1 Introduction

A distinction between lexical linguistic items and functional linguistic items has been proposed in multiple forms within various frameworks (for instance Meillet 1912; Kuryłowicz 1965; Lehmann 1982/2015; Hopper & Traugott 2003; Boye & Harder 2012). Psycholinguistic research has supported the cognitive reality of this distinction (for instance, Friederici 1982; Froud 2001; Friedmann 2006; Bastiaanse et al. 2011; Foucambert & Zuniga 2011). However, understanding the nature of this distinction and what constitutes the distinction, and therefore being able to define the grounds on which linguistic items might be identified as lexical or functional has proved difficult. This difficulty is nowhere more apparent than in the case of adpositions. Although the set of adpositions has often been viewed as a heterogeneous group, divided between those which are lexical and those which are functional (van Oosten 1977: 455; Zwarts 1997: 1; Tseng 2001), consensus as to what defines a particular adposition as lexical and another functional has yet to be reached, with some definitions claiming all adpositions as functional and others lacking in the specificity needed to identify a given adposition as functional or lexical.

This article considers the Old English adposition of (henceforth ofOE) with the present-day English adposition of (henceforth ofPDE) as a case study for comparison between lexical and functional adpositions, contributing a characterization of the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions. This article takes a “bottom up” approach to the question of what constitutes the lexical versus functional distinction between adpositions by assessing the differences and similarities between a lexical and a functional adposition, without making a prior assumption that certain properties do or do not differentiate the two. OfPDE, an adposition which appears in a wide range of contexts, most notably the marking of possession, has repeatedly been characterized as a functional adposition (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 601; Zwart 2005: 689, 693; Svenonius 2010: 130; Deacon 2014: 10). OfOE has been identified as a lexical adposition, marking spatial relations similar to the present-day English adposition from, with use said to be restricted to ablatival and ablative-like relations (Koike 2004: 14; Allen 2008: 74; Ceolin 2021: 3).

The focus on of in English is justified on two counts: firstly, ofPDE is one of a set of adpositions given in the literature as being unambiguous examples of functional adpositions, alongside present-day English to, French à, and French de (Cann 2000: 8, 9; Tseng 2001: 16–17, 26, 31), and can therefore shed light on the identification of functional adpositions more generally. The development from ofOE to ofPDE is accepted as a specific example of a cross-linguistically well-attested grammaticalization path (Harris & Campbell 1995: 339; Heine & Kuteva 2002: 33). The two adpositions can therefore be taken with a measure of confidence as representative of some other lexical and functional adpositions. Secondly, English has a relatively long attestation history, approximately 1250 years, allowing a comparison of two related adpositions at a significant temporal remove from one another. By comparing ofOE with ofPDE we maximise the potential to see their differences from one another and hence the potential to determine what constitutes the difference between a lexical and a functional adposition. The historical dimension adds the opportunity to study the changes from a lexical to a functional adposition.

This article first identifies the properties which distinguish the adpositions ofOE and ofPDE. This comparative approach contributes to the understanding of what is shared and what is different between a lexical and a functional adposition. Based on these properties, the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions generally is characterized as a primarily semantic distinction consisting of multiple different properties. The distinction is found to be minimal and is best viewed as a continuum rather than an absolute distinction. Some of the properties identified by previous studies to constitute the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions are confirmed and others rejected. The comparison between ofOE and ofPDE gives an insight into the diachronic changes between a lexical to functional adposition, and a revised grammaticalization path for of and potentially other similar adpositions is suggested on the basis of the comparative study. The comparison of ofOE and ofPDE and the characterization of the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions have implications for some aspects of grammaticalization, particularly the definition of semantic bleaching, the coevolution of semantics and syntax, and the notion that grammaticalization occurs in constructional contexts.

Section 2 reviews the literature on the lexical versus functional distinction amongst linguistic items generally (Section 2.1) and adpositions specifically (Section 2.2), and outlines previous study of the English adpositions ofOE and ofPDE (Section 2.3). The corpora used and the methodology adopted are outlined in Section 3. Section 4 is the comparative study of ofOE and ofPDE, examining syntax (4.1), morphophonology (4.2), semantics (4.3), and variations (4.4). Section 5 briefly considers the use of of in an intermediate period of English, early Middle English, in comparison to the earlier and later data already considered. Section 6 characterizes the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions and considers the implications of some of the findings on of for grammaticalization generally and the grammaticalization path of of specifically.

2 Background

2.1 The lexical versus functional distinction

The notion that there is a distinction between lexical and functional linguistic items has a long history. Meillet’s (1912: 131) early definition of one type of language change, “l’attribution du caractère grammatical”, ‘grammaticalization’, presupposes such a distinction. Grammaticalization is “le passage d’un mot autonome au rôle d’élément grammatical”, ‘the development of an autonomous word to the role of a grammatical element’, with grammatical linguistic items referred to as a distinct class from those items which are autonomous. A distinction between meaningful and grammatical items has found wide support over time, in studies of language change (Kuryłowicz 1965; Hopper & Traugott 2003; Lehmann 2015) and from synchronic perspectives (Cann 2000; Boye & Harder 2012; Bresnan et al. 2015: 93).1

There is psycholinguistic support for such a distinction amongst linguistic items. For example, research has found that individuals with one type of aphasia, Broca’s aphasia, experience loss of items identified as serving grammatical and linguistic functions, including inflectional morphology, tense-marking auxiliaries and some pronouns (for example Bastiaanse et. al 2011 and Martínez-Ferreiro et al. 2019), but not loss of other items. These findings indicate a cognitive reality to the differentiation between functional items and lexical items, even if there remains debate as to the motivation for these losses with Broca’s aphasia (see Friedmann 2006 and references therein).

The lexical versus functional distinction amongst linguistic items has been defined with reference to various features. A number of properties have been proposed as relevant: membership of an open or closed category (Lehmann 2015: 36); heavier or lighter phonological weight (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 98; Lehmann 2015: 134ff.); variability or invariability in form (Lehmann 2015: 44); real-world reference or procedural, linguistic function (Narrog & Heine 2021: 3); reference to entities or to relations (Hagège 2010: 1; Lehmann 2015: 4); being open or not to positional adjustment (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 149; Lehmann 2015: 167); optionality or obligatoriness (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 57; Lehmann 2015: 148); lower or higher frequency (Sun & Correira Saavedra 2020); available to semantic coercion or unavailable to semantic coercion (Cann 2000: 7); relative distributional freedom or relative distributional restrictedness (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 100; Lehmann 2015: 147–148). A more recent proposal is that of Boye & Harder (2012: 11). Lexical items are those “with the potential for contributing the primary element of utterance meaning”, and functional items are those which must be secondary, a distinction Boye & Harder suggest can be tested by focalizability (2012: 14) and by addressability in subsequent discourse (2012: 14).

The nature of the lexical versus functional distinction differs across these various treatments: sometimes the distinction is envisaged as an absolute split of linguistic items into two sets (Boye & Harder 2012); other times, the distinction has been viewed as a continuum (amongst many others, Hopper & Traugott 2003; Lehmann 2015: 15).

