One of my most-read posts has been on the frequencies of 3rd-person singular present verb forms (he says, she says) in English spoken as a lingua franca (ELF). When looking at English used primarily between non-native speakers of English, is there a greater likelihood of finding the unmarked “zero” form of 3rd-person singular present – he say, she say? This so-called “dropping” of 3rd-person -s has been promoted as the emerging “default option” in ELF interaction, most notably by Martin Dewey (Dewey 2007; Cogo & Dewey 2006).
My previous post questioned the quality of Dewey’s data, much of which is elicited data from English classroom settings (i.e. not naturally occurring ELF interaction). In addition, his database of 60,000 words is far too small to warrant the sweeping generalisations he proposes, and I offered counterfindings from the better compiled, one-million-word VOICE corpus (Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English). The VOICE team recently released a part-of-speech (POS) tagged version of the corpus with double POS-tags showing each word’s function and form, allowing quick calculations of 3rd-person -s vs. zero distributions.
While Dewey reports that 52% of the 3rd-person singular present verbs in his data appear without the -s morpheme (these are for main verbs, not auxiliaries), there is no support for this “emerging default option” in VOICE. After excluding all the forms of high-frequency be and have, the 5335 remaining verbs functioning as 3rd-person present singular verbs (tagged fVVZ) include only 310 cases of 3rd-person zero – just under 6% of the total. How could this be so different from Dewey’s findings? His small, unrepresentative database is the likely cause, but there must be more to the story.
This post goes deeper into the findings on what I’ll now refer to as “3rd-person zero” in the VOICE corpus of naturally occurring ELF interactions – do specific individuals, speech events, or speakers of certain first languages produce the 3rd-person zero form more often than others?
In search of wild diversity
There are ELF researchers who seem to start their studies determined to hack their way through a wild linguistic jungle of unexplored diversity, like a Crocodile Hunter for linguists. It’s true that diversity is prominent in ELF talk and it’s more fun to study than homogeneity, but not finding wild diversity where it was expected is also a significant finding. So what else can we say about these 310 cases of 3rd-person zero found in VOICE? Keep reading…