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Project C2 - Winners and Losers of morphosyntactic language change

PI: Hanna Fischer, Michael Cysouw
Ph.D.-student: Maria Luisa Krapp

Research context

Morpho-syntactic variation and language change phenomena have received intensive attention in the course of grammaticalization research in recent decades. Historical, dialectological as well as typological studies have been undertaken. However, a combination of the three research approaches and an explicit focus on the internal and external factors of degradation processes represent a new and innovative approach.

Current dissertation project


The project aims to investigate the dynamics of modal expression in the subjunctive in the regional varieties of German. In this context, the synthetic subjunctive forms can be interpreted as losing forms, and the analytical subjunctive periphrases as winning forms of morpho-syntactic language change. A comprehensive description of this phenomenon at the language system level also allows conclusions about underlying linguistic representations.

The subjunctive paradigms of New High German standard language are interspersed with numerous syncretisms to the indicative, which is often seen as an explanation for the loss of the synthetic subjunctive as well as for the shift to functionally equivalent analytical periphrases (standard German würde + infinitive). However, a look at the German dialects shows that a preference for analytic subjunctive forms can also be observed in those varieties whose subjunctive paradigms are free of syncretisms to the indicative (cf. weak -at-subjunctives in Bavarian), while the subjunctive has completely disappeared in Low German varieties.

The project aims to provide a multidimensional description of these variation and change phenomena on a formal and functional level. One objective is to map the diachronic development of the subjunctive in German (historical variation dimension), which includes an evaluation of the existing research literature and grammars of German with special focus on regional differences. Another objective is to work out an overview of forms and functions of the subjunctive in the dialects of German (horizontal variation dimension). For this purpose, dialect grammars from different Upper, Middle and Lower German dialect areas will be evaluated. Finally, the use of the subjunctive in the modern regional languages will be explored (vertical variation dimension), focusing on own empirical investigations, which will combine corpus analyses (especially of spoken language) and indirect surveys. Here, the question by which (linguistic and non-linguistic) factors the use of the subjunctive and its degradation in German are controlled, is of particular interest.


Mixed Methods Approach: corpus linguistic, dialectological, statistical, contrastive and/or typological.

Preliminary work

For the dynamics in the tense and aspect system, the central reference studies on the expressive change of grammatical categories in German in the horizontal variation dimension (different dialect spaces) and in the vertical variation dimension (standard dialect axis) were elaborated in Fischer (2018, 2020b). In addition to the evaluation of central dialect geographic documentation and indirect as well as direct surveys, corpus linguistic and statistical methods are used here. Thematically, too, these studies by H. Fischer (PI) represent central preliminary work: In the expressive change studied, a first determination and hierarchization of relevant factors of language change processes took place. Also, M. Cysouw (PI) shows how statistical evaluations of historical corpus linguistic data can be done (Cysouw, 2005; Cysouw et al., 2018; Cysouw & Forker, 2009) Here, language change is reconstucted in the area of case marking using variational linguistic data from a non-Indo-European language family.

  • Cysouw, M. & Forker, D. (2009). Reconstruction of morphosyntactic function: Nonspatial usage of spatial case marking in Tsezic. Language, 85(3), 588–617.

  • Cysouw, M. (2014). Inducing semantic roles. Silvia Luraghi & Heiko Narrog (eds.) Perspectives on Semantic Roles, 23-68. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

  • Fischer, H. (2018). Präteritumschwund im Deutschen. Dokumentation und Erklärung eines Verdrängungsprozesses. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

  • Fischer, H. (2020). Gesprochene Sprache im Fokus: Eine gebrauchslinguistische Studie zum Ausdruckswandel grammatischer Kategorien im Deutschen. Philipps-Universität Marburg.

  • Fleischer, J., Cysouw, M., Speyer, A. & Wiese, R. (2018). Variation and its determinants: a corpusbased study of german schwa in the letters of Goethe. Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft, 37(1), 55–81.

Relation to other projects

The project allows links to project C3, which also focuses on morpho-syntactic change processes. Here, methodological overlaps as well as thematic connections can be established. Links can also be established to project C1. As we know from modern regional language research, morpho-syntactic variation phenomena show a large-scale areal distribution. Unanswered is the question, which role the borders of modern regional languages play for the acceptance and the use of morpho-syntactic variants. This can be brought into focus by linking the two projects. Finally, there is a direct link to project A4 (diminutives).