2.2 Adpositions: the lexical versus functional distinction

Applied to adpositions, the properties proposed for distinguishing lexical from functional items are problematic in a way they are not problematic for other linguistic items. This is due to interactions between the properties which define adpositions as a syntactic category and several of the properties used to distinguish lexical from functional linguistic items.2 Adpositions denote relations between entities: a relation like location underneath might have real world reference, indicating the real world disposition of two entities, but by virtue of marking a relation between linguistic items also has linguistic reference. A distinction between real-world and linguistic reference cannot easily be made in the case of adpositions: as Froud puts it, adpositions are “neither conceptual nor procedural” (2001: 9). Adpositions might be thought to have a greater selectional restriction than nouns and verbs, but greater selection freedom than items like determiners (see for instance Lehmann 2015: 146ff.), rendering selectional freedom and restriction inapplicable.

Some properties of adpositions lead to the generalization that all adpositions are functional. Adpositions serve a linguistic function by marking relations between entities rather than the entities themselves (Hagège 2010: 1, 5–6). Criteria for the lexical versus functional distinction based on the differences between entity-denoting and relation-denoting items lead to the identification of all adpositions as functional items, as do criteria based on formal variability or invariability (Hagège 2010: 138, 147). Adpositions are relatively light in terms of morphophonological weight (Hagège 2010: 128–129) and tend to have a fixed position in relation to their head: on these grounds too all adpositions are functional linguistic items. Boye & Harder’s (2012: 11) discourse-based definition of lexical and functional items leads to the same conclusion, since adpositions do not have the potential to be primary in discourse, being secondary to the entities whose relations they denote.3

The generalization that all adpositions are functional fails to take account of the evidence from aphasiology that heterogeneity amongst adpositions in terms of the lexical versus functional distinction is a reality which must be accounted for (Freiderici 1982; Froud 2001; Mätzig et al. 2010: 370, 372; Martínez-Ferreiro et al 2019: 507–508). Psycholinguistic research has found that individuals with Broca’s aphasia have variable difficulties with some adpositions but not others (Mätzig et al. 2010: 372), and that individuals with and without Broca’s aphasia make errors with different sets of adpositions (Martínez-Ferreiro et al. 2019: 507). In addition, defining all adpositions as functional ignores the heterogeneity of adpositions in terms of other properties, like lower or higher frequency, lesser or greater restrictions on use, optionality or obligatoriness, which scholars have sought to capture in exactly the terms of a functional versus lexical distinction (van Oosten 1977; Tseng 2001: 20ff.).

One response to the challenges of applying many of the properties proposed for the lexical versus functional distinction to adpositions has been that adpositions stand outside of a binary distinction between lexical and functional, being neither fully lexical nor fully functional (Zwarts 1997: 2; Mardale 2011: 64). Mardale posits a third class of linguistic items, semilexical, to which all adpositions, by virtue of the problematic properties just mentioned, belong. For Zwarts, adpositions are resistant to the lexical versus functional distinction amongst linguistic items: based on properties like morphophonological invariance, all adpositions must be functional, but since there are reasons to reject this conclusion, adpositions are instead identified as being “nonfunctional, nonlexical”. However, designating all adpositions as belonging to a third grouping, neither lexical nor functional does no more than acknowledge the problematic properties of adpositions outlined above. Nor does it seem justified, on the basis of the psycholinguistic evidence, to treat adpositions monolithically, whether as lexical, functional, or semilexical. A rejection of a semilexical definition for all adpositions is vindicated by a careful examination of Mardale’s proposal. Although the claim made initially (Mardale 2011: 64) is that all adpositions belong to a special semilexical group, there is shift to the weaker claim that some individual adpositions are lexical, others are functional, and some sit between these two poles, somewhat lexical and a somewhat functional (2011: 69, 70). Mardale’s initial claim is abandoned in favour of an approach in line with the psycholinguistic evidence, treating adpositions as a heterogeneous group individually available to classification as lexical or functional.

The more common response to the identification of adpositions as lexical or functional has been to propose a lexical versus functional distinction along lines specific to adpositions (van Oosten 1977: 454; Tseng 2001: 96–100). Adpositions like French de and present-day English to are thereby distinguished from adpositions like French pendant and English after (Cann 2000: 9; Tseng 2001: 16–17; Mardale 2011: 67). This distinction has been viewed on the one hand as an absolute split between two types of adposition (Bresnan et al. 2015: 299–300) or between three types of adposition (Abeillé et al. 2006), and on the other as a continuum (Mardale 2011: 69, 70). For Tseng (2001: 19), pre-theoretically at least, “there is a gradient of prepositional uses between Type A and Type B”, where Type A adpositions are lexical and Type B functional.

Since some of the properties proposed for the general lexical versus functional distinction cannot be applied to adpositions, alternative properties have been used, including: whether an adposition has spatial or non-spatial meaning (Abeillé et al. 2006: 6; Svenonius 2010: 130–132; Vincent 2017: 296); is polysyllabic or monosyllabic (Mardale 2011: 65); can be replaced by another adposition or not (Mardale 2011: 67); does not vary with case or does vary with case (Zwart 2005: 689; Cann 2000: 8,9); has lower or higher frequency (Sun & Correia Saavedra 2020); has specific meaning or does not have specific meaning (van Oosten 1977: 454; Tseng 2001: 21; Zwart 2005: 689; Mardale 2011: 65–69; Vincent 2017: 302). In some approaches, combinations of different properties constitute the distinction (Tseng 2001; Mardale 2011: 69); in others, individual properties are privileged to the exclusion of others, notably semantic specificity (van Oosten 1977; Zwart 2005).

However, there are problems with some aspects of these proposals for the lexical versus functional distinction specific to adpositions. Firstly, as Cann (2000: 4) notes with respect to monosyllabicity and polysyllabicity, an individual adposition will potentially be identified as lexical on the basis of some of these properties but functional on the basis of others: the properties proposed in the literature do not align to constitute a lexical versus functional distinction. Secondly, reliance on spatial or non-spatial meanings to differentiate adpositions (Abeillé et al. 2006; Svenonius 2010: 130–132) cannot account for the wide range of literal and metaphorical meanings available to individual adpositions and does not therefore allow classification of a given adposition.4 Thirdly, some semantic properties do no more than restate the heterogeneity of adpositions and therefore cannot apply to individual adpositions. Mardale (2011: 69) defines functional adpositions with features including the semantic features [-lexical] and [-theta-assigning]. Whilst the property of theta-role assignment (to the complement of the adposition) might be tested, an adposition being [-lexical] is a re-use of the lexical versus functional distinction, and could not be applied to a particular adposition to determine lexical or functional identity.

Outstanding questions which this article addresses are as follows: what properties constitute the distinction which can be used to identify individual adpositions as being lexical or functional? Is the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions best viewed as an absolute split or a continuum? Is there one single property which defines the distinction or many? Why have individual adpositions proven so resistant to classification as lexical or functional?

2.3 The adposition of

Of is an adposition of Indo-European origin, with cognates in other Germanic and Indo-European languages: for instance, Gothic af, Modern Swedish av, Latin ab. The adposition is reconstructed for proto-Germanic as *aba or *aba (Kroonen 2013: 1). The accepted etymology is that *aba/*aba derives from the ablative case form of an unknown noun not attested in any Indo-European daughter language. In its prehistory, therefore, of would seem to have already undergone a process of grammaticalization from noun to adposition. Since this grammaticalization occurs in prehistory, involves an unattested noun, and does not shed light on the lexical versus functional distinction specific to adpositions, it is set aside, and the focus is only on the historically-attested adposition.

