Speech, writing and boxsets: A messy linguistic change in English

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This article is an attempt to explain an observable change in present-day English in terms of quite disparate influences. Since the change is not yet complete, it is a messy conspiracy of these influences. By studying life-time changes of this sort we may gain insights into how well-understood historical changes work. The change under discussion is most noticeable in the written form, but its trigger has been the phonetic realizations of the forms to be considered. The forms are exemplified by alternations in noun phrases such as box(ed)sets, skim(med) milk, arch(ed) corbel table. The relationship between the very different structures used in speech on the one hand and writing on the other is also relevant in this case. The NPs with -ed have a structure Adjpp N, whereas the forms without it are compound nouns. Some of the Adjpp forms found in such noun phrases are actually pseudo-past participles; that is, they are not formed from a verb, but take the -ed ending, e.g. four-wheeled, gate-legged. Whether native speakers learn such forms from the spoken or written language to some extent determines how they are perceived. This is relevant because the phonetic realization of members of both sets may be the same, so the phonetic form [b 'ks set] may be perceived as boxed set or box set. I also consider the stress patterns of the new compounds, the orthography as a reflection of the structural change, and the 'Germanic' tendency towards compounding. The resultant picture is a messy one and the change has certainly not yet been completed, but we can see a conspiracy of disparate areas of the linguistic system putting pressure on certain lexical combinations. It should also be noted that 'English' is not a consistent linguistic system: we have to be clear about which variety is being discussed. English 'belongs' to many different groups of people, including non-native speakers as a lingua franca, so it is subject to many more influences today than the parochial versions of even just a hundred years ago.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-412
Number of pages14
JournalEnglish Language and Linguistics
Issue number2
Early online date8 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2022


  • compound nouns
  • English
  • language change
  • noun phrases
  • orthography
  • phonetic realizations

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