Grammatical processing and syntactic change

PI(s): Prof. Dr. Ulrike Demske & Dr. Claudia Felser

In this project we explore the dimensions of syntactic variability from a diachronic perspective. We adopt a multi-methodological approach which combines corpus study and psycholinguistic experimentation to investigate how constraints imposed by the language processing system might affect speakers’ choices of particular syntactic variants. The extraordinary abundance of syntactic variants in Early New High German, which gradually became more constrained during the emergence of present-day Standard German, provides a suitable empirical basis for this.

The project focuses on word order variation in German infinitival complementation, and in particular on the emergence of word order restrictions and the extent to which processing factors might have played a role in this development. Our diachronic corpus data confirm that word order variability declined over time, with discontinuously linearised infinitival complements only attested very rarely in synchronous corpora. Furthermore, our data show that infinitive-embedding verbs which freely allowed for different linearization patterns no longer do so in present-day German. This is likely to be the result of a process of specialisation of word order variants, partly driven by processing (dis-)advantages.

Our experimental findings show that, unlike what might be expected from the perspective of probabilistic approaches to linguistic variation, the acceptability of different word order variants cannot be fully predicted by their corpus frequencies. Despite being rarely attested, discontinuous infinitives are still considered acceptable by present-day German speakers, suggesting that they remain part of the grammar of Standard German as ‘latent’ constructions. We further found that the most frequent word order variant, and the one that speakers are also most likely to choose in production tasks, is the variant that is easiest to process. This indicates that word order variability is at least partly constrained by processing economy principles. The decrease in occurrence of computationally more costly variants in the history of German might reflect the growing influence of spoken German on the emerging standard language.


  • Peer-Reviewed: Papers, Journals, Books, Articles of the CRC
  • Talk or Presentation: Talks, Presentations, Posters of the CRC
  • SFB-Related: not produced in connection with the CRC, but are thematically appropriate
  • Other: Papers, Journals, Books, Articles of the CRC, but not peer-reviewed
Author(s)TitleYearPublished inLinksType
Bosch, S., De Cesare, I., Felser, C., & Demske, U.A multi-methodological approach to word order variation in German infinitival complementation.2022Featherston, S., Hörnig, R., Konietzko, A. & von Wietersheim, S. (eds.), Linguistic Evidence 2020 Proceedings - Linguistic Theory Enriched by Experimental Data (pp. 281-298) . Tübingen: University of Tübingen.
Demske, U.Zur Grammatikalisierung von 'gehen' im Deutschen.2020Forum Japanisch-Germanistischer Sprachforschung, 2, 9-42. DOI: 10.11282/jggls.2.0_9
Bosch, S., De Cesare, I., Felser, C., & Demske, U. A multi-methodological approach to word order variation in German infinitival complementation.2020Paper presented at the Linguistic Evidence 2020. Eberhard Karls University Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany. 13 - 15 February.Talk or Presentation
Bosch, S., & Felser, C.The role of processing contraints on word order variation in German infinitival complementation.2019Paper presented at the 4th Conference on Experimental Approaches to Perception and Production of Language Variation (ExApp 2019), Münster, Germany. 26-28 September.Talk or Presentation
De Cesare, I.Textsorteneffekte auf die Stellung infiniter Komplemente im Frühneuhochdeutschen.2019Paper presented at the Workshop ''Syntax der frühen Neuzeit'', University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany. 10 - 12 October.Talk or Presentation
De Cesare, I.Word order variability and change in German infinitival complements.2019Paper presented at the 24th International Conference on Historical Linguistics (ICHL 24), The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. 01 - 05 July.Talk or Presentation
De Cesare, I.Grammatical processing and syntactic change: infinitival complements in German.2018Paper presented at the 3rd Summer School in Historical Syntax (SUM-UP 2018): Variation and its limits from a diachronic perspective, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany. 27 - 30 June.Talk or Presentation
De Cesare, I., & Bosch, S.Word order variation in German infinitival complements: Evidence from copus and experimental data.2019Paper presented at the Workshop ''Multimethodological approaches to synchronic and diachronic variation'', University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany. 25 - 26 October.Talk or Presentation
Demske, U.Zwischen Kohärenz und Inkohärenz: Wortstellung von Infinitivkomplementen.2018Invited talk at the Japanische Gesellschaft für Germanistik, Tokyo, Japan. 27 August.Talk or Presentation
Demske, U., & De Cesare, I.Grammatical processing and syntactic change: infinitival complements in German.2018Invited talk at the Lecture Series ''Linguistic Circle'', University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK. 21 - 23 March.Talk or Presentation
De Cesare, IlariaQuantitative Methoden in diachronen Studien: Anwendung am Beispiel der Wortstellungsvariation in deutschen Infinitiven.2023Zeitschrift für germanistische Linguistik, 51(1), 124-151. DOI: 10.1515/zgl-2023-2004Peer-Reviewed


University of Potsdam Department Linguistics Prof. Dr. Doreen Georgi Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 24-25 House 14, Room 3.33 14476 Potsdam
(+49) 331 977-2968 doreen.georgi@uni-potsdam.de