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No momentary fancy! The zero ‘complementizer’ in English dialects



In this paper we analyse variable presence of the complementizer that, i.e. I thinkthat/Øthis is interesting, in a large archive of British dialects. Situating this feature within its historical development and synchronic patterning, we seek to understand the mechanism underlying the choice between that and zero. Our findings reveal that, in contrast to the diachronic record, the zero option is predominant – 91 per cent overall. Statistical analyses of competing factors operating on this feature confirm that grammaticalization processes and grammatical complexity play a role. However, the linguistic characteristics of a previously grammaticalized collocation, I think, exerts a greater effect. Its imprint is visible in multiple internal factors which constrain the zero option in the other contexts. We argue that this recurrent pattern in discourse propels the zero option through the grammar. These findings contribute to research arguing for a strong relationship between frequency and reanalysis in linguistic change.



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The first author gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom (the ESRC) for research grant #R000239097, Back to the Roots: The Legacy of British Dialects. We are indebted to Helen Lawrence, the postdoctoral research assistant on this grant, for the gargantuan task of extracting and coding the data for this analysis and conducting a preliminary review of the literature. Hearty thanks to Minna Palander-Collin for lending her insights into the historical situation as well as engaging in informative discussion with us on this topic. We also benefited from two anonymous reviewers whose comments were most valuable. Any remaining errors are, of course, ours alone.



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