In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Syntactic Change

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Works
  • English-Language Corpora
  • Non-English Corpora
  • Journals
  • English Modals
  • Infinitives
  • Null Subjects
  • Serial Verbs
  • Verb Movement

Linguistics Syntactic Change
Acrisio Pires, David Lightfoot
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0085


Linguistics began in the 19th century as a historical science, asking how languages came to be the way they are. Almost all of the work dealt with the changing pronunciation of words and “sound change” more broadly. Much attention was paid to explaining why sounds changed the way they did, and that involved developing ideas about directionality. Work on syntax was limited to compiling how different languages expressed clause types differently, notably Vergleichende Syntax der Indogermanischen Sprachen, by Berthold Delbrück. With the greatly increased attention to syntax in the latter half of the 20th century, approaches to syntactic change were enriched significantly. Most of the work on change, both generative and nongenerative, continued the 19th-century search for an inherent directionality to language change, now in the domain of syntax, but other approaches were developed seeking to understand new syntactic systems arising through the contingent conditions of language acquisition.

General Overviews

With the new work on syntax emerging in the mid-20th century through models of phrase structure grammars, Harris-style surface transformations, and then the abstractions of generative grammar, scientists began to consider historical change in syntactic systems. Klima 1964 was the first major work, and Closs 1965 introduced the sociological notion of a diachronic grammar of a language that generated structures and sentences from various periods of that language. The universals in Greenberg 1966 identified harmonies, whereby a language with property p might necessarily have property q or might tend with varying degrees of probability to have properties r and s. This gave rise to the typological approach, in which languages were seen as changing from one pure type to another following a universal diachronic hierarchy in developing the harmonic features of the new language type, as seen in the anthologies Li 1975 and Li 1977. Lightfoot 1979 construed grammars as psychological properties of individuals attained by children exposed to limited primary linguistic data (PLD) in the first few years of life. Under that view, new grammars emerge when people are exposed to new PLD. Early work focused on structural shifts in which various phenomena changed as a function of a single new property in the grammar attained (e.g., Roberts 1993); the singularity of the change at the abstract level was taken to explain the simultaneity at the phenomenological level. More recent work has linked changes to conditions of language acquisition (Lightfoot 1999).

  • Closs, E. 1965. Diachronic syntax and generative grammar. Language 41.3: 402–415.

    DOI: 10.2307/411783

    Takes a sociological perspective on language and posits a diachronic grammar that generates structures from different periods of a language. Available online by subscription.

  • Greenberg, J. H. 1966. Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Universals of language. 2d ed. Edited by J. H. Greenberg, 73–113. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    First detailed attempt to show the contribution of typological studies spanning a wide range of languages, focusing on correlations of typological markedness.

  • Klima, E. S. 1964. Studies in diachronic transformational syntax. PhD diss., Harvard University.

    First extensive case study of diachronic syntax from a generative perspective.

  • Li, C. N., ed. 1975. Word order and word order change. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    One of the first collections of papers on diachronic syntax, presented at a conference on the topic of word order and word order change across languages. The distinction between OV and VO pure types was central to early work on the hierarchy of changes undergone by languages moving from one pure type to another.

  • Li, C. N., ed. 1977. Mechanisms of syntactic change. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    Papers from a symposium on mechanisms of syntactic change held in Santa Barbara, California, in 1976. Reviewed by D. W. Lightfoot in 1979 (Language 55:381–395).

  • Lightfoot, D. W. 1979. Principles of diachronic syntax. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    One of the first systematic accounts of the interrelationship between different kinds of syntactic change within generative grammar, offering a transparency principle as a motivating force for reanalyses.

  • Lightfoot, D. W. 1999. The development of language: Acquisition, change, and evolution. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Connects language change and development from a generative perspective, arguing in favor of a cue-based approach to acquisition and change.

  • Roberts, I. G. 1993. Verbs and diachronic syntax: A comparative history of English and French. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

    Generative analysis of the historical development of a number of English and French constructions involving various kinds of verb movement.

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