Reduction phenomena in Lancashire dialect: implications for grammaticalisation

Willem Hollmann, Anna Siewierska (Lancaster University)

Grammaticalisation theory/the usage-based model predict that constructions with a high token frequency are subject to more morphophonological reduction than less frequent constructions (Bybee/Scheibman 1999, Birkenfield 2001, Hopper/Traugott 2003). We note that the evidence for this is biased towards standard varieties of the languages studied.Birkenfield (2001), for instance, analysed conversations that occurred in a news show. Sometimes the researchers simply do not include information about their subjects' sociogeographic background: Bybee and Scheibman just note that their informants reside in Albuquerque, NM (1999:579). This bias towards the standard and the lack of attention to socio-geographic background is an issue, because in non-standard varieties expressions may acquire particular local significance and 'resonance' (in the sense of Beal 2000:349).This may distort the correlation between token frequency and reduction.

To illustrate this, we present some data from a project on Lancashire dialect, which draws on recordings from the North West Sound Archive (see Hollmann/Siewierska 2006, Siewierska/Hollmann 2006). The non-standard realisation of the definite article-compare the full realisation in (1), to the reduction to a glottal stop in (2), or even zero, as in (3)-is of particular interest, as this has been characterised as "[t]he most stereotypical feature of northern British English dialects, especially those of Yorkshire and Lancashire" (Jones2002:325).

(1) ...and then they built the school, Townley school.

(2) And she were harmless enough during t' day you see.

(3) Well colliers were coming on the bottom (.) erm near t' bottom of Ø smallholdings...

The speaker from whom these examples are taken systematically reduces the definite article before smallholdings (see (3)), whereas in noun phrases with more frequent nouns such as school (see (1)) reduction is significantly less common. This goes against one's expectations on the basis of grammaticalisation theory/the usage-based model, but may be more understandable given the local importance of the type of small-scale farming portrayed by the word smallholdings . Here, then, the data seem to echo Coupland's suggestion that "regional pronunciation and local experience have a mutually encouraging, we might say symbiotic, relationship" (1988:27).

Grammaticalisation theory/the usage-based model, we conclude, must be modified in light of findings from non-standard data. And these modifications are not trivial, as the majority of speakers of any given language do not speak the standard variety-and the majority of languages in the world do not even have a clearly codified standard.