UID in Early Modern English

  •  06 December 2018
  •   Jiří Zámečník
  •   Graduate Student, English, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

Previous research analyzing the usage of that-complementizer has provided evidence that its use in Present Day English is guided by the principle of uniform information density. It has been shown that speakers tend to leave the complementizer out in those cases, where its production would lead to a decrease in the information transmission rate. Similarly, the complementizer is often inserted in those locations where a peak in the rate at which information is transmitted would occur in the case of zero linking.

If the usage/omission of that is indeed a result of the sensitivity of language producers to information density, we may assume the same principle to govern syntactic choices at earlier stages of the development of the English language. The language production should, too, be optimized in order to avoid spikes in processing difficulty.

In my project, I test in how far this assumption is reflected in the data of Early Modern period on the basis of reconstructed speech from the Corpus of Early English Dialogues 1560–1760. I explore whether the syntactic variation can be explained solely by the processing constraints, or whether other factors play a role. The examined factors include the length and position of the complement clause, ambiguity at the onset of the complement clause, subject type, as well as the year in which the speech was first published (in order to explore the small-scale diachronic development of the phenomenon).