Unit 11: Historical pragmatics

In A11 and B11, we provided you with examples of form-to-function studies that have traced a particular word or lexical phrase over time, as a means of noting any changes in meaning and/or function. We also provided you with examples of function-to-form studies that have shown how particular speech acts – such as ‘insults’ and ‘compliments’ – were realized at different times in history. Here, we focus in more detail on the first of these two approaches – in part so that we can help you to become more familiar with the work of Elizabeth Traugott. We begin with Traugott’s (1999) invited inferencing theory, paying particular attention to her use of Levinsonian heuristics (see A5 of the Advanced Pragmatics Textbook). We also explore the different approaches you might use to investigate language change over time, and provide opportunities for you to undertake such studies, by tracing the development of phrases such as as long as, kind of and sort of.

11.1. Tracing the role of pragmatics in semantic change

As Culpeper’s (2010) extract highlights (B11.2), Traugott has made a particularly important contribution to the more micro approaches within historical pragmatics. For example, she has provided us with a ‘step-by-step account’ of how:

one-off, context sensitive, particularized implicatures ... [can] evolve into preferred, contextually-stable generalized implicatures, which ... [can] then become part of the semantic meaning of [a given] item. (see Levinson 2000)

To use Traugott’s (1999, 2004) own terminology, this gives us the following pragmatic progression towards semantic change...


...where IIN stands for Invited Inferences(Traugott’s term for Particularized Conversational Implicatures or PCIs) and GIIN stands for Generalized Invited Inferences (Traugott’s term for Generalized Conversational Implicatures or GCIs).

According to Traugott (1999), such processes of semantic change require a pragmatics:

...that privileges process, not end-product and result.
...that allows meanings to be added over time.
...in which speaker/writer plays a central innovative role.
...that allows for polysemy (as opposed to arguing for monosemy or homonymy wherever possible).


Although Traugott argues in her 1999 paper that it is speakers/writers who do most of the work of innovation, she argues elsewhere that the notion of invited inference allows for ‘the possibility of alluding to both the speaker’s strategic action (inviting) and the hearer’s response (inferencing)’ (Traugott and Dasher 2002: 29). She also states (in Traugott 2004: 552) that she uses the term invited inference, in preference to implicature, so as to emphasize ‘the dual role’ of speakers/writers and addressees/readers ‘in the dyadic speech event’.

Find examples of the use of as/so long as in both historical and modern corpora, and determine any evidence of the speaker/writer ‘guiding addressees to a [specific] interpretation’.


  • Culpeper, J. (2010) ‘Historical pragmatics’, in L. Cummings (eds) The pragmatics encyclopedia, London and New York: Routledge, pp188–92
  • Levinson, S. (2000) Presumptive meanings: the theory of generalized conversational implicature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Traugott, E.C. (1999) ‘The role of pragmatics in a theory of semantic change’. In: J. Verschueren (ed.) Pragmatics in 1998: Selected papers from the 6th International Pragmatics Conference, vol. 2, Antwerp: International Pragmatics Association
  • Traugott, E.C. and R.B. Dasher (2002) Regularity in semantic change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Traugott, E.C. (2004) ‘Historical pragmatics’ in L.R. Horn and G. Ward (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp538–61

11.2. Traugott’s use of Levinson’s heuristics

As Culpeper’s reference to Levinson (see B11.2) – and our mention of PCIs and GCIs – highlight (see A5.2.3), Levinsonian heuristics play an especially important part in Traugott’s (1999: 96) Invited Inferencing Theory of Semantic Change (IITSC). By way of illustration:

  1. The Q-heuristicMake your contribution as informative as required, and imply no more thereby – is claimed to invoke ‘literal meaning’ and to impede change
  2. The R-heuristic – Say no more than you must, and mean more thereby – ‘warrants enriched interpretations relevant to context, and invites inferences to specific subcases’ and, hence, ‘leads to change, as it induces enrichment of what is said/written’
  3. The M-heuristicperiphrastic expressions warn ‘marked/pragmatically special situation’ – ‘is especially likely to lead to semantic change in grammaticalization’ when it enforces the R-heuristic

Traugott goes on to explain that:

There is the potential for change [especially] when the R-heuristic is exploited innovatively by inducement of ad hoc invited inferences or IINs (especially in redundant linguistic context[s]). An enriched IIN may then become a GIIN if it acquires saliency in [and hence its use is adopted by] the community. (ibid.)

In spite of privileging the R-heuristic and M-heuristic, Traugott nonetheless maintains that the Q-heuristic still plays an important role, especially in relation to standardization (cf. ‘the search for unambiguous, literal meaning, and the resistance to change typically associated with it’; ibid.).


As an example of how her IITSC approach allows for polysemy, Traugott (1999) tracks the different meanings of as/so long as over time, and demonstrates how the conditional meaning(‘provided that, if’), in particular, was able to co-exist alongside the more traditional temporal and spatial meanings from which it is derived: hence, we have the development: ‘equal in length’ > ‘equal in time’ > ‘provided that’, with significant periods of polysemous overlapping. Jot down some examples of lexical items or constructions you are aware of that are polysemous. You might begin by listing three or four discourse particles like as long as; then use a dictionary, such as the Online OED, to trace the various senses of these polysemous items or constructions as a means of determining:

  • which sense was the original one,
  • whether they can still mean this today (in appropriate circumstances), and
  • what additional meanings they now have, and the order in which these additional meanings first came into use.


