
  • investigate how known mechanisms of language change might continue to shape cases of current variation and language use;
  • discuss the role of specific cognitive processes (e.g. social cognition or memory-related processes) in the interplay between innovation and convention;
  • research incipient change or recent innovation from a variational perspective, such as differential rates of actuation and propagation across dialects or varieties of English, or the (potential) spread of an innovation from one social group or speech style to others.