Stylistic Devices

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Tracking lexical change in present-day English

Raymond Hickey
Essen University

1 Introduction

For several centuries English has been well known for its many cases of conversion, for instance it is used very frequently by Shakespeare, almost as a stylistic device of his. And to this day it has remained a prominent feature of the language. The standard definition of conversion (Bauer 1988: 90-2; Spencer 1991: 20) is a change in word-class without any alteration in form, i.e. zero-derivation (Cruse 1986: 132f.). Take for example the following instances.

He binned (v) the letter. Å bin (n)
They rubbished (v) the idea. Å rubbish (n)
Dave was out clubbing (v) on Saturday. Å club (n)
He claims that he has been scapegoated. (v) Å scapegoat (n)
But even these examples show that conversion involves subtle semantic shifts which are not obvious if it is treated as a mechanical process, for instance the second example, to rubbish is not “to make rubbish” but to “reject something as worthless”, i.e. “to treat as rubbish”. The third example shows the use of to club in the sense of “to visit many clubs in succession, or at least one club for a prolonged period of time”.

The second point to note here is that cases of conversion are to be found most commonly in colloquial registers of English. If you look up to rubbish in a recent Oxford dictionary such as the tenth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (2000) then you find that it is labelled “British informal”; the CoBuild dictionary also labels it “informal”. The source of these instances in informal speech is of relevance to the matter at hand and will be returned to presently.

In recent decades a further development can be observed25
which, for the
want of a better word, I term univerbation. By this is meant that structures consisting of several words are reduced to one, as when a verbal phrase is compacted to a single word as seen in (2).

They overnighted in Athlone on the way to the West. Å
They stayed overnight in Athlone on the way to the West.

Such cases illustrate a process which is part of a long-term typological shift in English. The latter is what has been observed in the shift from a morphologically complex to an inflectionally simplified language and is conventionally referred to as a move from synthetic to analytic. The current process can be viewed as a later stage in an analytic language where lexical compaction, i.e. univerbation, is in evidence and can thus be interpreted as part of a typological cycle.

A few remarks on terminology are called for here. Conversion refers to a formal process, a change in word-class without a change in form. Univerbation refers to a more general structural shift in the language by which phrases are reduced to single words, this can be to a verb, noun or adjective. There is also a use of univerbation to refer to a process whereby more than one word is reduced to one through intermediate steps of cliticisation. This usage is frequent in studies on grammaticalisation and is associated with cases where words show a gradual loss of semantic profile accompanied by a reduction in phonetic form and finally attachment to a host lexical item initiating a change in status to bound morpheme. Old English dōm meaning “decree, judgement” would be a good example here as it no longer exists as an unbound morpheme but simply as a suffix indicating state or quality, as in wise : wisdom. 26

This is
essentially different from the kind of univerbation being dealt with here: in the cases of univerbation in grammaticalisation there are several intermediate steps, i.e. there is a cline between full lexical item and completely bound morpheme. But in the cases to be looked at here there is a direct switch from verbal phrase to single word. It should also be said that the concern here is not with...
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