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Syntax Interface Lectures Utrecht


24 April 2017
Trans 8, 0.19

Nynke de Haas (Utrecht University)

The Northern Subject Rule in Middle English dialects: individual syntactic constructions

The Northern Subject Rule (NSR) can be illustrated with the sentences they run and hides and children hides. It is typically analysed as a combination of two conditions on present-tense inflection: the subject condition (under which pronoun subjects trigger different inflection than full noun phrase subjects) and the adjacency condition (under which the special inflection with pronoun subjects is only triggered when verb and subject are adjacent).

However, in present-day English NSR dialects, non-pronominal plural subjects do not uniformly affect verbal inflection. Noun phrases headed by quantifiers and relative pronouns trigger more non-standard -s inflection than simple noun phrases do (Buchstaller, Corrigan, Holmberg & Maguire 2013), and so do conjoined noun phrases (cf. Montgomery, Fuller & DeMarse 1993, Godfrey & Tagliamonte 1999, Beal & Corrigan 2000, McCafferty 2003). The adjacency condition is often absent in present-day NSR dialects (Pietsch 2005), and, where it persists, may in fact be found only in conjoined verb phrases (they run and hides). De Haas (2011) has found that there was variation in the presence and strength of both conditions even in early Middle English NSR dialects, but the question remains what roles individual syntactic constructions played in these dialects.

This paper will present a detailed syntactic analysis of data from a corpus of localized Middle English texts from Northern England and the Northern Midlands (from LAEME for early Middle English and from MEG-C for late Middle English), and integrate it with existing findings on early and late Middle English dialects, as well as present-day varieties. The paper will also yield insight into variation and change in (Middle) English verbal inflection by plotting the locations of origin of all corpus texts on maps, indicating the strength of the NSR conditions in various locations and, to the extent that this is possible, in different time periods. It will be shown that some present-day patterns of variation have surprising time depth.



Beal, Joan, & Karen Corrigan. (2000). Comparing the present with the past to predict the future for Tyneside English. Newcastle & Durham working papers in linguistics 6 (13-30).

Buchstaller, Isabelle, Karen Corrigan, Anders Holmberg, Patrick Honeybone, & Warren Maguire. (2013). T-to-R and the Northern Subject Rule: questionnaire-based spatial, social and structural linguistics. English Language and Linguistics 17 (85-128).

Godfrey, Elizabeth, & Tagliamonte, Sali. (1999). Another piece for the verbal -s story: Evidence from Devon in southwest England. Language Variation and Change 11 (87-121).

de Haas, Nynke. (2011). Morphosyntactic variation in Northern English: the Northern Subject Rule, its origins and early history. Dissertation. Utrecht: LOT. Available online via <www.lotpublications.nl>

LAEME: Laing, Margaret, & Roger Lass (2008-). A linguistic atlas of early Middle English 1150–1325. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. Online at <http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/laeme2/laeme2.html>

McCafferty, Kevin. (2003). The Northern Subject Rule in Ulster: How Scots, How English? Language variation and change 15 (105-139).

MEG-C: Stenroos, Merja, Martti Mäkinen, Simon Horobin, & Jeremy Smith. (2001). The Middle English Grammar Corpus, version 2011.1, University of Stavanger.

Montgomery, Michael, Janet Fuller & Sharon DeMarse. (1993). ‘The Black Men has wives and sweet hearts (and third person plural -s) jest like the white men’: Evidence for verbal -s from the written documents on 19th century African American speech. Language Variation and Change 5 (335–57).

Pietsch, Lukas. (2005). Variable grammars: Verbal agreement in Northern dialects of English. Tübingen: Niemeyer.