Grammaticalisation clines: a brief conceptual history

Martin Konvička
Freie Universität Berlin

1 Grammaticalisation clines

In this blog post, I will sketch the history of grammaticalisation clines. Hopper and Traugott (2003: 6) understand this concept as “a metaphor for the empirical observation that cross-linguistically forms tend to undergo the same kinds of changes”. A prototypical cline, following Hopper and Traugott (2003: 7), looks as follows:

(1) content item > grammatical word > clitic > inflectional affix

A grammaticalisation cline entails a synchronic and a diachronic perspective. In the former case, a grammaticalisation cline represents the continuum of expressions within a single language ranging from indisputably lexical to indisputably grammatical. In the latter case, a grammaticalisation cline can represent a historical development in that it illustrates the stages through which an expression goes on its way from lexical to grammatical status.

Moreover, both the synchronic and the diachronic interpretation of a grammaticalisation cline can be also understood typologically. Synchronically, a cline such as (1) does not represent the possibilities in a single language, but also across different languages. Diachronically, the development from a lexical to a grammatical expression within one language can also be understood as a cross-linguistic generalisation.

1.1 Terminology overview

Although I am using the term grammaticalisation clines in this post, there is no terminological consensus and a number of terms are used interchangeably: grammaticality cline (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 7), cline of grammaticality (Norde 2002: 47), cline of grammaticalization (Norde 2002: 55), grammaticalization pathways (Pagliuca 1994: ix), grammaticalization scales (Lehmann 1985), grammaticalization chains (Heine 1992), grammaticalization channels (Diewald, Kresic & Smirnova 2009).

While some of the aforementioned terms such as grammaticality cline, grammaticalisation cline, cline of grammaticalisation or grammaticalisation scales are synonymous with each other, some differ to some degree. Terms such as grammaticalisation pathwaysgrammaticalisation chains and grammaticalisation channels refer to the diachronic transition of a lexical expression rather than to the synchronic perspective.

The term cline is, however, not specific to grammaticalisation studies. One of the early uses, as Hopper and Traugott (2003: 6) point out, can be found in Halliday’s work (1961: 247). Similar to the concept of a grammaticalisation cline, Halliday views the distinction between members of the so-called closed classes, i.e. grammatical expressions, and the so-called open classes, i.e. lexical expressions, also as a cline.

1.2 Related concepts

One of the central tenets related to the concept of a cline was the unidirectionality of the movement along a cline. The cline, following Hopper and Traugott (2003: 7), consists of a number of items and “[e]ach item to the right is more clearly grammatical and less lexical than its partner to the left.” This also means that a cline is a representation of “a unidirectional progression in bondedness, that is, in the degree of cohesion of adjacent forms that goes from loosest (‘periphrasis’) to tightest (‘morphology’).”

The strong claim of the unidirectional movement along a grammaticalisation cline sparked a discussion about its validity which will not be described here in detail. For now, it is enough to mention that a number of concepts have emerged in response. On the one hand, there are concepts that describe the traditional progression from left to right, such as grammaticalization (Hopper & Traugott 2003) or primary and secondary grammaticalization (Traugott 2002). On the other hand, concepts such as lexicalization (Kuryłowicz 1965: 69), degrammaticalization (Norde 2009) or antigrammaticalization (Haspelmath 2004) describe those processes that supposedly go in the opposite direction. Lastly, lateral moves (Joseph 2004), lateral shifts (Joseph 2006) or regrammaticalization (Greenberg 1991) refer to processes leading to no shifts to the left or to the right, but to changes without a shift along the cline.

Some publications (Fischer, Norde & Perridon 2004; Harnisch, Krieger & Passau 2017) also allude to this directionality in their titles by using the phrase up and down the cline to describe the developments they study.

1.3 Troubles with clines

A grammaticalisation cline such as the one given in (1) is, however, not without problems. If we look at it more closely, we find out that it in fact comprises two clines: first, one illustrating functional changes from a content item to a grammatical word, and a second one describing formal changes from a (free) word to a bound affix.

The two halves of a grammaticalisation cline become even more problematic if we consider definitions of grammaticalisation that understand it as a change “whereby a lexical item or construction in certain uses takes on grammatical characteristics, or through which a grammatical item becomes more grammatical” (Hopper and Traugott 2003: 2).

The crucial point here is the idea that grammatical items can become even more grammatical. Combining the formal and functional halves of a grammaticalisation cline leads to a conceptual link between the form and the function of an expression. In other words, the more bound an expression is, the more grammatical it should be. However, the link between reduced form and grammatical status brings about practical problems.

First, if applied consistently it leads to false predictions within a single language. Not all grammatical expressions are recognised as such, while some lexical ones meet the formal criteria of grammaticality. Against this backdrop, our diagnostics only work if we already know that the expression at hand is grammatical. In that case, however, our diagnostics are not really diagnostics, but rather a mere confirmation.

Second, the link between the form and the function of an expression also causes cross-linguistic difficulties. If we consistently take the cline in (1) at face value, analytic and isolating languages would have to be seen as less grammatical than languages with a rich morphological system. In that case, however, we would unwittingly regress to “the language typology of the early nineteenth century, when analytic languages were seen as less developed”, as von Mengden (2016: 139) writes.

