ICCG edition:8 location:Osnabrück date:3-6 September 2014
The English absolute construction (AC) is a schematic non-finite construction consisting of a (pro-)
nominal head and a predicate and typically expressing adverbial meaning (1).
(1) They þus gadered, he asked councell what was best to do in þis mater. (YCOE) (anteriority)
Based on an analysis of over 10,000 tokens taken from the YCOE-corpus, the PENN-parsed corpora, the Old Bailey Corpus and the BNC, the aim of this paper is to address two cases of gradual category change in the AC's history, each resulting in overlapping older and newer uses, and to detail how especially the second change can be usefully informed by the constructional perspective .
The first change concerns the AC shifting from an adverbial subordinate construction to a quasi-coordinate construction paraphrasable by and + finite(2). This development involves a shift in clausal status (from subordinate to quasi-coordinate) and a shift from typically adverbial meanings to an elaboration/addition meaning.
(2) The girl was pale and intense, her expression revealing nothing (= and her expression revealed nothing). (BNC)
The second category change concerns the shift of AC-augmentor with (i.e. the item introducing the AC) from a preposition-like item indicating the specific relation of manner/accompanying circumstance (3) to a semantically bleached 'absolute marker'. This shift is argued to benefit from a constructionalization perspective (Trousdale 2012; Traugott & Trousdale 2013), in that it meets three criteria: generalization, syntactic productivity, and decrease in compositionality. By expanding its semantic range from a specific manner/accompanying circumstance meaning to a much vaguer and context-dependent meaning (4), with-ACs show an increase in semantic generality.
(3) ...þei ben aboute the souldan with swerdes drawen...(YCOE)
(4) During these months we found that we were part of what amounts to a movement in Britain today, with churches springing up everywhere. (BNC)
Increasing syntactic productivity is observed in the growing set of complements of with (cf. Himmelmann’s 2004 host-class expansion): from past & present participles to NPs, AdjPs, AdvPs and PPs. Finally, semantic bleaching of with has resulted in decreasing compositionality, as with’s semantic contribution to the AC has become increasingly difficult to identify (the fact that the set of AC-augmentors has, over time, narrowed to with may have contributed to its loss of identifiable meaning).
This study, then, wishes to show that, while not all category changes are amenable to a constructionalization perspective, our understanding of category change may be considerably enhanced by a constructionalization view.