The standard history of of in English, following the sketch given in influential studies like Mustanoja (1960), Mitchell (1985), and Rosenbach (2002) is that ofOE is an infrequently-used spatial adposition approximately equivalent in meaning to present-day English from, before grammaticalizing to take over the functions of the genitive case after the Norman Conquest. Some scholars like Mustanoja (1960: 76–77) have seen a causal connection between changes in the use of of and the influence of the French possessive-marking adposition de. Others, like Allen (2008: 72) argue that contact with de coincided with and sped up an existing process of grammaticalization of of within English.

A diachronic development whereby an adposition used to mark spatial relations becomes a marker of possessive relations, seen in the history of of is paralleled in other languages (Harris & Campbell 1995; Heine & Kuteva 2002). Heine and Kuteva (2002: 33), in their discussion of the development of de and of identify a grammaticalization path ablative > possessive > partitive, that proposed by Harris & Campbell (1995: 339) is similar. The data considered in this article on ofOE gives reason to doubt the ordering of the development from possessive to partitive. For the time being, it is sufficient to note that the history of of has been taken as one example of a grammaticalization path observed cross-linguistically.

OfOE has received far less scholarly attention than its present-day counterpart. Ceolin’s (2021: 3) assessment is representative: “although OE already had the preposition of, this was limited to partitive readings, and therefore could not be used to express possession or to introduce arguments”. OfOE is generally characterized as different from ofPDE on two counts (Mitchell 1985: §1199): having spatial semantics, and not being an available variant of the genitive case in expressing possession in the noun phrase. Curme (1913) is a notable exception, dating the use of ofOE as a marker of possession to the early Old English period. Curme’s argument relies heavily on a small number of textually problematic passages from the Bible, some of which might be interpreted as having a more spatial meaning than Curme allows although the insight that ofOE has a range of uses not usually recognised is a valid one supported by this study.

On the other hand ofPDE has received a great deal of attention for its part in the so-called genitive alternation of present-day English (amongst others, Rosenbach 2002; Feist 2012; Grafmiller 2014; Szmrecsanyi et al. 2016). These investigations have given a detailed picture of the contexts in which ofPDE tends to appear.

3 Data and methodology

3.1 Corpora used to study ofOE and ofPDE

Data on of ofOE come from the York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose (YCOE) (Taylor et al. 2003), a parsed tree bank consisting of 1.5 million words of Old English prose (850CE-1150CE). The later texts in the YCOE, dating to the century from 1050CE-1150CE were included in the investigation as part of the Old English data; with respect to of, these texts more resemble earlier Old English texts than they do early Middle English texts.5 The British National Corpus (BNC) (2007) is used for present-day English, a 96 million word lemmatized corpus dating to the late 20th century. Only the written subcorpus of the BNC was used, totalling 8629,9736 words, for a closer comparison with the YCOE which contains only written texts.

The corpora differ in temporal range (the YCOE covers several centuries, the BNC several decades) and sampling. Of greater relevance to the present investigation, texts translated into Old English from Latin make up a sizeable part of the YCOE (27% of words are in translated texts). Whilst the BNC may contain occasional passages of translation into English, it has no similarly-sized body of translated texts. The concern is that ofOE in texts translated from Latin might be an unrepresentative use of the adposition (a possibility raised by Mitchell 1985:§1201). OfOE might, suggests Mitchell, be used by translators to capture the Latin adpositions ex and de but not by Old English language users outside of translation contexts. Translated texts are included in this investigation and therefore examples of ofOE found in texts translated from Latin do appear in the data set. This inclusion is justified on several counts. OfOE is observed in non-translated texts with some frequency and in the same uses as are observed in translations. Adpositional phrases headed by ex and de in Latin source texts are not always translated with ofOE, but are sometimes rendered by relative clauses, adjectives, or adnominal genitive-case-marked noun phrases, and equally, not all instances of ofOE in translated texts are renderings of a Latin adpositional phrase.6 Uses of ofOE in translated texts seem not to be artificial cribs for Latin adpositions and are therefore accepted as relevant to the study of uses of ofOE generally.

3.2 Retrieving observations of of from the corpora

Using CorpusSearch 2 (Randall 2003), the YCOE was queried for ‘P idems <of>’, in other words for all instances of <of> tagged as heading a prepositional phrase. To account for possible spelling variations, the strings <af>, <æf>, and <off> heading a prepositional phrase were also searched for. There is a single example of the spelling <off>, whilst other spelling variants are unattested in the corpus.

This search of the corpus gives a data set totalling 5788 examples of ofOE, meaning that ofOE is observed at a rate of 40.94 times per 10,000 words in the YCOE.7 A small number (n=6) of examples of of in the YCOE are tagged as prepositions but have no complement and are used as verbal particles (see Elenbaas 2007 for more details on the Old English verbal particle of). These observations were excluded manually, following the traditional distinction between particles and adpositions and in line with the semantic definition of adpositions as relators between entities.8 A breakdown of the observations of ofOE by time is shown in Table 1.9

Table 1

Frequency of ofOE in the YCOE by period.

Time period Raw frequency of of Frequency of of per 10000 words
pre 850CE 3 17.11
850CE–950CE 1211 33.50
950CE–1050CE 4252 42.84
1050CE–1150CE 322 55.23

Observations of ofOE in translated and non-translated texts are shown in Table 2.10

Table 2

Frequency of ofOE in translated and non-translated texts in the YCOE.

Text a translation from Latin? Raw frequency of of Frequency of of per 10000 words
No 2566 18.15
Yes 2859 20.22
Uncertain 363 2.57

The written subcorpus of the BNC was queried for <of>prep, in other words, for instances of <of> tagged as a preposition. The vast majority of instances of the lemma ofPDE were retrieved in this manner, but there are exceptions where the BNC part-of-speech annotation tags the string of as something other than a preposition.11 These instances of of were retrieved by searching for instances of <of> tagged as some part of speech other than a preposition. Since morphophonological reduction of ofPDE and loss of word boundaries are cited in the literature as evidence for the grammaticalization of the adposition (Brems & Davidse 2010: 185, 188; but see Joseph 2011: 195), words showing a reduced suffixal form of ofPDE, as -a, like kinda and sorta were retrieved separately, by searching the corpus for the relevant strings without any part-of-speech specification.12 The reduction o’ was excluded in the data set where it appears in proper names, like John O’Groats and archaizing noun phrases like will o’ the wisp. Instances of o’ in o’clock were also excluded; o’ which appears as a rendering of spoken ofPDE was included in the data set.

Searching the BNC gives a data set with 28,34813 examples of ofPDE, meaning that ofPDE is observed at a rate of 322.49 times per 10,000.The quantitative data in Section 4.1 do not total this figure, because of the inclusion in the total data set of hedges and adverbial phrases like of course, which are not included in the consideration of syntactic distribution of ofPDE.

4 Comparing ofOE and ofPDE

The comparison of ofOE and ofPDE covers syntax (external distribution and complements selected for by of), morphophonology (the shape of of, its weight, stress, and wordhood), semantics (the relations marked by of), and variation between of and other forms without a shift in meaning.

