Title: Chance, fortune, or was it something else that happened? Syntactic change and functional redistribution in happen-constructions
Authors: PetrĂ©, Peter
Issue Date: 7-Aug-2013
Conference: ICHL edition:21 location:Oslo date:5-9 August 2013
Abstract: In this talk, I relate longitudinal variation and change in complementation structures within the so-called happen-constructions (as in (i)) to a broader, typological shift in English from foreground- to more background-marking. I do so for the period 1051-1640 in LEON 0.3 (Petré 2013).

(i) with that-complementizer: It happened (befell/fortuned/chanced/...) that he came by the place... & the women ... came out with staues ... & made an ende of hym (1528)

(i) shows the typical narrative function of happen-constructions of marking an episode boundary and grounding the ensuing episode (the women killing the man) by introducing in the embedded clause its ‘instigating event’ (the man’s passing by) (Brinton 1996: 115-80).
Next to (i), which was the most frequent one originally, constructions (ii)-(iv) occurred. Note that in (i)-(iii), but not in (iv), the happen-verb is impersonal (formally lacking a referential subject).

(ii) with Ø-complementizer: And it happened in those dayes, Iesus came to Nazareth. (1538)
(iii) with oblique experiencer + to-infinitive: And at the laste by fortune hym happynd ayenste nyght to come to a fayre courtelage ... (a1470)
(iv) with ‘raised’ subject-experiencer + to-infinitive: And whyles he rode about the fielde ... he hapned to come nere a company of Romaynes ... (1544)

From late Middle English onwards, (i)-(iv) are subject to a gradual functional redistribution. It is argued that their respective grammatical structures are to blame.
Firstly, impersonal constructions came under pressure due to the obligatorification of subject-topic alignment. Conversely, to-infinitival complements with raised subjects increased, as they effectively aligned topics to main clause subjects (Los 2007). Yet constructions (iii)-(iv) gradually shifted their preference to non-narrative uses, becoming semantically equivalent to ‘accidentally’. This shift can be related to word order iconicity. In (i), (ii), and some variants of (iii), the happen-verb precedes the entire embedded event, signalling a contingency relation with what preceded. The subject may still be in control of the instigating event. In (iii) (mostly) and in (iv), however, the happen-verb comes in between the subject and the predicate of the event, and the verb’s contingency semantics now applies to the relation between the subject and what it is doing (cf. by fortune in (iii)).
Secondly, the obligatorification of topical subjects forms part of a wider typological shift (Los 2012). Old English grammar segmented narrative as a series of foregrounded events via topic time adverbs (typically þa ‘then’) plus subject-verb-inversion in main clauses. Episode introductions, situated in between background and foreground, received a mixed encoding of semantically empty main happen-clause plus embedded clause. Part of the typological shift starting in Middle English involved the development of syntactic background marking via increased subordination, which became also used for the framing of new episodes (e.g. when Jesus was still a child, he came to Nazareth), and which made main happen-clauses superfluous.
In sum, the reorganization of happen-constructions suggests that that/to/ZERO -variation is probably equally determined by global typological shifts or tensions in English as well as more finegrained factors limited to coherent constructional subsets.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IMa
Appears in Collections:Functional and Cognitive Linguistics: Grammar and Typology (FunC), Leuven

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