Building bridges into the future: Can we predict linguistic change?

Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg

Thematic outline

Recent years have seen a growing interest in the connection between language variation and change (e.g. Mair 2009; Kiesling 2011), with variation being commonly regarded as the originator of linguistic change or even as “the synchronic face of change” (Guy 2011: 179). So far, discussions of change in English have usually been conducted from a post-hoc perspective only. They are consequently limited to finding explanations for how a particular stage of the language could have been arrived at. At the same time, a growing number of corpora makes it possible to analyze English language use from a quantitative perspective in ever more detail, and probabilistic modelling and multifactorial statistical techniques – e.g. discriminant analyses – even permit predictions about the variants preferred by speakers in specific situations and contexts (cf. Gries 2003).

This workshop attempts to bring together both types of approach by asking whether it is possible to extrapolate from what we know about the principles at work in present-day English and its historical stages so as to make predictions about future developments.

The common view is that this is impossible – either because language change is at least partly random (cf. Croft 2000: 2-3) or because we do not know in advance whether the premisses of language laws (should there be any) are going to be fulfilled in the future (Keller 1994: 75).

While language as a whole might be too complex to allow anything except pure speculation, the consideration of linguistic phenomena on a smaller scale may provide interesting insights into the predictive potential of synchronic and historical empirical research for the more or less near future, e.g. in view of the typical exponential S-shaped growth curve observed in linguistic changes (cf. Lass 1997: 140).

The workshop addresses the issue by evaluating the possibilities and limitations of statistical modelling and computer simulation in linguistics and by discussing the factors hampering prediction and the consequences this has for the validity of the research results of an empirically founded discipline. The workshop is thus not only concerned with the conference motto of “building bridges” from present linguistic facts into the future, but also with the aspect of intra-disciplinary research, bringing together linguists working in such diverse fields as phonology, lexicology, syntax, historical linguistics, computational linguistics and linguistic methodology.


Croft, William (2000): Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach. Harlow: Longman/Pearson.
Guy, Gregory R. (2011): “Variation and change.” In: Maguire, Warren and April McMahon (eds): Analyzing Variation in English. Cambridge: CUP, 178-198.

Gries, Stefan Th. (2003): “Grammatical variation in English: A question of ‘structure vs. function’?” In: Rohdenburg, Günter and Britta Mondorf (eds): Determinants of Grammatical Variation in English. Berlin: deGruyter, 155-173.

Keller, Rudi (1994): On Language Change: The Invisible Hand in Language. London: Routledge.

Kiesling, Scott Fabius (2011): Linguistic Variation and Change. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lass, Roger (1997): Historical Linguistics and Language Change. Cambridge: CUP.

Mair, Christian (2009): Twentieth-Century English. History, Variation and Standardization. Cambridge: CUP.

List of speakers

Laurie Bauer (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand), Four current changes and a crystal ball

Heidrun Dorgeloh and Gero Kunter (University of Düsseldorf, Germany), Modelling non-locative inversion as an instance of functional specialization

Gregory Guy (New York University, USA), On the use of the past to explain the future

Donka Minkova (University of California, LA, USA), Respondent

Terttu Nevalainen (Helsinki, Finland), The predictive potential of empirical historical research and the S-curve model of change

Tanja Rütten (University of Cologne, Germany), For whom the bell tolls, or: why we predicted the death of the English subjunctive

Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer (University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany), Can we predict linguistic change? An introduction and Closing discussion

Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (University of Leuven, Belgium), On the sorts of changes that linguists can(not) predict

Sali Tagliamonte (University of Toronto, Canada), Using the architecture of variable systems to predict language change