Grammatical change in the use of 'never'
The study in a sentence
The meaning of the word never has changed over time from meaning 'not on any occasion' to mean 'not'. When it means 'not', it can either refer to a single event that could have taken place in a window of opportunity but did not (e.g. I waited in for the postman but he never arrived) or, in its newest use, be used more widely as a non-standard negator (e.g. I never worked here at the time).
The study looks at the use of never vs. didn't in past tense contexts in three British English dialects to see whether we can still see traces of the older meanings of never in its newest use. Even dialects that use non-standard never still mostly use it in contexts that reflect its earlier meanings.
How “standard” do you find this sentence? I never organised it.
How about in the following contexts?
Speaker A: Didn’t your school use to organise a sixth form party every year?
Speaker B: I never organised it.
Speaker A: You were in charge of organising last year’s sixth form party, weren't you?
Speaker B: I never organised it (last year).
What counts as 'standard' English - and the acceptability of grammatical constructions - is not fixed, but is instead highly context-dependent.
Does variation in the use of 'never' in present-day British English dialects reflect the development of its meaning over time?
The linguistic variable :
Never vs. didn’t in past tense contexts (= Type 2 'window of opportunity' and Type 3 'non-standard')
Data coding by pragmatic discourse function
contradiction: e.g. A: You broke that! B: No I never broke/didn’t break it!
counter-expectation: e.g. I waited up all night but he never came/didn’t come home.
no counter-expectation: e.g. We never wanted/didn’t want to go [single occasion]
Data coding by predicate type
stative e.g. have, need, want
activity (dynamic event over unbounded time period) e.g. walk, swim, read
accomplishment (dynamic event completed within a specific timeframe) e.g. painting a picture, watching a programme, building something
achievement (instant dynamic event) e.g. ask, take, go, hit
The word never has undergone two types of change in British English:
Semantic/Grammatical change – changing from “not ever” to “not” (broadening)
Pragmatic change – development of a ‘contradiction’ function
Even in dialects which frequently use never in its non-standard Type 3 'not' meaning show a hint of the older Type 2 'window of opportunity' meaning. We can see this in the preference to use Type 3 never in contexts in which the lexical aspect relates to a short timeframe or one-off event, and in broadening of the Type 2 discourse function of counter-expectation to a more general function of contradiction.
Restrictions on the use of linguistic items can persist for a very long time, even when their meanings and contexts of use have changed.
“Standardness” or acceptability of grammatical constructions is highly context-dependent.
In more detail
A longer explanation of the research study
Talk 1 (16 mins)
Talk 2 (15 mins)