Speakers of York English (UK) use a zero article with definite singular nouns (e.g., “They used to follow Ø river”), which is impossible in Standard English. We probe the possibility that this form is a remnant from Old English, when there were no articles as they are currently found in Modern English, rather than a more contemporary development. We trace the diachronic trajectory of the zero article in historical-descriptive grammars and test social and linguistic constraints on its use in York English in a logistic regression analysis. The results show that information structure is a significant predictor of the zero article across all generations of the community and that the zero article is used in the same way as it was used as far back as Old English. However, it exhibits heightened usage among the older and younger generations, exhibiting a U-shaped curve. We suggest that this pattern demonstrates longitudinal maintenance of a conservative feature, which is suppressed in middle-age as the result of social pressures. In this way, this case study adds insight into the fate of dialect features in contemporary speech communities. It also highlights the importance of combining insights from different strands in linguistics for understanding the evolution of syntactic variants like the zero article.
- conservative dialect features
- information structure
- Old and Middle English
- York English
- zero article