Doris Stolberg

Experiencer constructions in Pennsylvania German: A diachronic perspective

Considerable numbers of German-speaking settlers immigrated to Pennsylvania between c. 1700 and 1750, mainly from the southwestern regions of the German speaking area. A shared speech variety, Pennsylvania German (PG), developed through levelling processes from  their L1 varieties. PG is still spoken today by Anabaptist groups (mainly Old Order Amish and Menonnite groups) for many of whom it is an identity marker. My presentation, however, focuses on the variety of those Pennsylvania Germans who have the same migration history but are not part of these religious groups. Due to their being closer to the cultural values of American mainstream society, they integrated into mainstream society, and during the 20th century their use of PG was continually diminishing. A revival of this heritage language has occurred over the past two to three decades, including language courses offered at community colleges, public libraries, etc., where ethnic Pennsylvania Germans wish to (re)learn the language of their parents and grandparents.

In my presentation I discuss written PG data from the 1860s to the 1990s. While the data reflect a decreasing lexical influence from English on the surface (i.e., in word forms), certain argument structures and word order patterns seem to converge with English, even though many structural features are still like those found in German varieties of Germany today. Regarding the long-term contact setting between PG and English, it is particularly informative to investigate linguistic areas in which English and German differ to find out in what ways PG accommodates such contrasting patterns.

One such area is the use of impersonal, or experiencer, constructions. The term impersonal constructions refers to constructions “where the highest thematic argument, in this instance the Experiencer, is not assigned nominative Case” (van Gelderen 2001:137; cf. also Kiparsky 1997). While both English and German show a dominant pattern of congruence between the assignment of the highest semantic role (usually agent or experiencer), nominative case marking, and the grammatical function of subject, German also makes use of argument structures in which the argument with the highest semantic role (experiencer) is not encoded as the nominative-case grammatical subject but as a dative-case argument (cf. Barðdal 2004). English, in contrast, does not make productive use of such experiencer constructions, and even residual uses are largely obsolete (e.g., methinks). For earlier stages of English, however, the use of experiencer constructions is documented (cf. Allen 1986, 1995; Barðdal/Eythórsson 2003).

An investigation of relevant structures in my PG data reveals that PG seems to develop along similar lines as Early Middle English did in that impersonal constructions are increasingly replaced by nominative-experiencer constructions. Four verbs are investigated in detail, and their (changing) use in experiencer constructions is analysed. Two of these are the verbs gleiche ‘like‘ and wunnere ‘wonder‘, both of them shibboleths of American German varieties as their argument structure differs notably from that of the corresponding verbs used in European German varieties. Different kinds of individual explanation have been suggested for these changes in argument structure (cf. Lambert 1924, Bloomfield 1933, Seel 1988, Werner 1996, among others). Interestingly, when considering them in the context of (avoidance of) experiencer constructions, their semantic development can be explained in a more coherent way than previously possible.

Based on the analyses of my data, I argue that PG is undergoing a shift in preference towards argument structures where the hierarchy of semantic roles is congruent with the hierarchy of grammatical encoding (case marking), i.e., the argument with the highest semantic role is also the grammatical subject of the clause. This is achieved by subtle changes in the semantic structure of the respective verbs as well as by replacing experiencer verbs by semantically (near-)equivalent cognates or suffixed verbs that do not require an experiencer structure. The more general change to be observed here is that from a more transparent encoding (as in German) to a more functional encoding (as in English) (cf. Plank 1983), and it is likely to have been triggered, or at least reinforced, by contact with English.



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