Change and constancy in linguistic change: How grammatical usage in written English evolved in the period 1931-1991

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Abstract

The creation of the Lanc-31 corpus (familiarly known as B-LOB - ‘Before LOB’) completes a trio of matching corpora of standard written British English 1931- 1961 - 1991 on the model of the Brown corpus. The short-term history of English in the twentieth century can therefore now be examined using three equidistant broadly-sampled and comparable corpora of the written language, and it is possible to trace how far trends of change already observed in the comparison of LOB (1961) and F-LOB (1991) have themselves been undergoing change over the period in question.

We will present in outline the recent history of a considerable range of grammatical features insofar as it can be learned from frequency counts from these three equivalently-sampled corpora. In many cases examined, the trend of increasing or decreasing frequency observed in the later period (1961-91) is found to be a continuation of a similar trend in the earlier period (1931-61). In other cases there is change in the rate or direction of change. In other words, there is both constancy and change in the rate of change. We provide tentative explanations of these changes, where appropriate, in terms of grammaticalization, colloquialization, Americanization and densification. Comparable developments in American English, based on analysis of the equivalent Brown and Frown corpora, are traced for the 1961-92 period, and provide insight into the relation between the two regional varieties, mostly showing AmE trends to be in advance of those for BrE.

Corpus Linguistics

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