Definition and Examples of Grammaticalization

A tiny bird by a riverside
"Grammaticalization is defined as the development from lexical to grammatical forms and from grammatical to even more grammatical forms" (World Lexicon of Grammaticalization, 2002).

David McNew/Getty Images

In historical linguistics and discourse analysis, grammaticalization is a type of semantic change by which (a) a lexical item or construction changes into one that serves a grammatical function, or (b) a grammatical item develops a new grammatical function.

The editors of The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (2014) offer as a "typical example of grammaticalization . . . the development of be + going + to into an auxiliary-like item be going to."

The term grammaticalization was introduced by French linguist Antoine Meillet in his 1912 study "L'evolution des formes grammaticales."

Recent research on grammaticalization has considered whether (or to what extent) it is possible for a grammatical item to become less grammatical over time—a process known as degrammaticalization.

The Concept of "Cline"

  • "Basic to work on grammaticalization is the concept of a 'cline' (see Halliday 1961 for an early use of this term). From the point of view of change, forms do not shift abruptly from one category to another, but go through a series of small transitions, transitions that tend to be similar in type across languages. For example, a lexical noun like back that expresses a body part comes to stand for a spatial relationship in in/at the back of, and is susceptible to becoming an adverb, and perhaps eventually a preposition and even a case affix. Forms comparable to back of (the house) in English recur all over the world in different languages. The potential for change from lexical noun, to relational phrase, to adverb and preposition, and perhaps even to a case affix, is an example of what we mean by cline.
    "The term cline is a metaphor for the empirical observation that cross-linguistically forms tend to undergo the same kinds of changes or have similar sets of relationships, in similar orders."
    (Paul J. Hopper and Elizabeth Closs Traugott, Grammaticalization, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Have Got to

  • "According to Bolinger (1980) the modal auxiliary system of English is undergoing 'wholesale reorganization.' Indeed, in a recent study, Krug (1998) observes that have got to for the expression of necessity and/or obligation is one of the biggest success stories in English grammar of the last century. Such claims suggest that synchronic data spanning several generations in apparent time may provide insight into the mechanisms underlying ongoing grammaticalization processes in this area of grammar. . . .
    "In order to contextualize these forms in terms of their development and history, consider the history of the modal must and its later quasi-modal variants have to and have got to . . ..
    "Must has been around since Old English when its form was mot. Originally it expressed permission and possibility . . ., [b]ut by the Middle English period a wider range of meanings had developed . . ..
    "According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the use of have to in the sense of 'obligation' is first attested in 1579 . . ..
    "The expression have got to on the other hand . . ., or with got by itself, . . . entered the English language much later--not until the 19th century . . .. Both Visser and the OED label it colloquial, even vulgar. . . . [P]resent-day English grammars usually consider it 'informal.' . . .
    "However, in a recent large-scale analysis of the British National Corpus of English (1998), Krug (1998) demonstrated that referring to have got to or gotta as simply 'informal' is quite an understatement. He found that in British English of the 1990s have got to or gotta were one and a half times as frequent as the older forms must and have to.
    "According to this general trajectory, it would seem that the construction with got is grammaticalizing and further that it is taking over as the marker of deontic modality in English."
    (Sali Tagliamonte, "Have to, Gotta, Must: Grammaticalization, Variation, and Specialization in English Deontic Modality." Corpus Approaches to Grammaticalization in English, ed. by Hans Lindquist and Christian Mair. John Benjamins, 2004)

Expansion and Reduction

  • "[G]rammaticalization is sometimes conceived of as expansion (e.g., Himmelmann 2004), sometimes as reduction (e.g., Lehmann 1995; see also Fischer 2007). Expansion models of grammaticalization observe that as a construction ages, it may increase its collocational range (e.g., the development of BE going to as a future marker in English, which first collocated with action verbs, before extension to statives), and aspects of its pragmatic or semantic function (e.g., the development of epistemic modality in the use of will in examples such as boys will be boys). Reduction models of grammaticalization tend to focus on form, and particularly on changes (specifically, increase) in formal dependency, and phonetic attrition."
    (The Oxford Handbook of the History of English, ed. by Terttu Nevalainen and Elizabeth Closs Traugott. Oxford University Press, 2012)

Not Just Words, but Constructions

  • "Studies on grammaticalization have often focused on isolated linguistic forms. It has frequently been emphasized, however, that grammaticalization not only affects single words or morphemes, but often also larger structures or constructions (in the sense of 'fixed sequences'). . . . More recently, with the increasing interest in patterns and particularly with the advent of Construction Grammar . . ., constructions (in the traditional sense and in the more formal explications of Construction Grammar) have received much more attention in studies on grammaticalization . . .."
    (Katerina Stathi, Elke Gehweiler, and Ekkehard König, Introduction to Grammaticalization: Current Views and Issues. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2010)

Constructions in Context

  • "[G]rammaticalization theory adds little to the insights of traditional historical linguistics despite purporting to offer a new way of looking at data concerning grammatical forms.
    "Still, one thing that grammaticalization definitely has gotten right in recent years is the emphasis on constructions and on forms in actual use, and not in the abstract. That is, it has been realized that it is not enough simply to say, for instance, that a body part has become a preposition (e.g. HEAD > ON-TOP-OF) but rather one must recognize that it is HEAD in a particular collocation, e.g. at-the-HEAD-of that has yielded a preposition, or that HAVE turning into EXIST is not necessarily just a random semantic shift but rather is one that happens in the context of adverbials . . .. This is a big step forward, since it takes semantic change especially out of the realm of the purely lexical and places it into the pragmatic domain, deriving changes from inferencing and the like that are possible for words in constructions with other words and in actual, contextually keyed usage."
    (Brian D. Joseph, "Rescuing Traditional (Historical) Linguistics From Grammaticalization Theory." Up and Down the ClineThe Nature of Grammaticalization, edited by Olga Fischer, Muriel Norde, and Harry Perridon. John Benjamins, 2004)

Alternate Spellings: grammaticalisation, grammatisation, grammaticisation

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Grammaticalization." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Grammaticalization. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Grammaticalization." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).