On being happier but not more happy: Comparative alternation in speech data

Alexandra D'Arcy


English adjective comparison is increasingly the focus of corpus linguistic research, but it is much less studied in the variationist framework. These two traditions converge, however, in revealing robust variation between historical inflection (happier/happiest) and newer periphrasis (more/most happy). However, our understanding of the strategies for comparison comes from written genres. In contrast, very little is known about comparison in vernacular speech. Since periphrastic comparison emerged as a change from above, the lack of spoken evidence proves a critical gap in our knowledge. To address this gap, this paper examines comparison strategies in New Zealand English, drawing on the whole of the Origins of New Zealand English Archive (Gordon et al. 2007). Analysis of 1400 tokens reveals a striking result. Consistent with reports elsewhere, inflection is the preferred mode of comparison. However, consideration by lexical item reveals a system that is not, in fact, variable. Rather, across the history of this variety (speakers born 1851-1982), individual adjectives pattern one way (inflection) or the other (periphrasis); in speech, the form of comparison has consistently been lexically conditioned, and by extension, invariant. This paper explores a number of explanations (e.g. variation is genre-specific or variety-specific, or may only be visible in extremely large corpora), and ultimately concludes that in speech, historical variation resulted in the full ‘regularization of a confused situation’ (Bauer 1994:60).


adjective comparison; vernacular speech; variation; New Zealand English

Full Text:


Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle

EISSN: 1920-440X
ISSN: 1200-3344

University of Victoria