Common Irregularity: Comparative Analysis of the Use of Irregular Verb Forms Across Vernacular Dialects

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Title: Common Irregularity: Comparative Analysis of the Use of Irregular Verb Forms Across Vernacular Dialects
Author: Floyd, Jeanne-Marie Nicole
Advisors: Erik Thomas, Committee Member
Charlotte Gross, Committee Member
Walt Wolfram, Committee Chair
Abstract: While a speech community can draw the attention of linguistic scholars because of a single or small amount of unique dialect features, the occurrence of shared features across many dialects is equally noteworthy. Shared features can generally be tied back to two scenarios: (1) traceable, historical connections that exist between the dialects, or, where no direct connection can be found, (2) a universal process within the language that creates parallel structures. The primary focus of this study is the second of these two scenarios as no direct connection can be made between the dialects examined; knowing the historical development of the parent language is crucial to understanding how dialects that are isolated from each other have come to evolve parallel patterns of behavior. This study examines the behavior of three highly irregular, strong verbs (come, be, and do) across five English dialects (Beech Bottom, NC; Princeville, NC; Robeson County, NC; Abaco, Bahamas; and Tristan da Cunha). Of particular interest is the fact that these three verbs all exhibit the use of the past participle in place of the simple past tense, in the absence of an auxiliary. The dialects examined in this study were chosen for their particularly vernacular qualities, which result in great part from the extreme social, historical, and geographical isolation that has shaped these speech communities. The shared behavior of come, be, and do (the past participles for each and the environments in which each were observed), indicates that like all English verbs, these three have been and continue to undergo movement from strong to weak formations, from a greater variety of inflection and change in the core vowel to greatly reduced inflectional markers within the verbs themselves. Tracking how these three verbs have behaved in Old, Middle, and Modern English (Standard and the five vernacular varieties) reveals not only the historic movement away from an inflected past tense formation with the addition of an auxiliary, but continuing that movement to eliminate even the inflected auxiliary (either completely or reducing it to a cliticized form). The result is a completely weakened past tense form that consists of an orphaned past participle functioning solely as the simple past tense verb form. Auxiliary use as it changed historically is also examined to show how the role of auxiliaries in conjunction with verbs moving toward weak formations has shifted over time to place the burden of inflection almost entirely on the auxiliary rather than the main verb itself. In particular auxiliary do is given as an example as several studies have looked at how usage of this verb has increased over time, both in response to the strong-to-weak movement and as a product of the influence of non-native (L2) English speakers. Have is also given as an example to show how it was historically the auxiliary of choice, especially with be, in support of the current study's data, which shows evidence of deleted have/had. Finally, the example of deletion of the auxiliary within negative sentence constructions, following historical insertion of the negative marker, is provided to show a parallel development in auxiliary insertion followed by deletion. In both the negative constructions and in the auxiliary deletion observed in this study, the environments represent movement toward a highly weakened state in which even the auxiliary (itself a mechanism of weakening) has been removed to continue the overall shift toward weaker constructions.
Date: 2007-03-06
Degree: MA
Discipline: English

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