Monday, 10 February 2014

Everybody loves somebody? In America, not in New Zealand

Happy Valentine's Day!

Surprising as it may be, according to the study carried out by Alexandra D`Arcy and colleagues, a New Zealander would probably sing ‘Everyone loves someone’. The meaning is still the same, you might think, but this is exactly what the researchers were wondering about: how come two absolutely equivalent forms – words ending with either -body (as in everybody) or -one (e.g. everyone) managed to survive side by side without pushing each other out of business?

To answer this question, the study pursued three goals. Firstly, Alexandra D`Arcy tracked down historical paths of -body/-one forms to see how they were used in the past. Secondly, she made connections between historical evidence and the situation in contemporary British English. Finally, she compared the frequency of -body/-one usage across four different varieties of English: American, Canadian, New Zealand and British English. The authors used different language corpora – linguistic data bases – to track who used which form when and how often.

As it turned out, in the past there were even three options to refer to an unknown human being. Apart from the -body/-one forms, in Old English one could also say sum man to mean ‘someone’. However, by 1700 the man form had died out, leaving the linguistic arena free for the two other competitors. But why would two forms equivalent in meaning both survive another five centuries?

The explanation is that up to the 18th century these variants occupied different niches in language use. The authors hypothesized that the use of the -body variants was at first restricted to more casual contexts, such as letters to close family members, whereas the -one forms were suitable for all contexts, but were considered more prestigious and elegant. Thus, formal writing style inevitably required the use of the -one form.

To test this assumption the researchers examined the frequency of occurrence of both forms in two corpora covering the 1410-1710 period. The first corpus consisted of formal literary texts, the other included letters, representing a more informal style. It turned out that words like nobody and somebody were indeed used more often in private letters and fiction, thus being more vernacular. It also appeared that the -one variant was associated more with women.

Another important feature of these alternate forms is that at first the suffix -body was favoured with the words no and some (producing nobody and somebody respectively), leaving -one to form everyone and anyone. By the 20th century, however, both suffixes could be attached to any base.

So, what about present day British English? Are both variants used equally frequently now? The authors argue that the -one form is gradually taking over in Britain. For instance, in 1996 speakers in York aged 18-24 used the -body form 66% of the time, whereas in 2008 only 27% of words would be in the -body form. 

Finally, what are the outcomes of –one/-body competition in other varieties of English? The general shift toward the -one form holds, with older speakers favouring the -body version, whereas the younger generation is moving on to -one. All the same, there is a number of regional peculiarities. New Zealanders prefer saying every possible item with -one, whereas Americans do quite the opposite. The -body form is also more popular with Canadians, except for someone. Britain is more similar to New Zealand, but nobody is set apart.

Overall, this study shows how different the paths of the competing forms may be, not only in time, but also across the globe.
D’Arcy, A., Haddican, B., Richards, H., Tagliamonte, S. and Taylor, A. (2013). Asymmetrical trajectories: The past and present of –body/–one. Language Variation and Change 25.3: 287-310.

This summary was written by Maryna Myntsykovska

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