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Quirky quadratures: on rhythm and weight as constraints on genitive variation in an unconventional data set1


This article explores measures, operationalisations and effects of rhythm and weight as two constraints on the variation between the s-genitive and the of-genitive. We base the analysis on interchangeable genitives in the news and letters sections of ARCHER (A Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers), which covers the period between 1650 and 1999. Thus, we are ultimately concerned with the applicability of two factors that have their roots in speech (rhythm: phonology; weight: online processing) to an ‘unconventional’, written data set with a historical dimension. As for weight, we focus on the comparison of simple single-constituent and more complex multi-constituent measurements. Our notion of rhythm centres on the ideally even distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables. We find that in our data set, both rhythm and weight show theoretically unexpected quadratic effects: rhythmically better-behaved s-genitives are not necessarily preferred over of-genitives, and short constituents exhibit odd weight effects. In conclusion, we argue that while rhythm is only a minor player in our data set, the quadratic quirks it exhibits should inspire further study. Weight, on the other hand, is a crucial factor which, however, likewise comes with measurement and modelling complications.

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We are grateful for feedback from the audience of the ISLE 2 workshop on ‘Genitive variation in English’ in June 2011. In addition, two anonymous referees provided us with extremely helpful comments and suggestions. The usual disclaimers apply. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. BCS-1025602.

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