4.1 Comparing syntax

Both ofOE and ofPDE meet the syntactic characteristics—such as they are— for the category adposition. Both take at least nominal complements (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 598; Hagège 2010: 58) but are not governed by any one category of head (Hagège 2010: 191,232,236,246). There is no change over time in the categories on which of-phrases depend, only a change in terms of the frequencies with which of-phrases depend on items of these various categories. In terms of internal syntax, ofPDE has an expanded range of non-nominal complements compared to ofOE, which selects only nominal complements.

4.1.1 Heads

OfOE-phrases mostly depend on verbal heads (1).13 OfOE phrases are also observed as clause-level adjuncts, like time phrases, not dependent on a specific head (2). Nominal heads (3), adjectival heads (4) and other adpositions, mostly ut, ‘out’, (5), are observed selecting for ofOE-phrases with lower frequency. There are difficulties with determining the dependency relations of an adpositional phrase on the basis of the syntactic parsing scheme provided in YCOE. The default in the YCOE scheme is to annotate any adpositional phrase as a clausal adjunct, including when this is not a desirable interpretation. The figures given in Table 3 are based on manual classification.

Table 3

Frequency of heads on which ofOE-phrases depend.

Head on which ofOE-phrase depends Raw frequency of of Frequency of of per 10000 words
Adjective 10 0.07
Adposition 138 0.98
Noun 671 4.74
Verb 4885 34.55
clause level adjunct 84 0.59
    1. (1)
    1. Old English (cochdrul, ChrodR_1: 29.7.445)14
    1. he
    2. 3sg.nom.masc
    1. gehælð
    2. heal-3sg.npst
    1. his
    2. 3sg.gen
    1. sawle
    2. soul.acc.sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. deaðe
    2. death-dat.sg
    1. ‘He salves his soul from death.’
    1. (2)
    1. (cogregdC,GD_2_[C]:
    1. syϸϸan
    2. after
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ϸære
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. tide
    2. time-dat.sg
    1. he
    2. 3sg.nom.masc
    1. wæs
    2. be.pst.
    2. 3sg
    1. swiðe
    2. very
    1. unwælgrim
    2. gentle.nom.sg
    1. ‘Afterwards, from that time, he was very gentle.’
    1. (3)
    1. (cowsgosp, Lk_[WSCp]: 24.13.5664)
    1. and
    2. and
    1. ϸa
    2. then
    1. ferdon
    2. go-pst.pl
    1. twegen
    2. two
    1. of
    2. of
    1. him
    2. 3pl.dat.masc
    1. on
    2. into
    1. ϸæt
    2. det.acc.sg
    1. castel
    2. fortification.acc.sg
    1. ‘And then two of them went to the fortification.’
    1. (4)
    1. (coaelhom, æ Hom_5: 7.680)
    1. Se
    2. det.nom.sg
    1. Hælend
    2. Saviour.nom.sg
    1. ϸa
    2. then
    1. sæt
    2. sit.3sg.pst
    1. ϸær
    2. there
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ðam
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. siðfæte
    2. journey-dat.sg
    1. werig
    2. weary.nom.sg
    1. wið
    2. against
    1. ðone
    2. det.acc.sg
    1. wæterpytt
    2. wellacc.sg
    1. ‘The Saviour then sat down there against the well, weary from the journey’
    1. (5)
    1. (cochdrul, ChrodR_1: 27.11.413)
    1. ϸonne
    2. then
    1. he
    2. 3sg.nom.masc
    1. ut
    2. out
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ϸam
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. cwearterne
    2. prison-dat.sg
    1. gange
    2. go-npst.3sg.sbjv
    1. ‘then he may go out of the prison’

OfPDE-phrases depend on nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other adpositions, as shown in Table 4. OfPDE-phrases do not appear as clausal adjuncts. OfPDE-phrases are predominantly adnominal (83% of observations), whereas adnominal ofOE-phrases are in a minority (12% of observations).

Table 4

Frequency of heads on which ofPDE-phrases depend.

Head on which ofPDE-phrase depends Raw frequency of of Frequency of of per 10000 words
Verb 51016 5.80
Adjective 267085 30.38
Noun 2341113 266.33
Adposition 64850 7.38

The different categories of heads are considered in turn, beginning with adpositions.

When selected for by another adposition, ofOE-phrases are only observed governed by ut, ‘out’, and up, ‘up’, the frequencies of which are given in Table 5.

Table 5

Frequency of adpositions selecting for ofOE-phrases.

Adposition head Raw frequency of of Frequency of of per 10000 words
ut, ‘out’ 158 1.18
up, ‘up’ 33 0.23

The sequence ut ofOE persists into PDE as out of, with the latter analysed in various ways (see Elenbaas 2014). There is a four-fold increase in the frequency of out + ofPDE-phrase compared to ut + ofOE-phrase, although in both data sets these uses of of are relatively infrequent (see Table 6). The sequence up of is absent from PDE (although up of is observed in eME as well as OE, see Section 5). The use of of to mark a place of departure is shared between ut of and out of with up of. Up out of is however observed in the BNC. There are more types of adpositions selecting for ofPDE-phrases, including as, because, despite, and instead (see Table 6). Because and instead are taken as adpositions since they are historically combinations of adposition and noun, like the unambiguously adpositional despite, and remain parallel in some uses in PDE to complex adpositional phrases like in spite of, by virtue of. The minority characteristic of an of-phrase selected for by another adposition has not altered substantially over time, with a similar proportion of the total observations of of-phrases selected for by other adpositions in both corpora.

    1. (6)
    1. but because of the happening of it (J40 172)
    1. (7)
    1. And company cars are to be taxed according to price instead of engine size. (K1H 541)
    1. (8)
    1. A boat called Dodo’s Delight sailed out of Falmouth harbour. (K21 189)
    1. (9)
    1. He takes the cup off of the table. (A74 2122)
    1. (10)
    1. Tug swam up out of the horrors of the darkness. (A74 2372)

Adjectival heads which select for ofOE-phrases number only three in the corpus data: æϸelboren, ‘noble-born’, werig, ‘tired’, and freo, ‘free’. There is some lexical continuity between the adjectives which select for an of-phrase in OE and their PDE counterparts: born, weary, and free can select for either an ofPDE-phrase or a from-phrase, with ofPDE-phrases the more frequent variant for all three adjectives. The data presented in Table 7 is also of relevance to variation between ofPDE and other adpositions, discussed further in Section 4.4.1.

Table 6

Frequency of adposition heads selecting for ofPDE-phrases.

Adposition head Raw frequency of of Frequency of of per 10000 words
as 749 0.085
because 16096 1.83
despite 2 0.0002
instead 6124 0.70
off 120 0.014
out 42238 4.80
up out 142 0.016
Table 7

Frequency of adjectives (counterparts of those OE adjectives which select for ofOE-phrases) selecting for ofPDE-phrases and from-phrases.

Adjective Adpositional phrase selected for Raw frequency frequency per 10,000 words
born of 225 0.02
born from 30 0.003
free of 1365 0.15
free from 962 0.11
tired of 591 0.07
tired from 21 0.002
weary of 72 0.008
weary from 5 0.0005

Other adjectives observed to select for ofPDE-phrases indicate content and parts, like empty, full, devoid, inclusive, attitudes like aware, sure, critical, supportive, sceptical and indicators of experienced emotions like afraid, jealous, desirous proud, reminiscent. Causation and source are relevant for both ofOE-phrases and ofPDE-phrases dependent on an adjective.

