English Language and Linguistics

Research Article

Same time, across time: simultaneity clauses from Late Modern to Present-Day English*


a1 Facoltà di Lingue e Letterature Straniere, Università di Genova, Piazza S. Sabina 2, 16124 Genova, Italy c.broccias@unige.it

a2 School of English, Sociology, Politics & Contemporary History, University of Salford, Manchester M5 4WT, UK n.smith@salford.ac.uk


In this article we offer a diachronic analysis of simultaneity subordinator as against the background of simultaneity subordinators while, whilst, when from 1650 to the end of the twentieth century. The present survey makes use of data extracted from the British English component of ARCHER (version 3.1), focusing in particular on fiction, the register par excellence for the use of simultaneity subordinators. We analyse our data according to a selection of parameters (ordering, verb type, duration, tense and aspect, subject identity, simultaneity type) and show that, against a background of relative stability, the major change is a dramatic increase in the frequency of simultaneity as-clauses from the first half of the nineteenth century onwards. Adapting the historical work on stylistic change by Biber and Finegan (1989, 1997), as well as theoretical and experimental accounts of the semantics of English simultaneity markers, we highlight an interesting parallelism between the spread of as-clauses in oral narrative from childhood to adulthood and the spread of as-clauses in modern fiction. In either case, the spread of as may be symptomatic of an evolution in narrative techniques, particularly in respect of the means by which complex events are typically represented.

(Received February 15 2009)

(Revised January 27 2010)


* Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Third Late Modern English Conference at the University of Leiden in 2007, the Fifteenth International Conference on English Historical Linguistics at the University of Munich in 2008 and at research seminars at the universities of Freiburg, Salford and Huddersfield in 2008. We are very grateful to the audiences for their comments. We also benefited greatly from the comments of the two anonymous reviewers. We would also like to thank all those who replied to our query on the evolution of fiction which we posted on the Linguist List in September 2008 (no. 19.2739) as well as Sandro Jung, Anneli Meurman-Solin, Teresa Fanego and Geoffrey Leech, who provided us with very useful feedback on various occasions. Finally, special thanks go to Douglas Biber for clarifying certain aspects of his and Edward Finegan's work and David Denison for his help and encouragement. Needless to say, all remaining errors are our own.