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The expression of impersonals in Middle English

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Joel Wallenberg


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This article contributes to continuing work on the information structural function of passivization, and how quantitative changes in the implementation of a syntactic strategy may be tied in with the acquisition or loss of comparable strategies. Seoane (2006) outlines a proposal that suggests that the passive construction is used more extensively in English than in the other Germanic languages in order to compensate for the lack of unmarked object topicalization found in languages with verb-seconding (V2). We reconsider this hypothesis from a quantitative perspective and find that, upon further examination, the claim does not hold.We compare parallel New Testament translations along two dimensions: one set across three stages of historical English, and one set across three Germanic languages. We find that the reported change in the rate of passivization between stages of English, and between English and other Germanic languages, is in fact not directly related to the presence or absence of a V2 grammar, but rather due to the availability (or absence) of different strategies of forming impersonal clauses.The current article focuses in more detail on one of the findings of an ongoing study into phenomena linked to the change in passivization in English. While the New Testament translations provide evidence that the overall rate of passivization remains stable across the history of English in one context, we find, in contrast, a significant difference in the rate of passivization between three translations of the Rule of St Benedict. These translations represent an Old English (OE) translation and two Middle English (ME) translations: one Northern, and one Southern. The data reveal a dialect distinction in ME: the Northern translation passivizes at a significantly lower rate.Unlike the New Testament, which is primarily a narrative, the Rule of St Benedict text is written as a set of instructions, and passivization is primarily a strategy for expressing clauses in which no agent can be specified. We find that where the Southern translation of the Rule of St Benedict uses a passive, the Northern translation frequently expresses the same content via an active clause with impersonal man in the subject position. While clauses with impersonal man can be found in both the Northern ME and OE translations of this text, it is wholly absent from the Southern ME translation.This reveals a dialect difference in the ME period: the Southern dialect appears to entirely lack a historically attested strategy for forming impersonal clauses. This, in turn, becomes one factor leading to a rise in the rate of passivization, as passive clauses are used to compensate for the missing strategy.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Light C, Wallenberg J

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: English Language and Linguistics

Year: 2015

Volume: 19

Issue: 2

Pages: 227-245

Print publication date: 01/07/2015

Online publication date: 01/07/2015

Acceptance date: 01/01/1900

ISSN (print): 1360-6743

ISSN (electronic): 1469-4379

Publisher: Cambridge University Press


DOI: 10.1017/S1360674315000076


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