Perspectives on Contemporary English: Structure, Variation, Cognition

by Manfred Krug (Volume editor) Valentin Werner (Volume editor) Ole Schützler (Volume editor) Fabian Vetter (Volume editor)
©2022 Conference proceedings 248 Pages


This volume highlights the dynamic nature of the field of English Linguistics and features selected contributions from the 8th Biennial International Conference on the Linguistics of Contemporary English. The contributions comprise studies (i) that focus on the structure of linguistic systems (or subsystems) or the internal structure of specific construction types, (ii) that take an interest in variation at all linguistic levels, or (iii) that explore what linguistic findings can tell us about human cognition in general, and language processing in particular. All chapters represent state-of-the-art research that relies on rigorous quantitative and qualitative analysis and that will inform current and future linguistic practice and theory building.

Table Of Contents

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Manfred Krug (Bamberg), Ole Schützler (Leipzig), Valentin Werner (Bamberg) & Fabian Vetter (Bamberg)

Introduction: Perspectives on structure, variation and cognition in contemporary English


This volume features selected contributions from the 8th Biennial International Conference on the Linguistics of Contemporary English (BICLCE8), which took place from 26 to 28 September 2019 at the University of Bamberg (Germany). On a historical note, this conference was one of the last – if not the last – of the major general conferences on English Linguistics that took place before the COVID-19 epidemic truly began to take effect globally in early 2020. Accordingly, it was a meeting of real people, in a real location, with papers and plenaries presented exclusively in real lecture halls and seminar rooms, and with lively academic and personal exchanges over coffee and during lunch breaks – things that are still not possible at the time of finalizing this volume.

The eighth instalment of the BICLCE conference in Bamberg continued a series that had its inaugural meeting in Edinburgh (2005), with subsequent conferences held in Toulouse (2007), London (2009), Osnabrück (2011), Austin (2013), Madison (2015) and Vigo (2017). Alongside the conferences organised by the International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English (ICAME) and the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE), BICLCE has established itself as a respected forum that is very open to diverse theoretical and methodological approaches to the English language, limited only perhaps by its explicitly contemporary (i.e. synchronic, present-day) orientation. Despite the ever-increasing number and diversification of conferences on the English language, the 2019 conference clearly showed that the need for the particular format offered by BICLCE seems to be unbroken. Apart from showcasing eight selected pieces of research, this volume is also meant to document and celebrate this ongoing success story.

On the one hand, the three thematic keywords in the title of this volume – structure, variation and cognition – reflect the spirit of openness that we find in the contemporary linguistics of English as represented in the BICLCE conferences. ←7 | 8→We can study the structure of linguistic systems (or subsystems) or the internal structure of specific construction types, we can take an interest in variation at all linguistic levels, and we can explore what our findings can tell us about human cognition in general, and language processing in particular. On the other hand, research efforts will cut across any such broad categories on a regular basis. It was therefore no mean feat to group the contributions to this volume according to more general themes. Particularly variation seems to be omnipresent in current research, and it is hardly ever assumed by BICLCE participants that grammatical systems are fixed and static, so that particularly system and variation always need to be considered together. We nevertheless did establish a subdivision, and we believe that – against the background of the caveats formulated here – this will help guide readers through this volume. We consider the chapters by Hanna Mahler and Roman Zingel as investigations of structures, or grammatical (sub-)systems and a particular (pop culture) genre, respectively; contributions by Nikolai Beland, Javier Pérez-Guerra, Yolanda Fernández-Pena, Axel Bohmann, and Göran Wolf fall broadly within the field of variation; and Gerold Schneider’s chapter more actively engages with ways in which language is stored and cognitively processed by its users.

