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Academic Paper

Title: The Rise of an NP Premodifier in Early 20th-century English
Author: Alex Ho-Cheong Leung
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Institution: Northumbria University
Author: Wim van der Wurff
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Institution: University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Linguistic Field: Historical Linguistics
Abstract: It has been noted (e.g. Biber and Clark 2002; Biber 2003; Mair and Leech 2006) that contemporary English has seen an increase in the use of heavily premodified NPs:/L//L/(1) a small, quaint yesterday thing/L/(2) an even-tempered, down-to-earth Chicago native/L/(3) Sainsbury's impressive new greener-than-thou waste management initiative/L//L/Another possible NP premodifier is the combination of an easy-adjective with a to-infinitive, as in (4)./L//L/(4) an easy-to-understand book; a hard to refute argument; difficult-to-reach places /L//L/The attributive use of such sequences has so far received very little attention. It is unattested in earlier stages of the language (van der Wurff and Leung 2008) so the question arises when exactly it appeared. In this paper, we shall first track the emergence of NPs as in (4), which initial data suggest took place in the first half of the 20th century. Using a range of corpora, we shall try to pin down more precisely the date of the change and the linguistic properties of the earliest examples. We shall then use these findings to explore the possible reasons for the appearance of this type of NP premodifier. /L//L/Briefly, we shall argue that the new construction is linked to some earlier changes affecting the sequence of easy-adjective plus to-infinitive. In particular, sentences as in (5) and (6) disappeared towards the end of the 19th century:/L//L/(5) He is hard to accept change./L/(6) The book was easy to be understood./L//L/We shall propose a unified explanation for these two losses, which involves a change in the lexical semantics of easy-adjectives, which went from being able to directly characterize referents to increasingly characterising only activities. This shows up as an effect in the use of simple sentences with these adjectives and we argue that it also provides an elegant account of the appearance of NPs as in (4). The account crucially hinges on an analysis of sentences with predicative use of easy whereby – following the spirit of Kayne (2006) and the letter of Hicks (2004) – they feature a clause with a silent infinitival verb whose exact identity is semantically and pragmatically determined on the basis of the surface subject referent and the discourse situation. Before ca. 1900, beside a clausal structure associated with easy, there was also a simple structure available. When the clausal structure became dominant, the silent-verb analysis became forced, both in predicative and attributive use of the adjective. When the silent verb was spelled out in the attributive cases – subject to structural constraints of the RHHR type – , it resulted in NPs as in (4).
Type: Individual Paper
Status: Completed
Venue: University of Vigo, Spain
Publication Info: Paper at The 1st Vigo-Newcastle-Santiago-Leuven International Workshop on the Structure of the Noun Phrase in English: Synchronic and Diachronic Explorations (NP1)

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