Grammaticalization: The Circle of Life

Editor’s note: this article was originally published on the blog Old School Script. We have taken over its archives and are slowly republishing pieces that have continuing importance and value. This article was originally published in 2016. We continue to appreciate Kris Lyle’s willingness to share his writing with our readers here at

What is grammaticalization

Besides being a fretfully large word (that surprisingly rolls off the tongue quite well when the syllables and accents are put in order), the term is a technical one in linguistic circles that describes an ongoing process of change.

But what type of change?

In a nutshell, the type of change that takes place between a linguistic form and the meaning associated with that form. This form-meaning combo could be as small as a morpho-syntactic unit or as large as a multi-word construction. 

Example: The be going to construction experiences a number of changes along the way as it grammaticalizes to gonna or merely a. There’s changes in syntax, phonology, and even the verbal semantics of tense and mood, as in (1) below.

  1. “I am going to the store later.”
    “I am gonna teach you a thing or two.
    “I’m gonn/onna teach you a thing or two.”
    “I’m a teach you a thing or two.”

At the word level, my friend Alex and I have written about the grammaticalization of Biblical Hebrew בלי. This interesting little form-meaning pair makes the most of its meager 86 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible and displays many of the major stages of transformation a word might go through in the grammaticalization lifecycle: noun (Is 38:17), preposition (Job 8:11), semi- (2 Sam 1:21) and genuine conjunction (Is 14:5–6), negative prefix (Deut 13:14), and verbal negator (Hos 8:7).

But how does this change happen? And what causes it?

While a consensus seems to evade linguists for the present, in general, there are a number of factors that different posses of linguists will nod their head to:

  1. Frequency of use: the more a construction gets used, the more contexts it’s exposed to; and the more exposure, the greater the chances to pick up some contextual residue that ends up sticking and altering or adding to this standard uses.
  2. Frequency of use has another consequence: the more a construction gets used the more compacted or reduced it can become; it’s not just easier to say, but it’s also so known that people can be expected to “fill in the blanks” (e.g., Imma get you = I am going to get you). 
  3. Metaphorical extensions: a construction is able to erode into a grammatical nugget with little to no semantic content because our cognition is based upon metaphors, which begin with concrete anthropocentric experiences and get mapped over to communicate abstract ones (e.g., that we understand the abstract domain of time through our experience of space is said to explain how “I am going to the store”, which is a spatial claim, can be mapped over to a claim about what one will do in the future, “I am going to travel to the moon one day”).
  4. Desire to be expressive: presumably, people grow tired of communicating through cliches and, instead, desire to speak in the tongues of angels; to push the bounds and be innovative; and lo and behold, collective force of experimenting with new lines results in sayings that actually stick… sometimes.
  5. Pragmatic implicatures.

It would not be entirely inappropriate to regard languages in their diachronic aspect as gigantic expression-compacting machines. They require as input a continuous flow of creatively produced expressions formed by lexical innovation, by lexically and grammatically regular periphrasis, and by the figurative use of lexical or periphrastic locutions. The machine does whatever it can to wear down the expressions fed into it. It fades metaphors by standardizing them and using them over and over again. It attacks expressions of all kinds by phonetic erosion. It bleaches lexical items of most of their semantic content and forces them into service as grammatical markers. It chips away at the boundaries between elements and crushes them together into smaller units. The machine has a voracious appetite. Only the assiduous efforts of speakers—who salvage what they can from its output and recycle it by using their creative energies to fashion a steady flow of new expressions to feed back in—keep the whole thing going.

Langacker 1977: 106–107

Grammaticalization tends to look like: start with full words/construction with semantic content; compacted and bleached down to a function word with little to no semantic component.