Information structure in Welsh and its implications for diachronic syntactic change

Project outline

The aim of this project is to provide new insights on diachronic syntactic change by analysing the information structure and syntactic variation in the extensive sixteenth-century Welsh chronicle by Elis Gruffydd.

Welsh is one of the most interesting languages in Europe, because sentences start with the verb, instead of the subject. This is peculiar, because Welsh, like the other Celtic languages, is still part of the Indo-European language family, where sentences usually start with the subject. What is even more interesting is that in Medieval Welsh literature, sentences do not often start with the verb, but rather with the subject. When and why did this word order change so dramatically?

By defining and analysing the different sentence types in text samples from the 11th-20th century, Meelen (unpublished BA thesis 2008) concluded that this change in constituent order indeed took place and that this began around the 16th century. These results correspond to one of Willis´s conclusions in his investigation of the Welsh loss of verb-second in a generative framework (Willis 1998). His results, he comments, however, need further research. Particular attention should be paid to the complex patterns of data in the 16th.

The main hypothesis of this project is based on the investigation of samples of Elis Gruffydd´s (unpublished) chronicle. In the 16th century Gruffydd compiled what until today is the largest coherent Welsh text, his ‘History of the World’. This 2400 folio chronicle starts with the creation of the world and continues to relate some of the oldest (and otherwise unknown) Arthurian tales. He furthermore collected all kinds of older Welsh traditional literature that was lost and finally, he renders lively conversations between Welsh servants about Henry VIII’s tribulations in 16th century London, where he was living at the time.

This type of research requires a multi-dimensional approach: the study of the information structure and syntactical variation from a synchronic point of view as well as the diachronic comparison of these with the results of syntactic investigations of the period before and after Elis Gruffydd´s writing. By bringing in a large corpus of so far uninvestigated Welsh material from the crucial sixteenth-century transition period, the results of the synchronic investigation of information structure will contribute to ongoing research on Welsh syntax. The diachronic syntactic research, on the other hand, will provide new insights on linguistic theories in the emerging field of Welsh historical linguistics and mechanisms of language change in general.

Project members

The research project 'Information structure in Welsh and its implications for diachronic syntactic change' is led by prof.dr Lisa Cheng and prof.dr. Sasha Lubotsky.
Marieke Meelen is working on the project as a PhD-student.

Last Modified: 29-09-2011