Most frequently, ofOE-phrases are observed dependent on verbal heads, often of verbs of motion, and those indicating removal, like arisan, ‘arise’, niman, ‘take’, and gewitan, ‘depart’. Many of these verbs, like take, rise up appear with from phrases in PDE or with out of. However, different verbs from these do in fact select for ofPDE-phrases. These include verbs of removal like cleanse, dispose (11) and rid, where the use of ofPDE preserves the sense of separation evident in examples (1) of adverbial ofOE-phrases). Other verbs observed selecting for ofPDE-phrases specify the relations between parts and wholes like make, consist, or are perception predicates: beware, think, hear, learn, and read, with the adposition marking the source or stimulus of perception. There is no direct persistence of the individual verbal heads frequently observed selecting for ofOE-phrases into the present-day but there is continuity of the semantic relations marked by of in adverbial contexts.

    1. (11)
    1. The British government decides how to dispose of high level nuclear waste. (B76 188)
    1. (12)
    1. We read of Wellington’s distress at the terrible losses at Badajoz. (AHA 941)

Adnominal contexts are by far the most frequent for ofPDE-phrases and an important point of difference between ofOE and ofPDE.

4.1.2 Complements

The complements taken by ofOE and ofPDE are predominantly nominal, as shown in Table 8. There are no non-nominal complements of ofOE at all.15

Table 8

Frequency of NP complements of ofOE.

Type of NP complement Raw frequency per 10000 words
NP headed by common noun 4405 31.46
NP headed by proper noun 513 3.63
NP headed by pronoun 767 5.42
NP headed by nominalized adjectives, relatives, and other nominal forms 103 0.73

A significant majority of the complements of ofPDE are nominal (see Table 9). There are non-nominal complements too: clauses, and other adposition phrases. The frequency of course in the phrase of course is given separately, as a reflection of the fact that in this expression, course is not the complement of the adposition but is instead an inseparable part of an adverbial phrase.

Table 9

Frequency of different categories of complement of ofPDE.

Complement category Raw frequency of of Frequency of of per 10000 words
noun phrase (of which proper noun) 2448847 (275538) 278.58(31.34)
adposition phrase 178 0.02
clause 16459 1.87
of course 24001 2.73

Adposition phrase complements of ofPDE are limited in practice to the context of instead + ofPDE-phrase, when the adposition phrase is conjoined by way of instead of with another adposition phrase elsewhere in the clause. OfPDE with adpositional complements outside the context of instead of are extremely rare (n=5) and the corpus examples may be considered ungrammatical. These include:

    1. (13)
    1. vice-chair Wolfgang Langnitschke and former treasurer Wolfgang Pohl were charged of with breach of trust (HL7 1430)
    1. (14)
    1. But now the naturists are coming out of from behind the bushes (K97 2202)

Clausal complements of ofPDE, headed by complementizers occur when the ofPDE-phrase is itself a complement of a perception predicate, like think, say, wary, or the nouns indicating perception, like question, and point. Clausal complements are seen when ofPDE depends on regardless or irrespective; here too there is a semantic association with perception, signifying a dismissal of consideration.

    1. (15)
    1. His clear understanding of how the electrical ‘capacity’ of a conductor was increased. (GTA 177)
    1. (16)
    1. He is sceptical of whether illusions ‘hold the key to unlock the mysteries of vision’. (B73 1671)
    1. (17)
    1. It wasn’t a matter of if they would return. (G0P 3039)

Non-nominal complements of ofPDE appear in fixed expressions, like of course, and instead of, or in semantically identifiable and limited contexts, like with perception predicates. Nominal complements are not limited in this way.

4.2 Comparing morphophonological form

Of is formally stable in the history of English, with two exceptions. The etymon of of, *aba/*aba, is also the etymon of the Old English verbal prefix a(f)-, seen in verbs like a-flieman, ‘banish’. The prefix adds a meaning of motion away from a source (Campbell 1959:§73; see also Elenbaas 2007: 135). In the prehistoric period, the adposition of and the prefix a(f)- have become phonologically distinct. A second change is seen in the formal split of off, from of, an adposition, in the post-Conquest history of English (Elenbaas 2007). The adposition, adverb, and particle offPDE is morphophonologically and historically related to ofOE, and the difference in form between the two has traditionally been ascribed to stress (OED online, 2022).

OfPDE can be reduced phonologically, represented in writing as the -a in forms like lotsa. Also observed in BNC is the representation of phonologically reduced ofPDE as -uv- in the form helluva (Pierce 2017). These forms also represent loss of word boundaries between heads and ofPDE, another important indicator of formal reduction.

In the Old English data there is no orthographic evidence to indicate loss of word boundaries before or after ofOE or phonological reduction. The view found in handbooks and grammars, based partly on assumptions about stress and partly on metrical evidence from poetry (Campbell 1959: §96–97), is that ofOE, like other Old English adpositions, is unstressed in most contexts, in other words, showing relative phonological reduction compared to non-adpositional items in its immediate context, but has full stress more commonly applicable to nouns, verbs, and adjectives, when it appears in the syntactic context of preposition stranding. However, verifying these claims about stress and reduction in Old English prose is not possible. OfPDE has undergone some loss of form and phonological integrity, but there is no evidence in the corpus data to allow comment on whether or not ofOE was subject to similar processes.

OfPDE is also phonologically reduced in the context of the hedges kind of and sort of, which are grammaticalizations from (a) kind of and (a) sort of constructions (for the development of the hedges, see for instance Brems & Davidse 2010, Margerie 2010). In kind of and sort of hedges, the element ofPDE no longer marks a relation between entities.

    1. (18)
    1. My legs kinda left me. (K97 16408)

The reduced forms kinda, sorta are sometimes observed in noun phrases where there is a part-whole or classification relation between the nouns sort and kind and the nominal complement of ofPDE, whilst the unreduced forms sort of, kind of are less frequently observed as hedges, as shown in Table 10. Nevertheless, in the BNC, there is a statistically significant correlation between the phonological reduction of ofPDE to -a and the hedge function of kind of and sort of (χ2 = 949.501, df =1, p< 0.00001). This is a distribution also observed in Joseph (2011: 195) and used there to criticize associations between morphophonological reduction and grammaticalization.

Table 10

Frequency of reduced and non-reduced forms of kind of and sort of by syntactic function.

Form Frequency as NP of NP Frequency per 10000 words Frequency as hedge Frequency per10000 words
kinda 8 0.001 115 0.01
sorta 3 0.0003 12 0.001
total reduced forms 11 127
kind of 12059 1.37 1151 0.13
sort of 9545 1.08 1342 0.15
total non-reduced forms 21604 2493

Morphophonological reduction is one of the few instances of difference and discontinuity between ofOE and ofPDE, evidence for the relatively small differences between this lexical and functional adposition.

Already at this stage in the comparison between ofOE and ofPDE it is clear that the distinction between the adposition cannot be simplified to a single difference. There are differences in the dimensions considered thus far, syntax and morphophonology, and as Section 4.3 will show, differences in semantics too. On this basis, it is suggested that the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions generally consists of multiple properties. This finding is not unexpected given previous assessments, and is in the line with the arguments of Zwarts (1997: 1), Tseng (2001: 34), and Mardale (2011: 69).

