Monday 3 September 2012

Taken Prisoner?

Two prisoners in a cell – so why do we say taken prisoner? Why haven’t they been taken prisoners? We may not often stop to think about the way we use the little phrase take prisoner, but Eva Berlage’s research shows that it is a good example of the processes of change that affect the way we use language.

Using a wide range of historical and modern texts dating from the early 1500s to the early 2000s, representing both American English and British English, Berlage explored how the phrase take prisoner(s) has evolved over the centuries. She showed how it has stabilised and created a new meaning which is distinct from the original meaning of the two separate words take and prisoner.  For example, the literal meaning of (to) take prisoners means something like ‘to condemn persons to a state of confinement’.  But when we use the phrase in writing or speech, it can either keep its literal meaning or adopt more metaphoric meanings (e.g. he took my heart prisoner).

Berlage was able to identify two separate but relevant processes of language change.The first is known as grammaticalisation.  During this process, a word takes on a more abstract meaning (rather than a literal meaning) and, as a result, can generate many new structures which it couldn’t before.  In the case of take, Berlage suggests that it has undergone partial grammaticalisation over the centuries so that it is now used to produce a wide range of phrases such as take care, take advantage or take notice. 

However, while the number of phrases with take has increased, the distribution of prisoner was found to have decreased.  Therefore, while historical texts had cases where both take prisoner and make prisoner were used, over time prisoner was no longer found to occur with other verbs.  This restriction of prisoner to occur only with take (and its derivatives such as took or taking) suggests that the phrase take prisoner has become increasingly lexicalised over time.  This is the second type of language change, with the phrase now used as if it was a single word with its own unit of meaning rather than having the separate meanings of each of the words.  However, the lexicalisation process is only partial as both the words take and prisoner can have individual meanings outside the phrase take prisoner (as in, for take, I only take sugar in my tea sometimes).

Berlage suggests that further evidence for the lexicalisation of take prisoner is the increasing loss of the plural form take prisoners (e.g. many soldiers were taken prisoners), which, according to the historical evidence, declined the most during the 1920-1939 period in British English.  She produces evidence to show how it was word order which influenced the speed of change towards the loss of the plural form prisoners in this phrase.  Looking at American newspapers between 1895 and 1945, the plural was more than twice as likely to be kept in phrases where a noun phrase came before prisoners compared to when it came after – examples from the LA Times in 1917 include The Teutons took prisoner 556 men and […] bayoneting a number of them and taking others prisoners. After the 1940s, the plural form prisoners fell out of use. In the texts that Berlage analysed it survived only in the phrase take prisoners of war.

The results from this analysis show that there are a number of inter-relating factors that influence language change and that historical texts can provide valuable insight into how these changes are accepted by those who use the language.
Berlage, Eva. (2012) At the interface of grammaticalisation and lexicalisation: the case of take prisoner. English Language and Linguistics, 16:35-55

doi: 10.1017/S136067431100027X

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

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