The issues sketched above boil down to the morphocentric ideal of “‘good grammar’” described by Diewald (2010: 22) as “prototypically realized by formally bound and semantically reduced items (i.e. by affixal morphology)”. This perhaps subconscious notion of “good grammar” is similar to Dahl’s (1990: 3) default language, i.e. the idea that a prototypical, “good language”, is “something between English, French, German and perhaps Italian – actually, and probably not accidentally, something very much like Esperanto.”

In order to rid grammaticalisation clines of the aforementioned problems, some scholars have called for more or less radical corrections. Boye and Harder (2012: 32–33), for instance, suggest that the link between form and function should not be understood as direct, but as potential. In other words, form does not define function, but it helps identify it.

The most radical proposition comes from scholars such as Andersen (2006) or von Mengden (2016), who argue for dividing the formal and functional halves of the cline altogether. Only if we study formal and functional changes separately, they argue, can we understand if and how they interact. Assuming a link between form and function beforehand is counterproductive.

2. Historical sketch

2.1 Early research on grammaticalisation

To fully appreciate the above discussion of clines and their problems, I will now turn to the earliest history of grammaticalisation cline in the works of Jerzy Kuryłowicz (1964; 1965). Expanding the original definition of grammaticalisation by Antoine Meillet (1912), Kuryłowicz (1965: 69) defines grammaticalisation as follows:

Grammaticalization consists in the increase of the range of a morpheme advancing from a lexical to a grammatical or from less grammatical to a more grammatical status, e.g. from a derivative formant to an inflectional one. 
(Kuryłowicz 1965: 69)

Grammaticalisation is for him not only the functional change from a lexical to a grammatical element. Kuryłowicz adds the idea that already grammatical elements can become even more grammatical, which results in the implicit cline given in (2).

(2) lexical morpheme > grammatical (derivational) morpheme > grammatical (inflectional) morpheme

As von Mengden (2016: 124–126) shows in some detail, Kuryłowicz’s expanded definition has very probably come about in an accidental way by a combination of one of his earlier works (1964) and Meillet’s work on grammaticalisation. Nevertheless, this unintentional creation has had far-reaching implication for the idea of grammaticalisation clines:

Kuryłowicz’s 1965 definition is the one that has become enshrined in later grammaticalization studies and that has formed the unshakeable basis of grammaticalization studies ever since the 1980s.
(Von Mengden 2016: 125)

In the next section, I will turn to another tradition that helped entrench the concept of grammaticalisation cline in the modern grammaticalisation studies, namely typology.

2.2 Typological research

Both grammaticalisation research since the 1980s and the idea of a grammaticalisation cline have always combined a diachronic and a typological approach. At the core of the concept lies the idea that not only can an analytic construction become more synthetic within a single language, but that whole languages can shift from an analytic to a synthetic type.

The origins of such a typological cline can be traced back to the 19thcentury, to the so-called agglutination theory and to the works of e.g. August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Heymann Steinthal, August Schleicher or Georg von der Gabalentz.

This tradition is continued also in the 20th century, for instance, by Edward Sapir (1921) in his works on linguistic drift (for a brief overview, see Lehmann 2015: 5–9), to name just one scholar. In this post, however, I will concentrate only on two works from the 1970s that have more direct ties to grammaticalisation research and to the idea of a grammaticalisation cline, namely on two articles by Carleton T. Hodge (1970) and Talmy Givón (1971).

Hodge uses data from Ancient Egyptian to show how a single language can shift from heavily relying on morphology to an analytic language relying on word order and back again. Hodge (1970: 3) summarises this development in his dictum “one man’s morphology is an earlier man’s syntax” (cf. linguistic cycle in Hodge 1970, anasynthetic spiral in Haspelmath 2018).

In homage to Hodge, Givón (1971: 413) reiterates this idea in a slightly adjusted form as “If today’s bound morphemes are yesterday’s lexical words, then today’s morphology is yesterday’s syntax”. In his later works, Givón (1979: 209) develops this typological observation into the cline (3), very similar to the prototypical one in (1).

(3) discourse > syntax > morphology > morphophonemics > zero

The concept of a cline in typological literature, together with the concept of grammaticalisation clines sketched in the previous section, is nowadays both implicitly and explicitly present in much of the mainstream literature on grammaticalisation and language change in general.

3 Summary & conclusion

In conclusion, there are two distinct research traditions culminating in the modern concept of grammaticalisation clines. On the one hand, there is the tradition of grammaticalisation studies and, on the other hand, the tradition of typological research.

Moreover, the concept of a grammaticalisation cline does not only unite cross-linguistic and language-internal perspectives on language change. The prototypical grammaticalisation cline also combines formal and functional perspectives. While the first half of the cline describes the functional change from a lexical element to grammatical one, the second half pertains to formal changes from a free word to a bound affix.

This conceptual unity of formal and functional developments implied in the concept of grammaticalisation clines has been the main source of critique. Nevertheless, the idea of a cline has been an influential one and a number of processes still prominent in historical linguistics are based on the implications of the notion of grammaticalisation cline.


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How to cite this post

Konvička, Martin. 2019. Grammaticalisation clines: a brief conceptual history. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, historical linguistics, Linguistics, Typology

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