Contributions made by individual chapters

In her chapter, Hannah Mahler explores how recent change feeds into present-day English and conducts a short-term diachronic analysis of the emerging modals gonna, gotta, and wanna in the two generations of the British National Corpus compiled in 1994 and 2014, respectively. She comes to the conclusion that, of the three verbs, it is only wanna whose frequency relative to the corresponding uncontracted form continues to increase, while the relative frequency of gonna (vis-á-vis going to) has stabilised and the relative frequency of gotta (vis-à-vis got to) is decreasing. The author also investigates apparent-time trends and gender patterns and comes to the conclusion that, within the system of modal verbs, emerging modals should be inspected individually, and not be treated as a homogeneous group.

Roman Zingel focuses on the use of pronominal man in grime, a popular subgenre of London-based rap. Analysing the lyrics of 500 songs, he concludes that the language of grime shares properties with the emerging variety of Multicultural London English, which can be treated as the lexifying variety for the language of grime. The author argues that the distribution and frequency of pronominal man can be motivated from the content of the songs, but also from ←8 | 9→its function as a marker of masculinity and toughness. Thus, the emergence of the pro-form man in this particular genre generates a richer and more flexible pronoun paradigm.

Nikolai Beland’s chapter draws on data gleaned from a large-scale questionnaire study and investigates the role of contextual constraints in the alternation of synthetic (-est) and analytic (most) superlative forms. Resting on variables previously explored in this context, the multifactorial analysis suggests that processing complexity increases the odds of the analytic superlative, albeit to varying degrees. These findings substantiate the hypothesis that the strategy of more-support, as previously identified for the comparative, also extends to the superlative. However, the study also exposes the limitations of a complexity-based account for the alternation at hand. Furthermore, it reinforces another observation made in previous research, namely that speakers of British English and American English do not systematically differ in their sensitivity to the underlying cognitive mechanisms.

In his contribution, Javier Pérez-Guerra uses the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE) to explore two types of inflectional comparatives in six Inner-Circle varieties of Present-Day English: Canonical ‘single’ comparatives (e.g. easier) and multiple comparatives (e.g. more easier). The focus of the analysis lies on a set of factors that have been found to have an effect on the choice between the two constructions. Apart from showing the influence of individual varieties and adjectives, the author argues that using multiple comparatives constitutes a regularisation strategy that extends the solution commonly adopted by longer, complex and premodified adjectives to other contexts. This interpretation is supported by the exaptation process undergone by the item more, which loses its role as a degree marker and takes on that of the grammatical item responsible for adapting the syntax of an already inflected comparative to the linguistic requirements of the periphrastic alternative.

Yolanda Fernández-Pena investigates verb number agreement with complex collective subjects, such as a bunch of or a couple of. Her study goes beyond previous research by considering several Inner-Circle varieties and using a large dataset retrieved from GloWbE. Results reveal that, while there is diatopic variation in baseline agreement preferences, the British and Irish varieties are exceptional in showing a preference for plural patterns. With regard to intra-linguistic factors, the author shows that singular agreement correlates with syntactically more complex (e.g. postmodified) collective subject noun phrases (NPs) and with non-human referents; plural patterns are more likely when the subject NPs contain irregular plural oblique nouns (e.g. children), the unmarked plural noun ←9 | 10→people, or when the NP has a higher potential for a quantificational reading, as in a host of (‘a lot of’) things.

The chapter by Axel Bohmann makes a methodological contribution to the study of variation between World Englishes by comparing analytical procedures that consider register as a constraint (or factor) to procedures that do not. He finds that explicitly modelling the influence of register not only makes the statistical analysis more precise but can also affect the conclusions that are drawn with regard to inter-varietal relationships. Failing to include register as a predictor in statistical models is discussed as a case of omitted variable bias, and two strategies to address this issue are proposed: drawing on text-level information provided as part of a corpus sampling frame and modelling register differences via multidimensional analysis.

Göran Wolf tackles an underexplored variety and focuses on English in the setting of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). He observes that, despite the general emphasis on Russian in education, English still played a very prominent role in everyday life there, being the language of international culture and communication. According to Wolf, authentic material for the exploration of GDR English can be found in songs of the late 1980s alternative music scene. A selection of sample texts is used for phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexical analyses, and it is demonstrated that GDR English shows interference from German. GDR English exhibits features that may be described as ambiguous (in that it is unclear how they became part of the variety) and this language-internal ambiguity appears to reflect the equivocal relationship between the GDR and the English language.

