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English Language : Linguistics : Syntax :

It’s grammaticalization, innit?

المؤلف:  David Hornsby

المصدر:  Linguistics A complete introduction

الجزء والصفحة:  272-13

2024-01-03

477

It’s grammaticalization, innit?

An interesting example of grammaticalization, affecting a particular kind of interrogative structure, is currently under way in London English. Tag questions are generally used to monitor whether the interlocutor has understood, or is following the conversation, by inviting feedback from him/her (generally a nod of assent will do):

He does a good job, doesn’t he?

They aren’t coming, are they?

She has done it, hasn’t she?

 

These structures in English are many in number and surprisingly complex. As in the above examples, they involve negation of a modal or auxiliary verb, or removal of the negation if it is already negative, then inversion of subject and verb; there are also some irregular forms to contend with (*willn’t > won’t; *amn’t > aren’t). The multiple tag questions of English contrast with one or two in German, which manages perfectly well with oder? (literally: ‘or?’) or nicht wahr? (literally: ‘not true?’). A fairly recent development in London English, however, is for one form, innit?, to be used in all cases:

It’s true, innit? (< isn’t it?)

We saw him on Saturday, innit? (< didn’t we?)

They’re not staying here, innit? (< are they?)

 

As a contraction of the most commonly used tag question is it not? > isn’t it? >  innit? displays the phonetic reduction typical of grammaticalization; the loss of its specific meaning ‘is it not?’ allows it to be used as both a negative and a positive tag question, and with modal and auxiliary verbs other than to be. Innit, in other words, has been semantically bleached in this context, like French pas in the previous example. Although currently viewed as a low-status form in English, provoking indignation (or cardiac arrest) among purists, innit? appears to be following the path already trodden by n’est-ce pas? in French, which likewise reduced phonetically and lost its association with the verb to be, and ultimately became a perfectly acceptable standard construction (‘Le Président est d’accord avec vous, n’est-ce pas?’ – literally, ‘The President agrees with you, innit?’).

 

Many internally motivated grammatical changes can be seen to make life easier for the speaker by making the system as a whole more economical. This is notably the case when a language sheds grammatical or morphosyntactic complexity. Modern Swedish, for example, has largely lost personal endings on the verb, and now distinguishes two rather than three genders, masculine and feminine having merged into a ‘common’ gender contrasting with neuter. French provides a number of examples of elimination of redundancy, i.e. the removal in speech of repeated grammatical information, which is still required by the more conservative written norm:

(a) Les petites princesses blanches arrivent. ‘The little white princesses arrive’

(b) La petite princesse blanche arrive. ‘The little white princess arrives’

 

In (a) there are five suffixal plural markers (marked in bold), but phonetic erosion has left only one plural marker in speech, namely the article les , which contrasts with singular la  in this frame (see (b)). Written French also maintains a distinction in the tense system which has been lost from speech: