Current and past projects funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation:

- Studying Variation in Syntax: A Parsed Corpus of Swiss German (2014- ; SNSF grant no. 146450)

Variability is a characteristic feature of natural language that can be found in various guises: variation between languages or between dialects of the same language; variation among speakers of the same dialect/language (inter-speaker variation); variation within a single individual (intra-speaker variation). Whereas all these types of variation have been extensively studied in areas like phonology or the lexicon, work in syntax has almost exclusively considered the first type of variation only. In particular within formal approaches to syntax, inter-speaker and intra-speaker variation have been neglected for a long time. It is only recently that the interest of these phenomena for formal theories of syntax has been recognized and attempts have been made to reconcile theoretical syntax with variationist approaches of the sociolinguistic kind. The aim of this project is to make a contribution to these endeavours by focusing on syntactic variation in a dialect of Swiss German. The main part of this project will be dedicated to the creation of an appropriate empirical basis for the investigation of syntactic variation. We propose to construct a parsed corpus of naturally occurring speech of one-million words that will allow easy data retrieval for syntactic analysis. Although our main research interest is in syntactic variation, the corpus will also be a valuable tool for researchers who would like to explore questions related to the phonetics, the phonology, the morphology, the lexicon, the semantics, the pragmatics, the syntax, or the discourse structure of Swiss German. Although the last few years have seen the emergence of a large number of publicly available electronic corpora compiled for the purposes of linguistic analysis, to date no such corpus exists for Swiss German. A Swiss German corpus would therefore be a timely addition to the growing number of corpora available around the world. Given that a corpus has to be relatively large to be suitable for syntactic analysis, we intend to concentrate on one variety of Swiss German. Within this variety, we will select informants across three generations and we will aim for gender balance in each of these groups. In the final part of the project, we will use the corpus to explore one area of intra-speaker variation found in Swiss German, the variation illustrated in (1).

(1) … dass de Peter luut gigele tuet / (luut) tuet (luut) gigele
     … that the Peter loudly giggle does / loudly does loudly giggle
     ‘… that Peter giggles loudly’

Speakers of Swiss German allow both the order ‘main verb-auxiliary’ and the order ‘auxiliary-main verb’ in (1). This variation, referred to as Verb (Projection) Raising, has been discussed extensively in the literature. However, no corpus studies have been performed so far to examine the way in which speakers use these options and the potential implications these usage data may have for the theoretical analysis of this optionality. The case study on the variation in (1) is only the starting point for a large number of studies on syntactic variation that can then be carried out on the basis of this parsed corpus of Swiss German. These studies are expected to provide a better understanding of the nature of synchronic variation in syntax. Furthermore, it is only with sociolinguistically balanced corpora of the type proposed here that deeper insights into the interaction between syntactic variation and syntactic change can be gained, as such corpora contain carefully selected data that historical corpora generally do not provide.


Schönenberger, M. to appear. Verbstellung in weil-Sätzen des Schweizerdeutschen. In: Nefedov, S., L. Grigorieva and B. Bock (eds.), Deutsch als Bindeglied zwischen Inlands- und Auslandsgermanistik. Beiträge zu den 23. GeSuS-Linguistik-Tagen in Sankt Petersburg, 22.-24. Juni 2015, 395-404. Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovačpdf

Schönenberger M. 2015. "I’m not sure what kind of ban that FIFA has in mind” and other uncertainties of modern life. In: Brandner, E.  et al. (eds.), Charting the Landscape of Linguistics: On the Scope of Josef Bayer's Work, Universität Konstanz, Konstanz, 120-126. pdf

Schönenberger, M. and E. Haeberli E. 2015. Studie zur Sprachvariation im Schweizerdeutschen: Erste Ergebnisse. In Klausmann, H. (ed.), Alemannentagung 2014: Sprache und Öffentlichkeit, Universität Tübingen, Tübingen, 1-13. pdf


- The History of English Auxiliaries: Evidence from Adverb Placement (2013-2016; SNSF grant no. 143302)