Finally, Gerold Schneider investigates whether parsimonious language models can accurately predict the cognitive processing load of texts. For this, he exploits the triangular relationship between reading times, cognitive processing load and parsimonious language models based on frequency-derived measures. Using step-wise regression modelling, he examines how well a range of frequency-derived measures – including collocation measures, surprisal, word-length, the frequency of POS tags and the distance of a word from its last occurrence in the text – correlate with reading times of texts and thus can be used to approximate the cognitive processing load required for the reading of these texts. The author further addresses a number of methodological difficulties connected to this approach and offers possible solutions. Overall, he finds that parsimonious language models based on frequency-derived measures can predict reading times – and by proxy the cognitive processing load – with a relatively high degree of accuracy.←10 | 11→


Although they do not appear in this volume, the 8th BICLCE conference would not have happened without the remaining members of the organizing team: Katrin Landwehr, Katharina Scheiner, Jenny Herzky, Gabriele Knappe, Heinrich Ramisch, Julia Schlüter and Lukas Sönning, as well as the student helpers Hanna Herzog, Alice Limmer, Felicia Stich and Ellen Werner were all instrumental in turning the conference into a success. We would further like to thank Peter Lang Publishers for including this volume in the Bamberg Studies in English Linguistics series. Thirdly, the constructive feedback given on individual chapters by our external reviewers was greatly appreciated. We were glad to rely on the expertise of Zoe Adams, Thomas Brunner, Derek Denis, Robert Fuchs, Suzanne Hilgendorf, Gero Kunter, Magnus Levin, David Lorenz and Rüdiger Thul. In addition, Don Watson and Julia von Durschefsky helped in preparing the manuscript. Finally, we would like to thank our authors for contributing and for co-operating smoothly with us throughout the revision process.

Bamberg & Leipzig, January 2022

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Hanna Mahler (Freiburg)

1. Emerging modals revisited: Comparing English semi-modals and their contractions in the spoken BNC1994 and BNC2014 corpora

Abstract: Prior research on the emerging modals gonna, gotta, and wanna has shown how these reduced forms underwent a grammaticalisation process and became established in the English language. Comparing the BNC1994 with the BNC2014, this study investigates how the emerging modals have developed further in present-day spoken British English. The results show that their trajectories differ noticeably: the most frequent modal, gonna, appears to have reached its saturation stage, whereas gotta appears to be on a downward path. Wanna is the only variable exhibiting a significant increase of contractions and is therefore the only item that can still be regarded as a truly emerging modal. Comparing the contraction rates for male and female speakers reveals that men’s contraction rates are significantly higher in both corpora, except for gonna in the BNC2014, which is in contrast to the gender patterns identified in previous studies. The analysis furthermore discovers an unexpected apparent-time pattern with the two youngest age groups (0–14, 15–24) contracting the emerging modals less often. This development might partially be related to the phenomenon known as “adolescent peak” but could also be caused by preadolescents being underrepresented in the data.

Keywords: speech, modality, grammaticalisation, corpus linguistics, British National Corpus

1 Introduction

For over two decades, the spoken component of the British National Corpus 19941 was one of the primary sources for linguists studying spoken British English. In 2017, however, the spoken section of the BNC2014 was published. It provides a new and exciting opportunity for researchers to investigate ongoing changes in ←13 | 14→the English language and allows for a comparison of those two points in time. It enables analyses of morphological, sociolinguistic, pragmatic, as well as grammatical phenomena (Love et al. 2017: 319–322).

