Disentangling frequency effects and grammaticalization

Nicole Hildebrand-Edgar


This paper presents a case study of I DON’T KNOW to investigate the nature of the phonetic reduction using data from the Victorian English Archive (D’Arcy 2011-2014). This phrase has a high usage frequency and is commonly reduced in speech, two concomitant processes in grammaticalization. Further, I DON’T KNOW has use beyond its referential function of “lack of knowledge”: it serves various pragmatic functions as a discourse marker. The relationship between phonetic form and semantic function is investigated using quantitative variationist analysis. Similar patterning to that previously reported for other varieties of English is found, suggesting a universal pathway of grammaticalization. Moreover, the frequency of phonetically reduced pragmatic tokens increases in apparent time, suggesting ongoing change of the discourse marker. This change is argued to constitute ongoing phonetic reduction of an already grammaticalized form. The role of frequency effects in driving ongoing change is restricted to one form while the semantic functions remain stable.


Grammaticalization; frequency effects; variationist sociolinguistics; language variation and change

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Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle

EISSN: 1920-440X
ISSN: 1200-3344

University of Victoria