Towards profiles of periodic style: discourse organisation in modern English instructional writing
Lubbers, Thijs Hendrikus Johannes Bernardus
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A notorious challenge in the study of the diachrony of English is to determine whether developments in syntax, including changing frequencies of a particular construction, or word-order changes as suggested by perceived patterns in extant texts, represent genuine linguistic changes or are due to changes in conventions of writing. What is intuitively clear, however, even to a casual eye, is that a piece of English prose from, say, the 16th-century differs markedly from texts from the 18th-century. Yet such judgements cannot be based on syntactic changes alone, since essential grammatical features of Present-Day English are in place already by the end of the Late Middle English period. As a result, these differences are often simply ascribed to the notoriously elusive domain of style. The current study attempts to come to grips with the issue of period-specific conventions of writing by focusing on features of discourse structure and textual organisation as of the Early Modern English period. It can be positioned at the meso-level between large-scale quantitative approaches of sentence-level linguistic features and detailed, small-scale discourse-analytic studies of individual texts. Texts selected for the current purpose, manuals for equine care, derive from a sub-domain of instructional writing with a long history in the vernacular. As these texts share similar communicative purposes and deal with the same "global" topics of feeding and looking after a horse, any differences between them cannot be attributed to different genres or differences in subject matter. This permits us to zoom in on 'agnates', different ways of expressing the same meanings, and allows us to see how the stylistic options selected by authors achieve the various communicative goals that have to be negotiated, such as discourse coherence or the transition to new topics. The three main sections in this dissertation offer different ways to identifying developments in discourse organisation. The first section explores the traditional corpus-based approach that is frequently used to measure the parameter of "personal involvement", an indicator of periodic style. Initially, this approach restricts itself to measuring the contribution of frequencies of individual lexical items like first and second person pronouns. Next, this section will focus on the presence and linguistic realisation of the interlocutors of these instructional texts, i.e. the writer and the reader. The second main section will try to diagnose such varying styles by employing a completely data-driven, quantitative methodology which offers a linguistically unbiased and theory-independent perspective on the data in the corpus. This second approach offers cues as to how `subliminal' patterns of grammar may affect perceptions of style, and how quantitative measures may aid in assessing whether the texts in our corpus cluster in expected or unexpected ways. The third section draws on theories of referential coherence and textual progression. By charting the variation with which texts from different periods in the history of English apply conventions for discourse organisation, it offers an insight into developments of hierarchical discourse structures (i.e., coordinated versus subordinated discourse relations) and practices of co-reference. Taken together, these three independent measures offer a novel, multi-angled approach to stylistic developments in prose writing. Combining features `above the sentence' level which involve discourse and information structural changes, this dissertation affords a glimpse into the emergence of written textual conventions, or 'grammars of prose', in the history of English.