4.3 Comparing semantics

OfOE marks the following relations: cause (19), repeated from (4); the point from which something is removed or separated (20), repeated from (1); parts of wholes (21), repeated from (3); the origin point of movement (22); the material from which something is made (23); agents of passives and in the eventive noun phrase (24); stimulus or theme arguments in the clause and eventive noun phrase (25); the place or space over which someone has control (26); the social group to which someone belongs (27). Several of the relations which have been taken to support the semantic non-specificity of ofPDE are in fact already in evidence in the Old English period. These include possessive relations like part-whole marking, which are taken as evidence of non-specificity by van Oosten (1977: 456) and Zwart (2005: 689), and argument marking in the eventive noun phrase, which has been taken as evidence of the semantic non-specificity by Ceolin (2021: 3) and in some studies of the genitive alternation (Feist 2012: 266).

    1. (19)
    1. (coaelhom, ÆHom_5: 7.680)
    1. Se
    2. det.nom.sg
    1. Hælend
    2. Saviour.nom.sg
    1. ϸa
    2. then
    1. sæt
    2. sit.3sg.pst
    1. ϸær
    2. there
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ðam
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. siðfæte
    2. journey-dat.sg
    1. werig
    2. weary.nom.sg
    1. ‘The Saviour then sat down there weary from the journey.’
    1. (20)
    1. (cochdrul,ChrodR_1: 29.7.445)
    1. he
    2. 3sg.nom.masc
    1. gehælð
    2. heal-3sg.npst
    1. his
    2. 3sg.gen
    1. sawle
    2. soul.acc.sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. deaðe.
    2. death-dat.sg
    1. ‘He salves his soul from death.’
    1. (21)
    1. (cowsgosp, Lk_[WSCp]: 24.13.5664)
    1. and
    2. and
    1. ϸa
    2. then
    1. ferdon
    2. go-pst.pl
    1. twegen
    2. two
    1. of
    2. of
    1. him
    2. 3pl.dat.masc
    1. on
    2. into
    1. ϸæt
    2. det.acc.sg
    1. castel
    2. fortification.acc.sg
    1. ‘And then two of them went to the fortification.’
    1. (22)
    1. (cootest, Gen: 37.17.1449)
    2. gll
    1. Hi
    2. 3pl.nom
    1. ferdon
    2. go-3pl.pst
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ðisse
    2. dem.dat.sg
    1. stowe
    2. place-dat.sg
    1. ‘They went from this place.’
    1. (23)
    1. (coorosiu, Or_4:
    1. hie
    2. 3pl.nom
    1. worhton
    2. make-3pl.pst
    1. sume
    2. some-acc.pl
    1. of
    2. of
    1. seolfre
    2. silver-dat.sg
    1. sume
    2. some-acc.pl
    1. of
    2. of
    1. treowum
    2. tree-dat.pl
    1. ‘They made some from silver and some from timber.’
    1. (24)
    1. (cocura, CP:53.417.6.2891)
    1. hit
    2. 3sg.nom.sg.neut
    1. oft
    2. often
    1. gebyreð
    2. happen-npst.3sg
    1. ðæt
    2. comp
    1. ðæt
    2. det.nom.sg
    1. mod
    2. mind.nom.sg
    1. wyrð
    2. become-npst.3sg
    1. gecostod
    2. tempt-pass.ptcp.nom.sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ðæs
    2. det.gen.sg
    1. flæsces
    2. flesh-gen.sg
    1. lustfulnesse
    2. lustfulness-dat.sg
    1. ‘It often happens that the mind becomes tempted by the lustfulness of the flesh’
    1. (25)
    1. (cowsgosp, Lk_[WSCp]: 12.15.4663)
    1. nys
    2. neg-be-npst.3sg
    1. nanes
    2. none-gen.sg
    1. mannes
    2. man-gen.sg
    1. lif
    2. life-nom.sg
    1. on
    2. adp
    1. gytsunge
    2. coveting-obl.sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ϸam
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. ϸe
    2. rel
    1. he
    2. 3sg.nom.masc
    1. ah
    2. own.npst.3sg
    1. ‘the life of no man is in coveting of that which he owns’

What is coveted is the source of the covetousness; again a sense of origin is relevant.

    1. (26)
    1. (cochronE,ChronE_[Plummer]: 1108.5.3467)
    1. se
    2. det.nom.sg
    1. cyng
    2. king.nom.sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. France
    2. France
    1. Philippus
    2. Philip.nom.sg
    1. forðferde
    2. die-3sg.pst
    1. ‘Philip the king of France died.’

Philip is the king who rules over France, he is himself of French birth, providing an association between landed control and social origin.

    1. (27)
    1. (cobede, Bede_4: 17.302.17.3058)
    1. Wæs
    2. be.pst.3sg
    1. ϸær
    2. there
    1. sum
    2. some.nom.sg
    1. munuc
    2. monk.nom.sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. Scotta
    2. Scot-gen.pl
    1. cynne,
    2. kin.dat.sg
    1. se
    2. rel
    1. wæs
    2. be.pst.3sg
    1. Dicul
    2. Dicul
    1. haten
    2. named
    1. ‘There was a certain monk of the Scottish race who was called Dicul’

The relations of kinship (28) and alienable possession (29) are observed marked by ofOE, in 1 example each.

    1. (28)
    1. (coorosiu, Or_3:
    1. gefriend
    2. friend
    1. beon
    2. be.inf
    1. ϸe
    2. rel
    1. wæron
    2. be-3pl.pst
    1. gebroðor
    2. brother
    1. of
    2. of
    1. fæder
    2. father-dat.sg
    1. 7
    2. and
    1. of
    2. of
    1. meder
    2. mother
    1. ‘to be friends, those who were brothers by father or mother’
    1. (29)
    1. (cootest, Deut: 32.32.5097)
    1. Hyra
    2. 3pl.gen
    1. wingeard
    2. vineyard.nom.sg
    1. is
    2. be.npst.3sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. Sodomwara
    2. Sodomite-gen.pl
    1. winearde
    2. vineyard-dat.sg
    1. 7
    2. and
    1. of
    2. of
    1. Gomorra
    2. Gomorrah.gen.sg
    1. underburgum
    2. suburb-dat.pl
    1. ‘Their vineyard is like the Sodomites’ vineyard and like the vineyard of Gomorra’s suburbanites’

OfPDE can be used to mark all these relations, although for the origin point of movement (22), ofPDE is only observed as a complement to out (8) or off (9) (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 639). OfPDE marking removal and the stimulus of perception is exemplified above (11), (12). The following examples show ofPDE marking subsets (30), material (31), agents (32), cause (33), control (34), and social origin (35).

    1. (30)
    1. Only three of the eleven members were peasants. (A64 694)
    1. (31)
    1. She always wears floor-length dresses of silk brocade. (G2E 555)
    1. (32)
    1. An unlikely coalition … pressured the government to take firm action to resist the invasion of the drift-netters. (ABC 1259)
    1. (33)
    1. Racehorses have been known to die of eating chocolate. (FU2 1299)
    1. (34)
    1. Aebbe (Eafe), daughter of Eormenred and now abbess of Minster-in-Thanet (G0G660)
    1. (35)
    1. He seems to have taught the men of Lewes and Bramber how to fish. (CB6 390)

OfPDE marks relations not observed marked by ofOE, or in the case of alienable possession and kinship, marked by ofOE in two examples: alienable possession (36); all and any kinship relations (37); characteristics of various sorts (38); topics of discourse (39); body parts (40); what is represented in an image or artistic depiction (41); the author or creator of a work (42); place (43).

