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

Albeit a Conjunction, Yet It Is a Clause: A Counter-Example to Unidirectionality Hypothesis? (1)

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

Albeit a Conjunction, Yet It Is a Clause: A Counter-Example to Unidirectionality Hypothesis? (1)

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In this paper I discuss the expression al be it in the context of grammaticalization, as presented most fully in the book by Hopper -- Traugott (1993). I will claim that this phrase, which arose in English in the 14th century, had its heyday in late Middle English and early Modem English when it was grammaticalized down the clause-to-conjunction dine, was later becoming more and more obsolescent to end up in the late 20th century as a more and more frequently used marker of concessivity, or better contradiction, albeit in a limited syntactic context. Modem data seem to suggest that the conventional spelling of albeit together only disguises its genuine character of a clausal phrase.

The origin of the idiom is usually attributed to the calque from the Old French expression tout-soft-il (tut seit-il) used in the same function (cf. Mustanoja 1968: 317, 468 or OED s.v.) and is first attested in the 14th century (Cursor Mundi, Chaucer, Gower):

(1) Al be it pai be theues all, Pat pai war breper elleuen Pat ham, pai neuend me pe yongeist nam

(Cursor Mundi 4978 a 1340) (2)

However, there are some earlier native instances of the adverb all, which appears to have been grammaticalized as a conjunction introducing clauses of concession with inverted word order and the subjunctive copula, e.g.

(2) al were he ifulled of de [holi] goste 7 al were he puruh miracle of barain iboren ... 3et ne dorste he wunien among men.

(Ancrene Riwle 70/10 1225)

(3) Ne telle pu nawt edelich, al beo pu meiden, to widewen ne to iweddede.

(Hali Meidenhad 39/653 c. 1230)

The close relationship between concessivity and universal quantification was noticed by Konig (1985: 10) to be present in many languages and "a component which is also used as universal quantifier" is considered to have been one of the major sources for the development of concessive connectives (cf. English for all, although, all the same, however, French toutefois, tout ... que, Russian vse taki, Polish mimo wszystko, wszelako, wszakze; Konig lists other examples, also from non-Indo-European languages such as Hungarian or Chinese). Also Mustanoja (1960: 316) and Visser (1963-1973: [section]883) point to the intensifying function of all in Middle English, which was easily combined with other connectives and yielded if all, though all, although cf. also also, already, always, algate(s) etc., where all was further delexicalized as a mere prefix; thus all went down the adverb > conjunction > prefix dine). Tracing the origin of concessive conjunctions in Romance languages, Harris (1988: 80-83) notes the use of Fr ench adverbs such as tout, bien in this function. In his opinion "a situation depicted as being entirely at one end is clearly made to be used concessively, provided that the end specified is that least readily compatible with the main clause, which is nevertheless represented as true. We find for instance tut seit-il mort (literally 'entirely be he dead') in the sense 'though he is dead' ... English 'albeit' clearly has a similar origin."

2. Al be it in Middle English

In Chaucer's English al-be-it becomes very common, yet its syntactic status is unclear. It is difficult to determine whether we should treat it as a petrified expression equivalent to a conjunction or whether it is still a clausal phrase. In all the corpus of Chaucer's prose (cf. Molencki in press), out of 54 instances of at be it only four are spelt together (all of them in Book V of Boece), thus supporting the conjunction analysis (though, as we know, medieval spelling cannot be fully diagnostic in such cases), e. g.

(4) Also ymaginacioun, albeit so that it takith the bygynnynges to seen and to formen the figures ...

(Boece Vp. 4, 205)

Yet the other manuscripts which I have consulted have the separate spelling:

(4) a. al be it so pat it taketh . …

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