One of the main features that distinguishes Present-Day English (PDE) grammar from other languages is its auxiliary system. A characteristic property of the PDE auxiliaries is that they differ from lexical verbs with respect to a number of syntactic properties. These properties have emerged in the course of the attested history of English, and the nature of this change has been discussed extensively and sometimes controversially in the literature. The aim of this project is to shed new light on the history of English auxiliaries by examining an empirical domain that has not been explored in any detail yet, namely the distribution of auxiliaries with respect to adverbs. Throughout the history of English, there has been variation in this area of the grammar as certain adverbs can occur both before and after an auxiliary. This word order variation is a topic of interest for two main reasons: First, we are dealing here with a case of word order variation that has been maintained for centuries and continues to exist in PDE. Thus, the interaction of adverbs and auxiliaries provides an interesting case study on syntactic variation and change or the absence of change. Secondly, adverb placement is one of the diagnostic tests to distinguish auxiliaries from lexical verbs. The emergence of this diagnostic may therefore shed some light on the general diachronic development towards the modern auxiliary system that characterizes PDE. In this project, we will examine four syntactically parsed corpora covering nearly 800 years of linguistic history in order to provide a detailed quantitative and qualitative description of the development of the placement of auxiliaries with respect to adverbs from Middle English to Late Modern English. We will also consider this development against the background of the changes affecting lexical verbs in their placement with respect to adverbs. On the basis of these data, we will then explore a certain number of theoretical issues that arise, as for example the categorial status of auxiliaries or the structural analysis of the variation in the distribution of auxiliaries and adverbs over time.


- Revisiting the Loss of Verb Movement in the history of English: Adverb Placement in Middle and Early Modern English (2011-2012; SNSF grant no. 124619)

Languages vary in the distribution of verbs with respect to adverbs. A well-known example of this observation is the following contrast between English and French: (1) a. She often eats apples. (AdvV) b. *Elle souvent mange des pommes. c. *She eats often apples. (VAdv) d. Elle mange souvent des pommes. Various adverbs can occur between the subject and the finite verb in English (1a), but not between the finite verb and the object (1c). The French equivalents, however, cannot intervene between a subject and the finite verb (1b) whereas the order ‘finite verb-adverb-object’ is grammatical (1d). A similar contrast can be found with respect to sentential negation. In the theoretical literature, this variation has been analyzed in terms of variation with respect to verb movement, with French featuring verb movement and English lacking this process. However, English seems to have undergone a change in this domain of syntax as early English had French-style word orders (V-Adv/Neg). The developments with respect to negation have been analyzed in some detail in the literature in connection with the rise of do-support. However, almost no work has been done on the placement of main verbs with respect to adverbs in the history of English. The aim of this project was to fill this empirical gap and to integrate the empirical findings into the theoretical debate concerning the variation with respect to verb movement. We analyzed data from different parsed corpora covering eight centuries of linguistic history from 1150 to 1910. Two main phases of change in the placement of adverbs were identified, one around 1500 and a second one around 1700. Each of these is characterized by significant increases in AdvV orders. A closer analysis suggests that the first phase corresponds to a fundamental change in the grammar of English (decline of verb movement), whereas the second phase is of a more superficial nature, concerning usage frequencies only. In our descriptive overview of the development in the distribution of adverbs with respect to finite main verbs, we also examined the way in which adverb placement was affected by various linguistic and sociolinguistic factors (clause type, subject type, adverb type; genre, age, geographic origin). In the second part of this project, we examined the main theoretical consequences of the empirical findings obtained. Observing a time gap between the changes affecting adverbs and those affecting negation, we conclude that the loss of verb movement is not a one-step process. Instead, the loss consists of two distinct losses, the first one affecting movement beyond adverbs, and the second one affecting movement beyond negation. This analysis supports a sequential loss scenario that has been argued for elsewhere in the literature on the basis of entirely different empirical evidence. With respect to the causes of the change, we show that our findings are problematic for what has been called the "Rich Agreement Hypothesis". Instead, we propose that another syntactic change, namely the decline of a V2-like grammar towards the end of the Middle English period, may have played an important role in the loss of verb movement. Overall, this project has been able to fill a gap in the description of the historical development of English syntax. Furthermore, it has made a contribution to the debate concerning the cross-linguistic variation with respect to verb movement in particular by shedding new light on how and why a language may lose this syntactic option. Finally, this is one of first pieces of research that make almost full use of the currently available parsed historical corpora as it closely traces the development of a syntactic phenomenon over eight centuries and three linguistic periods (Middle, Early Modern and Late Modern English).