Meaningful mistakes in language behaviour [...]

5 • A quantitative longitudinal case study

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The commonly accepted meaning of the phrase selected for this study is quite telling, because it reflects our irresistible tendency to make our life easier. When it comes to verbal communication, things are no different. All too often, instead of articulating ourselves in a clear and concise way we rather tend to take the path of least resistance, and use expressions which are easy and quick to utter (cf. Gabelenz’ Bequemlichketstrieb) but nonetheless effective enough in a given situation (Deutlichkeitstrieb).

There are basically two ways of composing the idiomatic construction of interest here: we may want to take the path of least resistance or the least path of resistance.

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Of those two variants, only the first one seems to be logically correct. However, the other one turns out to be more learnable, although not bearing much sense. I think the old good phrase structure trees below will help illustrate the difference in syntactic complexity between those two variants (the syntagmatic relations of which happen to be exactly the same in Polish).

A longitudinal comparative study based on the analysis of Google search results for both variants of this construction confirmed that over the years the propagation of the more learnable variant has been increasing at a statistically significant rate.

But what is even more important, this study showed the ability of the “logically incorrect” variant of this idiom to vary in a certain way, which is characteristic for many grammatical constructions (and occurs in many languages, not only in Polish). Following the Construction Grammar approach to description of the systematic organisation of language resources (Fillmore et al., 1988; Goldberg, 1995), we can define constructions as partially fixed syntagmatic patterns of grammatically interconnected lexical elements, some of which are more or less open for paradigmatic variability. Constructions are essentially understood as learned pairings of some form of signalling pattern with semantic or discourse function. In fact, they are fundamental building blocks of language which can be combined to more complex (i.e. more combinatorially expressive) syntagmatic structures.

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Coming back to the case under consideration, we can observe spontaneous internal variability in the more learnable construction, within a range of semantically suitable lexical items, as indicated by figures in the left column. It turns out, that the path of resistance do not have to be labeled as least – we can just as well take the lowest, simplest, shortest, easiest, lightest, weakest, and even most minimal path of resistance. There are of course many other more or less creative options, but the mentioned ones are frequent enough to be considered unmarked and thus mutually exchangeable segments of the construction. The speakers of Polish can easily recognise this particular syntactic pattern in a vast amount of ordinary expressions like (to give comparable English examples) “the American way of life”, “25 seconds of horror”, “the watchful eye of my wife” etc. The internal variability of the construction the [Adj] path of resistance shows very clearly, that it is currently (i.e. within the time span of the last decades) being adapted by Polish speakers to fit into the significantly more frequent syntactic pattern than that exemplified by the normatively correct variant (the path of [Adj] resistance).

Interestingly, the correct variant of the idiom is less prone to any variation (cf. frequency data in the right column), unless we decide to change its meaning to the opposite and want to take the path of most/maximal resistance.


by Arkadiusz Jasiński
published on: 26.09.2015

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  • Fillmore, C. J., Kay, P. & O’Connor, M. C. (1988). Regularity and Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of Let Alone. Lingua 64(3), 501–538.
  • Goldberg, A. E. (1995). Constructions. A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.