Verb Movement in contemporary faroese: a case study of syntactic variation and change

Project Details


This project was an investigation of a recent change in the syntax of the Scandinavian language Faroese, using recent experimental methods for measuring the linguistic knowledge of native speakers, both children and adults. The change, affecting the position of verbs in sentences, is akin to the one distinguishing Middle English "Quene Ester looked never ..." (verb before adverb) from Modern English "Queen Ester never looked ..." (verb after adverb). A better understanding of the contemporary Faroese situation helps to illuminate an aspect of the history of English, as well as our understanding of language change more generally.

Layman's description

In this project we looked at how the Scandinavian language Faroese has been changing in its grammar. The change is similar to one that happened in English much earlier (one result of which is that we no longer produce sentences like "They know not what they do," which were perfectly normal in earlier stages of the language. By looking at this change while it is going on (rather than studying a change that has already happened, as in the English case), we hoped to be able to understand better how it is that languages change in this way

Key findings

Findings specifically about the syntax of modern Faroese:

- We established that the syntactic change investigated ("loss of V-to-I") is at a very late stage, but has not yet gone to completion. In particular, the judgments of speakers on the "incoming" word order are not yet the same as the judgments of speakers of Danish on the equivalent word order (the change in Danish having gone to completion some centuries before.

- Contra earlier findings, there do not appear to be detectable regional differences.

- More surprisingly, there are also no detectable differences according to the age of the speaker

Findings concerning aquisition, and the relation to language change:

- Contra predictions that preliterate children would appear the most "advanced" in the change (on the assumption that the earlier forms remain as part of a literary register) we found that pre-school children as old as 7 produced and accepted more of the "old" forms than adults

- Comparison with data from related languages (Swedish, Norwegian) suggest that this is a developmental pattern.

- The relatively high levels of acceptance and production of the "old" forms among children are evidence against current theories that propose that this type of change is driven by an initial default setting in favour of the "new" form. This indirectly also constitutes evidence against "Degree Zero Learnability" - the proposal that children acquire their language entirely on the basis of root clauses.

Methodological advances

With this project we were able to show that judgments of acceptability, gathered systematically and analysed with appropriate quantitative measures, are sufficiently sensitive to differentiate variants that are extremely rare in corpus data.
Effective start/end date1/09/0610/05/10


  • AHRC: £193,070.00


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