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Conversational priming in language change

Supported by Excellent Research Support Programme (University of Cologne), FORUM
(01.01.21 - 31.12.22)


This project deals with language change, in particular with change in grammar. Its focus is on the question as to how grammatical innovations spread in the community of speakers, ultimately becoming a new grammatical norm. The main objective is to explore the explanatory potential of the concept of conversational priming through conventionalized repeating responses to polar questions, in which we see a major factor facilitating this spread. As a starting point, the project focuses on grammatical changes but it may also be possible that lexical or phonological changes are facilitated in this manner. Repetitional responses (repeats) are found instead of or in addition to particles like yes and no in many languages (cf. Holmberg 2016; Enfield et al. 2019; Gipper 2020). In these languages, one interlocutor repeats (a part of) the polar question of the other interlocutor in order to answer it. Hence, if speaker A uses an innovative form in a question, speaker B will probably repeat it. The fact that speaker B actively uses the innovative form  facilitates the integration of the innovative form into her own grammar after several iterations. Under the assumption that grammatical innovations spread in this manner, one may expect certain asymmetries to arise regarding the speed in which innovations spread. For instance, in languages which mark person on the verb, innovative verb forms should spread faster in the 3rd person singular than in the 1st and 2nd person singular. For in a question-answer sequence, a verb in the 3rd person has to be repeated exactly whereas one in the 1st/2nd person does not. Consider the following examples from Russian, where the finite verb has to be repeated in order to answer a polar question:

(1) Ty letiš’ v Pariž? – Leču. / Ne leču.
‘Will you fly to Paris?’ – ‘Yes.’ / ‘No.’
(2) Ja leču v Pariž? – Letiš’. / Ne letiš’.
‘Will I fly to Paris?’ – ‘Yes.’ / ‘No.’
(3) Masha letit v Pariž? – Letit. / Ne letit.
‘Will Masha fly to Paris?’ – ‘Yes.’ / ‘No.’

If it can be demonstrated that such synchronic asymmetries are also reflected in the diachronic development of certain grammatical forms, this will provide strong evidence in favor of the hypothesis that conversational priming is a major factor in the spread of innovative grammatical forms.
The working hypothesis is situated at the core of the UoC-Key Profile Area VI Skills and Structure in Language and Cognition, which investigates “the tension between the behaviour of individuals and the structures resulting from their interaction”. Its success would be a step toward the main objective of the Key Profile Area VI, i.e. “a framework that accounts for individual behaviour, its crystallisation in diverse linguistic structures across time and space, and the underlying cognitive mechanisms”.



Enfield, Nick J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katarina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Howmann, Tiina Keisanen, Mirka Rauniomaa, Chase W. Raymond, Federico Rossano,Kyung-Eun Yoon, Inge Zwisterlood & Stephen C. Levinson. 2019. Polar Answers. Journal of Linguistics 55(2). 277–304.

Gipper, Sonja. 2020. Repeating Responses as a Conversational Affordance for Linguistic Transmission: Evidence from Yurakaré Conversations. Studies in Language 44(2). 281–326.

Holmberg, Anders. 2016. The Syntax of Yes and No. Oxford: Oxford University Press.