Among the most salient ongoing grammatical changes in the English language is the grammaticalisation process of what Krug (2000: 4–5) calls the “emerging modals”. The core members of this category are the constructions be going to, have to, have got to, and want to, including their fused forms gonna, wanna, and gotta. In his 2000 study, based partially on the BNC1994, he provides a comprehensive account of these constructions. With the BNC2014 now being available, the opportunity arises to study the trajectories of the emerging modals from 1994 onwards in both apparent time and real time. This is what the present study attempts to do. The focus will not be on the grammatical properties, since those have been extensively studied (e.g. Machová 2014, 2015), but on socially constrained variation in the use of emerging modals. Due to spatial constraints, only variation by age and gender will be discussed, since those variables have been proven to feature prominently in ongoing language change (e.g. Labov 1994: 43–112, 2001: 262). More specifically, the following two research questions will be addressed:

  • How has the distribution of the emerging modals gonna, wanna, and gotta in the BNC2014 developed in comparison to the BNC1994?
  • And how can their development be explained?

The study is structured as follows. Section 2 provides the necessary theoretical background on both grammaticalisation and the emerging modals. Section 3 goes on to elaborate on the methodology employed in this study; containing a description of the corpora, the search strings, and some essential notes on comparability. Section 4 presents the results of the analysis. This includes the overall frequencies of the items in question, as well as their variation by speaker age and gender. The results will then be discussed and evaluated in Section 5. A summary and concluding remarks are provided in Section 6.

2 Theoretical background

The following sections discuss relevant literature concerning the topic of this study in order to clarify how important terms are understood within the present analysis. This includes the theoretical framework of grammaticalisation, as well as prior research on the emerging modals. However, there are obviously other important topics related to this study, which cannot be discussed due to spatial constraints, such as the general rearrangement of the English modal verb system (for an overview, see Leech et al. 2009: 71–117).←14 | 15→

2.1 Grammaticalisation

Grammaticalisation is both an influential and a highly debated concept in present-day linguistics (Hopper & Traugott 2003; Miller & van Gelderen 2016). Different definitions of grammaticalisation are currently in use. One of the more widely known is given in Hopper and Traugott (2003: 2, emphasis added). They state: “As a term referring to actual phenomena of language, ‘grammaticalization’ refers most especially to the steps whereby particular items become more grammatical through time”. Typical changes analysed within this framework include the emergence of “prepositions from nouns” or “inflections from free adpositions” (Wischer 2006: 129). In general, these changes are presumed to proceed along ‘clines’ such as “content item > grammatical word > clitic > inflectional affix” (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 7).

There are several mechanisms at work during grammaticalisation processes, all of which can be illustrated with the emerging modals (see also Krug 2000: 17).2 Wischer (2006: 131–133) names the following mechanisms given subsequently (among others):

  • “Pragmatic Inferencing”: a new meaning is attached to the existing semantics of a morpheme by means of metaphor or metonymy, for example the sense of ‘desire’ was added to the original ‘lack’ meaning of want to (Krug 2000: 141–147).
  • “Semantic Bleaching”: the meaning of a morpheme becomes more general, for example the generalisation of going to from physical movement to the notion of intention and future (Lorenz 2013a: 13).
  • “Morpho-Syntactic Reanalysis”: the boundaries between phrases are reinterpreted, for example from biclausal [want] [to infinitive] to monoclausal [want to] [infinitive] (Krug 2000: 138–141; see also Bybee 2006: 719–721).
  • “Phonetic Attrition”: reduction of the phonological realisation of the grammaticalised form, for example from [goʊɪŋ tʊ] to [gɒnə] (Lorenz 2013a: 19).

Recent studies of grammaticalisation phenomena increasingly make use of corpora. For example, Lindquist and Mair (2004: x) claim that “grammaticalization ←15 | 16→studies can gain from the systematic and principled use of large computerized corpora and the methods which have been developed within corpus linguistics”. Many of the studies cited in this study rely on corpora for their results, for example Krug (2000: 29–33) on ARCHER (Biber et al. 1994) and the Helsinki Corpus (Rissanen et al. 1991), Lorenz (2013a: 40–41) on the Santa Barbara Corpus (Du Bois et al. 2000) and the Corpus of Historical American English (Davies 2010), or Machová (2014: 95) on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies 2008). The present study tries to provide another illustration of the facilitation of grammaticalisation research through the use of corpora, namely the BNC1994 and the BNC2014.

