Elly Van Gelderen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Cyclicity: A DefinitionLinguistic cycles are used to describe regular patterns of language change taking place in a systematic manner and direction. They involve the disappearance of a particular word and its renewal by another. Perhaps the most well-known cycle is the negative cycle where a negative word may be added to an already negative construction for emphasis after which the first one may disappear. This new negative may itself be reinforced by another negative and may then itself disappear. What I have just described would be a cycle followed by another cycle. This negative cycle is also known as Jespersen's Cycle, after the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, who may not have been the first to see this change as a cycle (see van der Auwera 2009). Cyclical changes are unidirectional and they typically involve changes where a phrase or word gradually disappears and is replaced by a new linguistic item. The term ‘cyclicity’, as in this chapter title, cannot be found in the Oxford English Dictionary but ‘cycle’ has been in the English language since 1387 with the meaning of a ‘recurrent period of a definite number of years adopted for purposes of chronology’ (OED s.v. cycle), as in lunar or solar cycles. A later definition involves a ‘period in which a certain round of events or phenomena is completed, recurring in the same order in succeeding periods of the same length’. Its use is then extended to physics, geology and collections of stories, as in the ‘Arthurian cycle’. A linguistic use is not mentioned in the OED. One of the most quoted descriptions of the linguistic cycle is the passage in von der Gabelentz (1901: 256). Because new cycles are not identical to the earlier ones, one way of characterizing a cycle is as a spiral, as in (1). Meillet (1912: 140) also uses spiral as a term (‘une sorte de développement en spirale’) for what I will continue to refer to as a cycle. (1) The history of language moves in the diagonal of two forces: the impulse toward comfort, which leads to the wearing down of sounds, and that toward clarity, which disallows this erosion and the destruction of the language. The affixes grind themselves down, disappear without a trace; their functions or similar ones, however, require new expression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of Historical Syntax
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781107279070
ISBN (Print)9781107049604
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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