    1. (36)
    1. taking care of the cat of an elderly hospitalised lady (BNL 1597)
    1. (37)
    1. The carpet was acquired from Morris & Co. by the uncle of the present owner. (EBS 2639)
    1. (38)
    1. a public sector borrowing requirement of heroic proportions (K5A 3176)
    1. (39)
    1. The epic of human redemption was now recast. (CCE 316)
    1. (40)
    1. He aimed a can of tinc benz spray at the foot of a young blonde WRAC girl. (A77 1804)
    1. (41)
    1. the portrait of a man whose face is obscured by a fried egg (FBM 259)
    1. (42)
    1. a constant theme through the novels of D. H. Lawrence. (AS4 167)
    1. (43)
    1. the fine church of Altarnun, the ‘Cathedral of Bodmin Moor’ (B0G 620)

As further evidence that ofOE has a smaller semantic range than ofPDE, the specific case of part-whole relations between entities is now considered. The semantic notion of part-whole relations can be divided up into various types of semantic relations, when viewed in more granular detail. In the remainder of this discussion of semantic relations, “part-whole” is used as an umbrella term to refer to a group of different but interrelated semantic relations, following the distinctions between part-whole relations and the labels applied to the different relations used by Payne et al. (2013) to describe ofPDE. The finding is that ofOE marks fewer of these part-whole relations than does ofPDE. OfOE is observed marking subsets (3), membership (44), and the contents of collections (45). Table 11 gives the frequencies with which ofOE is observed marking these relations.

Table 11

Frequency of different types of part-whole relations marked by ofOE.

Type of part-whole relation Raw frequency of of per 10000 words
Subset 158 1.12
Member 38 0.27
Inherent 7 0.05
Collection 16 0.11
    1. (44)
    1. (coaelive, ÆLS_[Martin]: 244.6120)
    1. sum
    2. some.nom.sg
    1. ungesælig
    2. unhappy.nom.sg
    1. man
    2. man.nom.sg
    1. hine sylfne
    2. himself.acc.sg
    1. ahenge
    2. hang-3sg.pst
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ϸære
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. hiwrædene
    2. household.dat.sg
    1. ‘Some unhappy man of the household hung himself’
    1. (45)
    1. (cocathom1, ÆCHom_I, _36: 486.7.7138)
    1. Ic
    2. 1sg.nom
    1. geseah
    2. see.2sg.pst
    1. swa
    2. so
    1. miccle
    2. great.acc.sg
    1. meniu
    2. multitude.acc.sg
    1. swa
    2. as
    1. nan
    2. neg-one.nom.sg
    1. man
    2. man.nom.sg
    1. geriman
    2. count-inf
    1. ne
    2. neg
    1. mæg
    2. be-able.3sg.npst
    1. of
    2. of
    1. eallum
    2. eall-dat.pl
    1. ϸeodum
    2. people-dat.pl
    1. ‘I saw so great a multitude of all peoples, such that no-one could count it’

The set of part-whole relations marked by ofPDE likewise includes subsets (30), membership, (46), and the contents of collections (47).

    1. (46)
    1. He was a member of the town council of Lincoln. (GTD 18)
    1. (47)
    1. A small army of frogs croaked a hoarse descant. (FU8 1401)

OfPDE is also observed marking part-whole relations not marked by ofOE: body parts of animate beings (40), non-bodily inherent parts (48), sub-periods of time (49), and indications of measures and quantities (50).

    1. (48)
    1. He was back behind the wheel of his Ferrari. (EX1 485)
    1. (49)
    1. The first hour of the last day saw five wickets crash for 78. (ABR 192)
    1. (50)
    1. ‘Aye,’ Bull replied laconically, accepting a glass of whisky. (ALL 1705)

Part-whole relations are an instance of semantic continuity uniting the two adpositions, but there is also difference insofar as the functional adposition ofPDE marks a greater number of relations covering a greater semantic range than does the lexical adposition ofOE.

Some semantically-oriented characterizations of the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions have stated the distinction as being between adpositions which have a limited number of specific meanings, and adpositions which lack specific meaning. For van Oosten (1977: 456), for instance, the distinction is between meaningful and “colourless” adpositions; for Tseng (2001: 21) it constitutes a continuum from “minimal to maximal” meaningfulness; for Mardale (2011: 69), the distinction is captured by feature [±theta assigning]. It has been established that ofPDE marks more relations than does ofOE, and might be tempting to take this difference in available relations as equivalent to characterizations of the lexical versus function distinction as being between specific and non-specific meaning. The distinction would therefore be between ofPDE which has no specific meaning, marking multiple dependency relations, and ofOE which has a specific meaning, origin. The relations marked by ofOE, such as like materials, causes, and departure points, all relate to literal and metaphorical origins. However, interpreting the fewer and greater relations marked by ofOE and ofPDE in this way ignores the possibility of identifying specific points of semantic difference and similarity. For example, if a collection relation is between a container or group noun and the contents of the collection, ofOE can be used, but not if the relation is between a unit of measurement and the contexts. On the other hand, ofPDE can be used in both circumstances. Likewise, ofOE marks the material from which something is made, but is not observed marking other characteristics of objects like size; ofPDE is observed marking both relations. If ofPDE as a functional adposition is described as having minimal meaningfulness or being semantically colourless these insights into the semantic connections between the relations available to ofPDE are missed. Rather than characterize semantic differences between lexical and functional adpositions in terms of limited meaning versus no particular meaning, it is therefore proposed that a characterization more open to semantic similarities and only small semantic differences between lexical and functional adpositions is adopted instead. This entails a language-specific relative distinction between smaller and greater numbers of discrete, identifiable semantic relations. The semantic distinction between ofOE and ofPDE, and perhaps the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions more widely, can be characterized as a difference between an adposition able to mark n relations and an adposition able to mark n-plus relations, allowing for a situation like that of ofPDE, in which a functional adposition retains the uses of its earlier lexical counterpart.

4.4 Comparing ofOE and ofPDE with respect to variation

One of the most commented-upon properties ofPDE is its participation in variation with the s-possessive, the so-called “genitive alternation” of PDE illustrated in (51); by contrast a comparable variation between ofOE-phrases and genitive-case-marked noun phrases in OE has been routinely dismissed in the literature (Allen 2008: 73–74; Ceolin 2021: 8). Any examination of ofPDE must acknowledge the genitive alternation as an important aspect of the use of the adposition, and this investigation has also found that there is variation between genitive-case-marked noun phrases and ofOE-phrases.

    1. (51)
    1. a.
    1. Henry VI’s son, Frederick, should act in the interests of the Church (HPW 1065)
    1. b.
    1. Charles married Desiderata, the daughter of Desiderius (ALT 150)

4.4.1 Variation between an of-phrase and an adpositional phrase headed by an adposition other than of

OfOE varies with other adpositions in all the syntactic contexts in which it appears, and adposition-adposition variation is a more complex phenomenon than this overview can do justice to. Various verbal (compare (1) with (52)) or adjectival heads (53a), (53b) are observed in some instances with a dependent adpositional phrase headed by ofOE and by other adpositional phrases, most often fram-phrases, ‘from’. These adpositional phrases mark relations of departure, separation, and removal.