2.2 Emerging modals

First it should be noted that most standard works on the English modal system do not mention the emerging modals at all, or only very briefly, for instance Quirk et al. (1985: 496, 898, 1538). The most comprehensive account of the development of the emerging modals can be found in the seminal work by Krug, in which he defines emerging modals as follows (Krug 2000: 4):

In the narrow sense, the term [emerging modal] refers to the four constructions be going to, have to, have got to and want to […]. In these cases, the term is meant to indicate primarily that the items are recent: unlike the central modals (shall, would, etc.), none of the aforementioned constructions is inherited from Germanic. […] all four constructions have become common only in the course of Modern English, indeed only in the last 150 years. […] these constructions are currently – i.e. in British and American English at the turn of the millennium – becoming more widely used, and, crucially, also more modalized.

He subsequently provides a detailed analysis of the syntactic and semantic development of these emerging modals (except be going to). First of all, Krug (2000: 53–74) traces the grammatical and semantic development of have to and have got to from Old English to Present Day English. For the emergent form gotta he finds that increasing frequency and bondedness between got and the infinitival marker to point to grammaticalisation during the early twentieth century (Krug 2000: 114). Gotta now boasts a variety of core modal features, such as the absence of non-finite forms or the option of being followed by a bare infinitive (Krug 2000: 107). He also focuses in more detail on wanna, explaining how it emerged from the relatively recent modal want to (Krug 2000: 118–141), as well as its semantic expansion from volition to obligation (Krug 2000: 141–151). On the whole, however, wanna does not appear to be as far grammaticalised as the related emerging modals (Krug 2000: 165).←16 | 17→

One of the main foci of Krug’s analysis is the regional variation of the emergent forms (Krug 2000: 163–164 on wanna, Krug 2000: 111–114 on gotta). Although he mentions in various places (e.g. 2000: 165, 172–173, 195–196, 254–255) that the rise and the spread of emerging modals represent independent natural changes on both sides of the Atlantic and that we are dealing with many automatic, frequency-driven phonetic reduction processes (Krug 2000: 215–216), he also states that American English is often leading the changes (e.g. 2000: 173) and that the contracted forms are spreading within Great Britain from the south to the north (2000: 254).

Even though it would be possible to replicate his analysis with the BNC2014, this is far beyond the scope of this study – but it remains an interesting option for further research. Krug furthermore elaborates on the stylistic variation of the emerging modals (Krug 2000: 162 on wanna, Krug 2000: 109–111 on gotta). Interesting as this may be, it cannot be investigated with the corpora chosen for the analysis at hand, due to the composition of the BNC2014 (see Section 3.2).

It is also important to mention here that throughout the study, Krug (2000: 250) keeps emphasising the “pervasive influence of text frequency” on grammaticalisation processes an aspect which will be relevant later on. Another important assertion Krug makes is that the investigated developments are “natural changes from below” (2000: 254, emphasis original) and he considers it likely that in the long run the contracted variants will become the predominant realisation in all varieties of English (2000: 254). And since Lorenz (2013a: 44) finds contraction rates for gonna close to 100 % for young speakers in American English, even a complete substitution in spoken varieties seems possible.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (June)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 248 pp., 1 fig. col., 30 fig. b/w, 42 tables.

Biographical notes

Manfred Krug (Volume editor) Valentin Werner (Volume editor) Ole Schützler (Volume editor) Fabian Vetter (Volume editor)

Manfred Krug is full professor of English Linguistics at the University of Bamberg. Valentin Werner is associate professor of English Linguistics at the University of Bamberg. Ole Schützler is full professor for Varieties of English at Leipzig University. Fabian Vetter is a postdoctoral researcher in English Linguistics at the University of Bamberg.


Title: Perspectives on Contemporary English: Structure, Variation, Cognition