Privileging informality: cultural influences on the structural patterning of Australian English

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In this chapter we consider the potential influence of this culture on structural choices in Australian English (AusE), examining corpus data to look for evidence that aspects of Australian conversational syntax go beyond the kinds of colloquialization noted in other varieties. Our focus then is on Schneider’s third nexus, specifically the construction involving what are known as negative polarity items (NPIs) — phrases usually used only within the scope of semantic negation of some kind.
Types of NPIs are many and varied, but we will be concentrating on those usually called “minimizers” or “the minimal direct object class”. Taboo items form a particularly interesting sub-class of these minimizers, especially for AusE. We identify a number of types, involving mass nouns in combination with all (the “X-all” frame; e.g. damn all/bugger all/fuck all). The conventional view of these negators is that they originated as NPIs, then underwent reanalysis à la Jespersen’s Cycle. We argue there is little support for this scenario; on the contrary, evidence suggests that expressions like damn all and bugger all began life with an inherently negative value, modelled, we suggest, on the depreciative phrase little/ wretched all. We also show how the “X-all” structure has shifted from negative quantifier (‘nothing’) to fully-fledged marker of negation (‘not’).
This development in AusE is along a well-trodden path of grammatical change, but in this chapter, we emphasize the social and cultural pressures that have worked to coerce the language in this direction — a major force behind this change being the more informal character of Australian culture, and its greater willingness to embrace colloquial styles.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationExploring the Ecology of World Englishes in the Twenty-First Century
Subtitle of host publicationLanguage, Society and Culture
EditorsPam Peters, Kate Burridge
Place of PublicationEdinburgh UK
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781474462884, 9781474462877
ISBN (Print)9781474462853
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Australian English
  • negation
  • grammatical change
  • culture-grammar relationship

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