What is it about?

Abstract The present study sets out to explore the mandative subjunctive in Canadian English (CanE), vs. its potential epicenter American English (AmE), and its historical input variety British English (BrE) based on a quantitative variationist analysis of the Strathy Corpus of Canadian English (Strathy), the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), and the British National Corpus (BNC). The relevance of this contribution primarily stems from the fact that no previous research has yet focused on a contrastive comparison between CanE and its alleged epicenters, namely ‘a model of English for (neighbouring?) countries’ (Hundt, 2013, p. 185), and that the new method of Variation-Based Distance and Similarity Modeling (VADIS) has so far never been applied to research in this field. Key findings show that VADIS is indeed a valuable method in detecting epicentral constellations, and pinpoint fruitful suggestions regarding AmE’s alleged transnational influence on its neighbor, as well as cross-border and transoceanic dis/similarities concerning the subject under analysis.

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Why is it important?

Based on production data drawn from large corpora of Present Day English (PDE), this paper seeks to uncover how the study of the mandative subjunctive in three varieties of English (VOE) can serve as an example of and provide a model for verifying potential linguistic epicenters. More specifically, the target variety Canadian English will be compared with its neighbor hyper-varietyAmEand with its non-adjacent but historical input variety BrE. To carry out this endeavor, the new method for Variation-Based Distance and Similarity Modeling (VADIS) will be used to gauge the degree of distance and proximity in the probabilistic grammars of the aforementioned varieties governing the mandative subjunctive. To my knowledge, this is the first cross-varietal study focusing specifically on AmE, BrE, and CanE through the lens of quantitative variationist sociolinguistics and using VADIS to ascertain epicentral influence. In fact, despite the fact that this approach was not primarily designed for this purpose, the upshot of using VADIS lies in its ability to provide an answer to all three lines of evidence outlined in comparative sociolinguistics (Poplack & Tagliamonte, 2001; Tagliamonte, 2011; Tagliamonte, D’Arcy, & Luoro, 2016), and which will be discussed in section 2. Furthermore, the size of the selected data allows for a robust analysis that hints at important implications on another hot (linguistic) debate, the so-called process of ongoing Americanization in CanE (Boberg, 2004). Thus, the present analysis will not look at the alternation between the mandative subjunctive and its competing forms per se, but rather take it as a starting point to reflect on how statistical modeling can be seen as a useful tool to assess epicentral influence, especially when it comes to measuring the impact of two potentially competing epicenters.


Following VADIS and investigating all three lines of evidence proposed in comparative sociolinguistics, I examined the grammatical core governing the mandative subjunctive in a set of varieties, where similarity scores for CanE were overall closer to BrE than AmE.2 Although BrE has long played an important role in setting norms and ‘lending’ its features to other varieties of English, due to the rise of the United States into a world power, the spreading of American economic, political, cultural, and linguistic norms has affected all (English-speaking) countries over the past few decades. Therefore, its epicentral influence on CanE might have been expected, especially given their geographical proximity. However, an interesting figure emerged from the analysis of these data, namely a sort of overlapping of influences. On the one hand, AmE-like behaviors regarding the mandative variant that is more often chosen by CanE speakers are clearly supported by the numbers presented in Table 2, as cross-border influence is palpable in the selection of specific verb forms rather than others (in this case, the use of the mandative subjunctive instead of modal periphrases). On the other hand, the probabilistic grammar determining how these forms are used in CanE seems to be more similar to its historical (and geographically distant) input rather than to its neighboring hyper-variety. Indeed, its grammatical core governing the mandative subjunctive vs. should alternation seems to be resisting the process of Americanization, which is allegedly taking place in other domains of its grammar but is perhaps ‘sparing’ grammatical mood, at least for now. The fact that CanE’s probabilistic grammar aligns with its historical variety is taken as evidence of the epicentral influence exerted by its matrilect, rather than a linguistic stochastic event. Thus, epicentral influence might have more to do with culture than with geography. While examining historical data and discussing the potential range of spatial/temporal application of the epicenter theory, Peters (2009a) puts the spotlight on the semantics of the word epicenter itself, which refers to the vertical point from which the waves of a seismic rupture horizontally propagate. But how far can we track the effects of these waves? And for how long? In the era of globalization and digital communication, it is not too hard to imagine that epicentral influence might also work from afar, especially if the epicenter in question is the historical matrilect of a target variety, and that its influence might arise from socio-historical factors or even from some level of unconscious recognition of certain grammatical structures. Setting aside parameters for universal generalization, this study highlights that the influence of a variety X on close and distant Y variety/ies might point at its status as an epicenter influencing a specific phenomenon. To put it differently, BrE might not be THE (or the only) epicenter variety governing every externally induced change in present CanE, but as shown in the analysis of the data, it has a certain hold on the probabilistic grammar underlying the mandative subjunctive. Furthermore, given the magnitude of linguistic stimuli to which any speaker of any language is nowadays exposed and the resulting dynamicity that modern languages reveal, looking for a sole epicenter capable of being the only responsible for any external influences on a variety or dialect might be as hard as looking for a needle in a haystack.

Universita degli Studi di Napoli L'Orientale

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This page is a summary of: Using VADIS to weigh competing epicentral influence, World Englishes, June 2022, Wiley, DOI: 10.1111/weng.12585.
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