Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Regional Variation in Jespersen's Cycle in Early Middle English

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Regional Variation in Jespersen's Cycle in Early Middle English

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

As is well known, English during its history has undergone the cyclical development that has since Dahl (1979) been known as Jespersen's Cycle. (1) The inherited Germanic preverbal negator ni (later ne), as in (1), began to cooccur with forms of not (e.g., nawt, noht, na[??]t), as in (2), which could later occur alone as the sole clausal negator, as in (3). These examples show that all three stages of the cycle can be found during the Early Middle English period; in fact, all three examples are from the early fourteenth century. (2)

(1) swettore [thorn]ing  ne  mi[??]te be
    sweeter thing  NEG might  be
    'there could be no sweeter thing' (Stage I; corp145selt.tag)

(2) he ne  mai no[??]te  loke  tilward her  ly[??]t
    he NEG may  NEG  look  toward her  light
    "he may not look toward her light" (Stage II; edincmct.tag)

(3) for  godd  aght  noght  gif  yam  mercy
    for  God  ought  NEG  give  them  mercy
    "for God ought not to give them mercy" (Stage III; cotvespcmat.tag)

The English Jespersen's Cycle has been intensively studied since Jespersen (1917); Ingham (2013) provides an overview, with references, of this and other changes in the expression of negation in English. Important work on Middle English in particular has been carried out by Jack (1978); Iyeiri (1992, 2001); Frisch (1997); Laing (2002); Wallage (2005, 2008, 2013); Ingham (2006, 2008), among others.

In this paper we address a small, but important, part of the puzzle: where did the change from stage II, ne plus not, to stage III, not alone, begin? A previous quantitative study of Jespersen's Cycle, Wallage (2005, 2008), documented the chronological spread of stage III during the Middle English period in detail, but was not able to address this question, noting that the resource he was using, the Penn Parsed Corpus of Middle English (PPCME2; Kroch & Taylor 2000), was not well balanced for dialect during the crucial period 1250-1350 CE (2005: 68, 205). Using a small hand-analysed corpus of late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century prose texts, Ingham (2006: 90-91) was able to show that sentential negator ne was used much less in Northern texts (4.4%) than in Southern texts (17.2%); however, in all texts except Chaucer's Boece retention of ne had already fallen below 30%, suggesting that the real action took place somewhat earlier.

The availability of the Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English (Laing 2013-) makes it possible to fill this gap in the literature, and that is what this paper aims to do. In section 2 we outline our data sources and methodology for data collection and analysis; the results are presented in section 3. As already noted by Ingham (2008: 133) on the basis of his later data, the geographical asymmetry between the north and east on the one hand and the south and west on the other are suggestive of a Scandinavian origin for stage III, or at least a catalysing effect, and we devote some time to discussion of these possibilities in section 4. Section 5 then summarizes and concludes.

2. Methodology


The data source we make use of is the Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English corpus (Laing 2013-; henceforth LAEME), version 3.2. LAEME is a sister project to the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English (LALME; Mcintosh et al. 1986), and covers the precise time period that is of interest to us, 1150-1350. The corpus is freely available online and contains nearly 650,000 lexicogrammatically tagged words, based on diplomatic transcriptions of original manuscript sources rather than editions. This corpus represents nearly all the Early Middle English that has been passed down to us, though some extensive texts are sampled rather than included in their entirety.

Importantly for our purposes, the LAEME texts are all dated, and most are localized (more or less approximately) using a six-figure National Grid reference. These features enable the spread of changes to be tracked quite precisely through time and space, at least as far as the extant sources allow, as amply demonstrated by the case studies in Studer-Joho (2014). …

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