I started my career as a linguistic historiographer at the University of Leuven. My PhD (published in 2004) deals with the history of French (reference) grammar in the first half of the 20th Century, focusing on the epistemological problems underlying sentence analysis, against the background of general linguistics. It also includes a thorough (prosopographical) analysis of French grammar as an academic discipline. The central claim of this work is that traditional grammar is fundamentally ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘discontinuous’, in that it attempts to make a synthesis of a double secular tradition, viz. a ‘top down’ logical/semantic analysis and a ‘bottom-up’ morphosyntactic analysis.
LAUWERS, Peter. 2004. La description du français entre la tradition grammaticale et la modernité linguistique. Etude historiographique et épistémologique de la grammaire française entre 1907 et 1948. Leuven/Paris/Dudley: Peeters. [Orbis Supplementa 24 ; 777 p]
Since my PhD, and more particularly since my appointment at Ghent University, I extended - and finally reoriented - my research towards modern French, partly in contrast with Dutch and to a lesser extent, Spanish. Currently, my research revolves around two language phenomena, which raise intriguing empirical and conceptual-theoretical questions. As such, my research on French also intends to contribute to general linguistic thinking.
I. The first cluster of phenomena has to do with one might call ‘unusual uses’ of words, or, put more technically, mismatches between lexical units and the contexts/constructions in which they are used.
These trigger context-dependent effects of category change (or categorial hybridity) and semantic shifts, also called « coercion » (the word being coerced/forced into a new meaning/category). These phenomena should be carefully distinguished from morphological/lexical category change. Cases in point are adjectival uses of nouns (le décor du film est très théâtre ‘very theater-like’) or nominal uses of adjectives (le beau ‘the beautiful’).
I extended this research line also to shifts within the nominal category, viz. mass uses of intrinsically count words and vice versa (une tomate > de la tomate), partly in collaboration with Timotheus Vermote. This work on mass/count shifts drove my attention to lexical plurals, i.e. words that are intrinsically plural, though not countable (*trois épinards ‘3 spinach’). I found remarkable parallelisms with the different flavours of singular mass construal, including typical category shifts towards [+ count] yielding coercion.
Although at first sight these contextual shifting phenomena may look like the results of language creativity, still, they are not at all rule-less. They still fall within the potential of the language system. Hence, the description of the syntactic, semantic and lexical properties (constraints) of these particular grammatical constructions is a major point of interest in my current work. However, not all constructions are equally capable of such contextual extensions. This observation points to the question of productivity, a central issue in contemporary linguistics, for it deals with the very potential of linguistic structure, i.e. the power and the scope of grammatical rules. The analysis of what it means to be more or less productive (and especially how to measure it) for a construction is currently one the central questions in my work in progress (in collaboration with several GLIMS colleagues and psycholinguists) and in Construction Grammar. In order to come to grips with this notion, I try to fill the gap between corpus linguistics, both synchronic and diachronic, grammaticality judgments and online (psycholinguistic) measurements. Productivity is also the central topic of a vaste interdisciplinary research programme called "Language Productivity @ work" (prom. P. Lauwers, J. Barddal, T. Colleman, L.De Cuypere, R. Enghels, A. Foucart, A.S. Ghyselen, R. Hartsuiker, M. Taverniers) which will kick off in October 2019. See: https://www.languageproductivity.ugent.be/
II. Nominal (non verbal) predication (Fr. constructions attributives)
My second research focus is on copular clauses, or, more generally, on non-verbal predication (Fr. constructions attributives), i.e. linguistic structures that assign properties expressed by an adjective or a noun to a referent by means of an intermediate verb (e.g. Peter is tall ; I found her very attractive). This research concentrates on three clusters of research questions :
(a) some copular constructions are shaped by their particular information structure functions, especially the so-called specificational clauses, and more generally, all copular constructions with marked word order (Grande fut sa surprise). I also published several papers on predicatively used bare nouns (Pierre est médecin), i.e. nouns without determiners, which are somehow decategorialized nouns and hence often (wrongly) considered as cases of adjectivation. Currently I am extending this research towards diachronic research on the changing productivity of these marked constructions.
(b) the study of semi-copular verbs, both from a synchronic and a diachronic point of view. As a matter of fact, the verbs that appear in copular constructions are not restricted to the prototypical copular verb être ‘be’. In joint work with E. Tobback and N. Van Wettere, I was able to extend the traditional inventory of semi-copular verbs beyond the usual suspects. Of particular interest is the fact that these verbs exhibit interesting ‘subjective’ meanings in which the speaker adds subjective content to the utterance, both evidential (se faire, se révéler, s’annoncer, etc.) and detrimental (virer, tourner). From a diachronic perspective, they exhibit interesting subjectification/grammaticalization paths. In addition, we were able to show that the intricate interactions between copular constructions of the same verb and the analogical attraction between copular verbs (with subsequent copying of copular constructions) often took these verbs off the beaten paths of grammaticalization (i.c. copularization). As a result, the usual grammaticalization clines appear to be to simplistic once they are analyzed with the analytic toolbox of Diachronic Construction Grammar. Since several of this semi-copulas contain reflexive pronouns (la bataille s’annonce chaude), our work also touches upon the field of object complement constructions.
(c) the study of resultative constructions, e.g. verbs of chromatic change (il a peint la porte en bleu) or nomination verbs (il a été bombardé chef) within a comparative Romance – Germanic perspective. These constructions are atypical of Romance languages but seem to be productive to a certain extent, though on a lower level of generality. This research forms part of joint research with several GLIMS colleagues.
Besides these two research lines I occasionally also published on discourse markers (e.g. aussi) and families of (complex) prepositional constructions (sous le N de).
As to methodology, my research is mainly corpus-based (quantified), though not exclusively, and is currently broadening its empirical basis by seeking to integrate psycholinguistic evidence through collaboration with the department of experimental psychology (R. Hartsuiker). On the theoretical level, my research is conducted in a general functional-cognitive perspective, which means that ‘meaning’ is considered fundamental to formal structure, although without neglecting that meaning contrasts should be maximally based on formal (language-internal), and more generally, distributional, properties. More specifically, my works ows a lot to the constructionist (Construction Grammar) approaches.
My work has been published in about 100 papers, often in international peer reviewed journals and volumes. The full bibliography can be found in the publications' section.
I also (co-)edited 6 thematic volumes on several linguistic topics
Some of the papers / talks are available on Academia (https://ugent.academia.edu/PeterLauwers) ; the other can be requested by e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org