Constructions, minds, and communities: multi-level micro-changes in the constructional grammaticalization of "be going to"


Peter Petré
University of Lille


I explore how the dynamics between the language system and the individual language user relates to grammar change. The language system, whether considered the mental grammar within an individual, or an abstract object emergent in the speech community, essentially consists of conventionalized symbols or constructions. While the individual to a large extent adopts this system of conventions, they also have an urge to stand out in the crowd. This urge has been identified as a possible source of grammar change, termed extravagance or expressivity (e.g. Haspelmath 1999, Keller 1994).

This talk examines the nature of this interplay of the conventional and the unconventional in the grammaticalization of progressive aspect in the [BE Ving]-construction and [BE going to]. The progressive function of [BE Ving] was established in the Early Modern English period. This development did not occur in a vacuum, but depended on the increased use of adverbial subordinate clauses in the past tense in Middle English. In the 17th century, the progressive function was well established in such clauses, but it was still only emerging in the present tense. Arguably, at this point, innovative language users were exploiting the [BE Ving] construction to make themselves noticed (the principle of extravagance). Evidence comes from the high frequency of co-occurrence of the time adverb now in early present tense instances. I will argue that it is also precisely this expressive use of [BE Ving], which incites language users at the beginning of the 17th century to creatively use [BE going to] for the expression of motion with a purpose. Samuel Clarke (1599-1682), for instance, almost exclusively uses [BE going to] to encode strong, ego-centered statements, as in Christ’s dramatic announcement in (1).

(1) I am now going to be sacrificed. (Samuel Clarke, 1660)

Note that motion is still present in sentences like (1). In (1), Christ says this when he has just started walking from prison to the cross. As such, the presence of a time adverb now, while enhancing the expressivity of the statement, also hampers further expansion of [BE going to] to near futures without motion. During the 17th century, the [BE Ving]-construction conventionalized further. As a result, sentences such as (1) probably lost some of their expressive power. Yet the decline of now opened up possibilities of extending [BE going to] to new unexpected uses, where, for instance, motion is no longer present, and the idea of future situation is evoked:

(2) For ought I see, I am going to be the most constant Maudlin. (John Dryden, 1668)

Sentences like these remained exceptional, and therefore quite conspicuous, in the present tense until 1700.

In sum, the extravagant quality of [BE going to] turns out to be a moving target. This dynamics of the unconventional turning into the conventional and paving the way for new unconventional uses, might help explain the directionality of grammatical constructionalization. The general claim I’d like to defend is that, in order to understand language change, it is essential to combine the (socially driven) individual and the (more cognitive) systemic side of language.


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