Variation in grammar and meaning: The symposium just closed and the road ahead

The 1st International Symposium on Grammatical Variation and the Construction of Meaning, held at Universidad de La Laguna in November 2022, just came to its end. The event can rightfully be considered a great success, given the attendance of scholars from all over the world, as well as of many undergraduate and graduate students; the scientific quality of the presentations delivered, and the interest these aroused in an audience that provided many valuable comments and suggestions. These two days of presentations have made it possible to share results, exchange ideas and set paths for future collaboration that may produce very significant contributions to the general sciences of language and communication.

Some traditional matters of variation in Spanish morphosyntax and discourse were approached from new theoretical perspectives, including the most recent developments in pragmatics, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and cognitive linguistics. Among the topics addressed from diverse angles were grammatical gender (Fábregas), the choice among verbal moods and tenses (García Yanes, Mielenz), word order in interrogatives (Ramos Martín), subject pronoun variable expression (Darwich), or constituent focalization strategies (Méndez Vallejo). Other studies tackled the relationships between verbal lexemes and clause configuration (Brownshire, Castellanos Armenta). A significant number of presentations dealt with different defocusing constructions, their relationships with discourse viewpoint and their use as features of communicative style and identity, which constitute primary interests for the current projects of the CoSoLen research group that was in charge of the organization. The strategies discussed include the objectivizing singular second person (González Abrante), the plural first person (Pecht, Rodríguez García), referentially underspecified third-person constructions (Aijón Oliva) and syntactically independent infinitives (Serrano), all of which provide different nuances to the general function of stylistic desubjectivization. These are but some of the many facts of variation and choice of which new and compelling insights were offered.

Given its strong international orientation, the symposium was of course not limited to the study of Spanish and its varieties; rather, there were contributions devoted to variable phenomena in other languages such as Arabic, Bulgarian, Czech, German or even Latin. In fact, interdialectal and interlinguistic comparison has revealed itself to be an inescapable research direction in order to elucidate the functional and cognitive bases of formal variability. This, in passing, also makes it necessary to overcome traditional reticences about the possibility to attribute (internally) meaningful values to the variation observed across the traditional dialectal, sociolectal or situational axes. As many of the presentations suggested, different grammatical forms never convey exactly the same. Consequently, linguistic varieties need not and should not be defined in merely formal terms: when speakers tend to favor some constructions instead of others, they are at the same time favoring the meanings associated with them, which can obviously be put in connection with social, cultural and ideological factors. Also, as discussed in the plenary talk by Antonio Fábregas, it should be possible to ultimately integrate meaningful variation into formal models of grammar that have traditionally disdained matters of usage in context. If grammar exists at all, it is due to the need to structure and communicate mental concepts and relationships among them, which are in turn undetachable from the experience of the physical and social world.

The symposium has made it evident that there are currently many linguists around the world that share similar concerns about the need to find explanations for the existence of variability in grammar and discourse, and that such explanations need to systematically incorporate the complex and multi-faceted phenomenon of meaning construction. The celebration of this event has no doubt been a significant step in the path towards such ambitious goals.

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