Periphrastic do and Colonial Lag

And since she sent me both blogposts all at once, here is Esther Spaanderman’s second one, also on the Adams Papers:

“But as I speak french very imperfectly and she understands not a syllable of English I suppose she did not fully understand me,” John Adams (1735-1826) wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail Adams (1744-1818) on September 23, 1778. Interestingly, Adams uses two different constructions in this sentence to make a negative statement. First, he uses what we refer to as a simple form: the subject is followed by the verb and the negator not. We might find this construction somewhat archaic. More common is the use of periphrastic do to make a negative statement, as Adams does in the second part of the sentence. Why do these two constructions appear alongside each other? Had periphrastic do not become the norm in the Late Modern English period? Or, was there perhaps a lag between the English spoken in England and American English? For my course paper I decided to try to answer those questions.

Based on some of the existing literature on the development of periphrastic do and the phenomenon of colonial lag, I hypothesised that the English spoken in America in the Late Modern Period, something which might be called Early American English, might show colonial lag with respect to periphrastic do. When the first settlers emigrated to America around the year 1620, the development of periphrastic do was not yet in its final stage. Especially in negative declarative sentences, do became more frequent after 1620 according to Terttu Nevalainen in her Introduction to Early Modern English (2006). If we assume that the English spoken by the early settlers developed more slowly than the English spoken in the motherland, Early American English should somewhat resemble the English spoken in England around 1620.

In order to test this assumption, I put together two small for the purpose of comparison: a British and an American one. The American corpus contains a sample of the out-letters of John Adams, found in the online Adams Family Papers, also used by my fellow student in this course, Martijn Slokker. For the British corpus, I chose a person similar to Adams in age, social background and life dates. Through InteLex Past Masters (an wonderful online collection of letters!), I found The Letters of Horace Walpole, from which I selected a sample of his out-letters to construct the British corpus. Both corpora contain approximately 12,000 words of out-letters, dating from 1762-1801.

I subsequently marked all instances of periphrastic do in the corpora and categorised those according to sentence type (e.g. negative declarative, positive question, etc.). I also looked for simple forms, and marked and categorised those too. Here are some examples of instances of periphrastic do and simple forms I found:

(1) You did not mention my Wall (Adams, 1800)

(2) How do you keep yourself alive on your mountain? (Walpole, 1769)

(3) What will be the Consequence I know not (Adams, 1774)

(4) How the ministers are prepared to combat it, I don’t know … (Walpole, 1794)

The results showed that the Adams Corpus contains fewer instances of periphrastic do than the Walpole Corpus. On average, the Adams Corpus contains 2.75 instances of periphrastic do per 1,000 words, whereas this was 4.3 for the Walpole Corpus. Periphrastic do occurred in various sentence types in both corpora, though mostly in negative declaratives: I found 15 instances of this type n the Adams Corpus, compared to 30 in the Walpole Corpus.

If we look at the occurrence of simple forms in the corpora, we find that Adams Corpus contains a higher number of archaic sentences. Only 11 occurrences of simple forms were found in the corpora combined; all occurred in negative declarative sentences; 9 of these in the Adams Corpus. So not only does the Adams Corpus contain fewer instances of periphrastic do in negative declaratives, it also contains more simple forms of this type. This supports my hypothesis that periphrastic do is less frequent in negative declaratives in Early American English.

As periphrastic do is less frequent in the Adams Corpus, while simple forms were found to be more frequent in this corpus, it can be said that Adams is slightly more conservative in his use of periphrastic do than Walpole. Does that imply that Early American English shows colonial lag with respect to periphrastic do? Not necessarily. The corpora are not only too small to provide such evidence, they are also based on the language of only two individuals. These individuals cannot accurately represent the language of an entire speech community. However, this study has produced some results that may give reason to believe Early American English lags behind Late Modern English with respect to do. Further research is definitely required, but I’ve tried to make the first move.

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