  • Traugott, E.C. (2004) ‘Historical pragmatics’ in L.R. Horn and G. Ward (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp538–61
  • Traugott, E.C. (1999) ‘The role of pragmatics in semantic change’ in J. Verschueren (ed.) Pragmatics in 1998: Selected papers from the 6th International Pragmatics Conference, vol. 2, Antwerp: International Pragmatics Association

11.3. Traugott’s proposed methodology

Traugott (2004: 553) provides a slightly different methodology to the one we’ve suggested to you in our second exercise:

A methodologically useful way to begin such a study is to investigate the synchronic situation after a set of polysemies has come into existence and then to seek evidence in a historical corpus for the transition from an earlier stage to the synchronic one studied, all the while watching for developments that may have dead-ended. Such dead-ended developments frequently show incipient conventionalization of a meaning that is not replicated, or not replicated for any considerable length of time, whereas it may become a highly salient meaning in another language. For example, there is some sporadic evidence of incipient ‘because’-meanings for while in Middle English; this IIN never became a GIIN in English, but it did for the cognate weil in German.

Traugott goes on to give some useful advice in terms of matching up genres (when comparing synchronic and diachronic data):

Since most of the material for historical linguistics is written, it is important to use corpora in the same mode, if not genre. This means that contemporary spoken language can be used as a comparison only with spoken material from an earlier era; and constructed data may be helpful in highlighting areas of inquiry but they need to be used with great caution since they cannot be verified by native speakers in earlier periods. (ibid.)


A. Divide a sheet of paper into two, and then label the right-hand column ‘historical corpora’, and label the left-hand column ‘modern corpora’.

  • Populate the two columns with the titles of historical corpora and modern corpora. As a starting point for your right-hand column, check out the following URL, which lists some of the more well-known publicly available (English) historical corpora http://corpora-engling.split.uni-bamberg.de/index.php?id=historical-corpora.
  • Draw arrows between the modern and historical corpora that you think are a good ‘match’, given Traugott’s advice above.

B. In A11.4 and B11.4, we outlined some speech act studies that have made use of a number of different modes/genres to explore the evolution over time of, for example, insults (Jucker and Taavitsainen 2000) and compliments (Taavitsainen and Jucker 2008b).

  • To what extent is this because Jucker and Taavitsainen were engaged in function-to-form studies? (see A11.3)
  • Would your arrows between modern corpora and historical corpora be the same as – or different from – before, if you repeated (A) above, if you opted to study a particular speech act (such as insult or compliment) or speech act type (such as directive)?


  •  Jucker, A.H. and I. Taavitsainen (2000) ‘Diachronic speech act analysis: Insults from flyting to flaming’, Journal of Historical Pragmatics 1(1): 67–95
  • Taavitsainen, I. and A.H. Jucker (2008a) ‘Speech acts now and then: Towards a pragmatic history of English’. In A.H. Jucker and I. Taavitsainen (eds.) Speech Acts in the History of English, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp1–23
  • Taavitsainen, I. and A.H. Jucker (2008b) ‘“Methinks you seem more beautiful than ever.” Compliments and gender in the history of English’. In A.H. Jucker and I. Taavitsainen (eds.) Speech Acts in the History of English, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp195–228
  • Traugott, E.C. (2004) ‘Historical pragmatics’ in L.R. Horn and G. Ward (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp538–61

11.4. Searching a corpus for examples of kind of, sort of, type of

It has been suggested that there are three types of construction using the expression, kind of, in Modern English(Denison 2002):

a. What kind of bicycles do you ride on... binominal construction (BC)
b. ...wouldn’t you expect to get some kind of discount... qualifying construction (QC)
c. I was kind of thinking for myself about my life... adverbial construction (AC)

Each of these constructions uses the kind of expression less literally (albeit slightly). In (a), the speaker is asking about different kinds or varieties of bicycle, such as a mountain bike or a racing bike. Notice that the literal meaning allows us to pluralize kinda kind of bicycle, or many kinds of bicycle. In (b) the question is not about different kinds or varieties of discount, but a discount of some indeterminate amount. In the last example, (c), kind of is used before a verb, and functions like an adverbial but one that downplays the meaning of the verb, possibly to make the statement seem less definite or assertive. In (c), therefore, the literal meaning of ‘kind’ meaning ‘variety’ has been virtually lost, and the word has a pragmatic function with interpersonal meaning.


  • Search a modern corpus of your choice for examples of kind of, sort of and type of. Categorize the examples you have found according to (a), (b) or (c) above. Are all the occurrences easy to categorize in this way? How do you decide what each occurrence means?
  • Now undertake a diachronic investigation of the same terms in historical English corpora, using the approach advocated by Traugott (2004) (see the outline in 11.3. above). Were the three constructions identified by Denison in evidence in times past? Did your terms have different meanings (not identified by Denison)?


  • Brems, L. and K. Davidse (2010) ‘The grammaticalisation of nominal type noun constructions with kind/sort of: Chronology and paths of change’. English Studies 91(2), April: 180–202
  • Denison, D. (2002) ‘History of the sort of construction family’. Paper presented at ICCG2: Second International Conference on Construction Grammar, Helsinki. (see also http://tinyurl.com/DD-papers)
  • Mair, C. (2004) ‘Corpus linguistics and grammaticalisation theory: Statistics, frequencies and beyond’ in H. Lindquist and C. Mair (eds.) Corpus Approaches to Grammaticalisation in English, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp121–50
  • Traugott, E.C. (2004) ‘Historical pragmatics’ in L.R. Horn and G. Ward (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp538–61