Partial organization in languages: la langue est un système où la plupart se tient
At least some of the systematicity of language can be rooted in imperfection and flux. We assume that languages are the product of undirected (cultural) evolution with neither plan nor purpose and explore the role of competition in the organization of linguistic systems, with a narrow focus on inflectional morphology. In actual languages, there is often more than one way to express the same notion and these must compete in a Darwinian fashion. The competition may not be resolved quickly and instead persist for a long time. We will explore in detail one such example, the English comparative construction. Conventional grammatical wisdom is that the two ways of forming the comparative of adjectives (suffixal –er and periphrastic more) are in complementary distribution. We review the recent corpus-based literature on the English comparative and add finding of our own, based on the Google Books N-gram Corpus. We show that the two strategies have competed for millennia, with no resolution on the horizon. A case like this, though rare, is important because it makes sense only in a framework based on competition. On the morning of 28 November, 2012, while traveling by train between Manchester and York, one of us noticed the following sentence in the lead article on the front page of that day’s edition of The International Herald Tribune. The new allies of Hamas want a more quiet region. Curious about this use of more quiet rather than the usual quieter, he looked at the original version of the article, published the previous day in The New York Times, where he found the following sentence: Egypt, Qatar and Turkey all want a more quiet, stable Middle East. He typed both sentences into Microsoft Word’s grammar checker, which flagged the expression more quiet with the heading Comparative Use in both instances and suggested quieter instead. In the remainder of this article, we will discuss a framework in which it is not unreasonable for the synonymous expressions quieter and more quiet to coexist.
Times cited: 11