Structural and Sociolinguistic Factors Conditioning the Choice of Relativizers in Late Modern English: A Diachronic Study Based on the Old Bailey Corpus

Magnus Huber


The present study aims at broadening our understanding of the development of relativizer choice (pronouns, that and zero) in Late Modern English restrictive relative clauses. It investigates the effect of the linguistic factor groups ANIMACY OF THE HEAD and ROLE OF THE RELATIVIZER IN THE RELATIVE CLAUSE and combines these with the social factors GENDER and SOCIAL CLASS.

The data used in this study come from the Old Bailey Corpus (Huber et al. 2012). As a corpus of trial proceedings, it affords a glimpse into spoken Late Modern English. Because of its size, the time-span covered and the detail of sociolinguistic utterance-level annotation, the Old Bailey Corpus is an ideal database for a fine-tuned, quantitative- variationist study of relativizers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is commonly assumed that at the beginning of Late Modern English the relativizers that and zero were felt to be rather colloquial, particularly as far as the written mode was concerned. However, even in the very formal setting of trials as represented by the Old Bailey Corpus, that and zero account for as much as 76.1% of all relativizers in the 1720–1789 period. The frequency of that declined considerably during the two centuries investigated here (from 52.7% down to 27.8%) and it developed into a relativizer that predominantly marked non-human antecedents. Zero, on the other hand, increased in frequency (from 24.2% to 38.3%, thus becoming the most common relativizer) but remained a marker that mainly followed non-human heads. During the 18th and 19th centuries, human antecedents became increasingly marked by who, but there was little change with regard to which, marking about one-fifth of non-human heads in all subperiods. As to sociolinguistic factors, the use of the relative pronouns was promoted by male speakers, while female speakers led in the adoption of the zero relativizer.

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