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Form does not follow function, but variation does: the origin and early usage of possessive have got in English



This article investigates the emergence and early use of possessive have got in English. Two hypotheses about its emergence are tested on historical data (c.1460–1760). One hypothesis is based on communicative functionality, suggesting that got was inserted as a ‘pattern preserver’ to compensate for the increased reduction of have. The other hypothesis invokes the conventionalization of an invited inference, thus a (non-functional) semantic shift which does not immediately serve to support a communicative function. The diachronic evidence is found to support only the latter hypothesis.

In the second part the early stage of the variation of have and have got is investigated (c.1720–50). The results show a strong register difference, but also a division of labour between the variants that can be explained by the syntactic and semantic properties of have got as having emerged out of a present perfect of get. Thus, the variation is organized in a functionally motivated way.

It is concluded that in the development of possessive have got functional constraints apply to the variation early on, but do not play an evident role in the emergence of the new variant. This suggests that functional motivations are a directing force but not necessarily a driving force in language change.



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