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Historical pragmatics and corpus linguistics: problems and strategies

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Chapter Summary

Corpus linguistics is “the sine qua non of historical linguistics” (McEnery and Wilson 2001: 123). Contemporary corpus linguistics has led to significant advances in historical linguistics, most notably in the speed and ease with which data can be retrieved. The English historical linguist has available for use a wide variety of corpora. However, none is entirely ideal. Only two corpora, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Helsinki Corpus, provide the full diachronic span from Old English to the present day. The OED quotation bank, though not a corpus strictly speaking, can – with caution – be fruitfully used by the historical linguist (Hoffmann 2004). At only 1.5 million words for 1000 years of language history, the Helsinki Corpus, a balanced general-purpose corpus, may prove too small for some types of searches. Apart from these sources, the historical English linguist must cobble together a variety of corpora from the individual periods of English, ranging from the Dictionary of Old English Corpus containing almost all extant Old English texts, to the Middle English Dictionary (sharing many of the weaknesses of the OED), to the rich Chadwyck-Healey corpora designed primarily for the literary scholar (and quite user-unfriendly for the linguist). After a review of the historical corpora available to the English linguist, this paper explores some of the problems encountered by a scholar wishing to apply corpus linguistic methodology in the field of historical pragmatics. I articulate the strategies that I have adopted in my work on pragmatic markers and, more recently, on comment clauses in the history of English (Brinton 2008). As a case study, I explore the development of the comment clause (as) you say in the history of English. The use of a mixed qualitative/quantitative corpus-based approach allows for a detailed, empirically based description of the rise of (as) you say; at the same time, it permits testing of the “matrix clause hypothesis”, the prevailing theory concerning the origin of comment clauses that has been extrapolated from Thompson and Mulac’s synchronic work on I think/guess. Frequency counts of the presumed source construction (i.e., you say that S) in the earlier periods cast doubt on the validity of the matrix clause hypothesis. Corpus data suggest a more nuanced view of the rise of this comment clause, namely, that a variety of structures, including relative/adverbial as you say, main clause you say, and you say following a fronted element all contributed to its genesis.



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