    1. (52)
    1. (cogregdC, GDPref_and_4_[C]: 60.348.18.5342)
    1. ϸeos
    2. dem.nom.sg
    1. gesægednes
    2. offering.nom.sg
    1. gehæleð
    2. heal.npst.3sg
    1. synderlice
    2. especially
    1. ϸa
    2. det.acc.sg
    1. sawle
    2. soul.acc.sg
    1. fram
    2. from
    1. ϸære
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. ecan
    2. eternal.dat.sg
    1. forwyrde
    2. perdition.dat.sg
    1. ‘this offering especially heals the soul from eternal perdition.’
    1. (53)
    1. a.
    1. (cobede, Bede_1:
    1. he
    2. 3sg.nom.masc
    1. bið
    2. be.npst.3sg
    1. freo
    2. free
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ϸære
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. soðfæstnesse
    2. truth-dat.sg
    1. ‘he is free from truth’
    1. b.
    1. (cogregdH, GD_2_[H]:
    1. he
    2. 3sg.nom.masc
    1. wæs
    2. be.pst.3sg
    1. ϸa
    2. then
    1. freoh
    2. free
    1. fram
    2. from
    1. leahtre
    2. vice
    1. ϸære
    2. det.gen.sg
    1. costnunge
    2. temptation-gen.sg
    1. ‘He was then free from the vice of temptation.’

Marking agents of passives is another context of variation between ofOE and other adpositions, namely æt, ‘at’, fram, ‘from’, and ϸurh, ‘through’ (Mitchell 1985:§809). The same applies to ofOE marking agents of eventive nouns.

    1. (54)
    1. (coverhom, HomS_38_[ScraggVerc_20]: 145.G.2631)
    1. gyf
    2. if
    1. he
    2. 3sg.nom.masc
    1. cepð
    2. heed-3sg.npst
    1. idelre
    2. idle-acc.sg
    1. herunge
    2. praising-acc.sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. mannum
    2. man-dat.pl
    1. ‘if he heeds the idle praise of mortal men’
    1. (55)
    1. (cocathom1, ÆCHom_I, _28: 412.80.5516)
    1. ðeos
    2. det.nom.sg
    1. todræfednys
    2. expulsion.nom.sg
    1. getacnode
    2. signify-3sg.pst
    1. ϸa
    2. det.acc.sg
    1. toweardan
    2. future-acc.sg
    1. toworpennysse
    2. destruction-acc.sg
    1. ϸurh
    2. adp
    1. romaniscum
    2. Roman-dat.sg
    1. here
    2. army.dat.sg
    1. ‘This expulsion signified the coming destruction by the Roman army.’

Some individual adjectival and verbal heads are observed in the BNC selecting for adpositional phrases other than ofPDE-phrases, but such selectional possibilities appear to be on a lexeme-by-lexeme basis. For instance, whilst jealous can appear with an ofPDE-phrase, an about-phrase, or an at-phrase, no adpositional phrases other than ofPDE-phrases are observed with the semantically similar adjective envious. Variation between ofPDE-phrases and from-phrases was demonstrated above in Table 7 with a small sample of adjectives. In the eventive noun phrase, ofPDE marking agents varies with the agentive adposition by (compare (32) with (56)), just as ofOE varies with the agentive adpositions fram and ϸurh.

    1. (56)
    1. What did spur them was the invasion by foreign drug multinationals. (ABF 2344)

OfPDE is not outside variation with other adpositions; variation between of and another adposition does not separate ofOE from ofPDE.

4.4.2 Variation between an of-phrase and a case-marked noun phrase

Variation between ofOE or ofPDE and case raises definitional issues of case. There is an assumption underlying associations between functional adpositions and case that “case” means Indo-European-style cases marking grammatical relations (Cann 2000: 8,9; Zwart 2005; Huddlestone & Pullum 2002: 601; Svenonius 2010). Inflectional forms can mark specific semantic relations and therefore pattern with lexical adpositions but such forms are not the kinds of case referred to in studies equating case with functional adpositions. The s-possessive is not a case under this definition; present-day English does not have a case system, but Old English does, of which the genitive is just one component (Allen 2008: 63). Nevertheless, because the genitive alternation has been used to identify ofPDE as a functional adposition and because the s-possessive shows formal and functional continuity with some genitive case forms of Old English (Allen 2008: 223ff.), the variation of ofPDE-phrases and the s-possessive is discussed here in terms of case.

OfPDE-phrases vary with the s-possessor only where ofPDE appears within the noun phrase and with a nominal complement; ofOE-phrases vary with the genitive when they depend on a noun, or on a verb or adjective.16 Variation between an adverbial ofPDE-phrase and the s-possessor, or between an ad-adjectival ofPDE-phrase and the s-possessor is unavailable because the s-possessor is restricted to adnominal dependency.

The semantic contexts in which an ofOE-phrase varies with the genitive-case-marked noun phrases are different in number and identity from the semantic contexts in which an ofPDE-phrase varies with the s-possessor. Only adnominal ofOE-phrases are considered to provide a more direct comparison with present-day English.

OfOE and the genitive vary in the marking of part-whole relations (57a), (57b), and in the marking of agents (compare (54) with (58)) and stimulus arguments (compare (25) with (59)) in the eventive noun phrase. These findings run contrary to the claims made in Ceolin (2021: 3) that ofOE “is used as a locative preposition, that in some cases can have a partitive reading overlapping with the meaning of a postnominal genitive”.

    1. (57)
    1. a.
    1. (cochronE, ChronE_[Plummer]: 1087.30.2998)
    1. Roger
    2. Roger
    1. het
    2. name.pass.3sg.pst
    1. an
    2. one.nom.sg
    1. of
    2. of
    1. heom
    2. 3pl.dat
    1. ‘One of them was called Roger.’
    1. b.
    1. (cochronC, ChronC_[Rositzke]: 461.1.67)
    1. heora
    2. 3pl.gen
    1. ϸær
    2. there
    1. wearð
    2. become.3sg.pst
    1. an
    2. one.nom.sg
    1. ofslegen,
    2. slain
    1. ϸam
    2. rel.dat
    1. wæs
    2. be.3sg.pst
    1. nama
    2. name.nom.sg
    1. Wipped.
    2. Wipped
    1. ‘There one of them was killed, whose name was Wipped’.
    1. (58)
    1. (cobede, Bede_3:
    1. and
    2. and
    1. generede
    2. defend.pst.3sg
    1. from
    2. adp
    1. ϸære
    2. det.dat.sg
    1. feondlican
    2. hostile-obl.sg
    1. hergunge
    2. harrowing-obl.sg
    1. ðara
    2. det.gen.pl
    1. hæðenra
    2. heathen-gen.pl
    1. ‘And he defended against the heathens’ hostile harrowing.’
    1. (59)
    1. (cocathom1, ÆCHom_I, _27: 405.142.5366)
    1. seo
    2. det.nom.sg
    1. gitsung
    2. coveting
    1. ðæra
    2. det.gen.pl
    1. æhta
    2. possession-gen.pl
    1. his
    2. 3sg.gen.masc
    1. willan
    2. will.acc.sg
    1. ne
    2. neg
    1. hremde
    2. turn-3sg.pst
    1. ‘The covetousness of possessions did not shake his resolve.’

An adnominal genitive-case-marked noun phrase is the usual means of marking alienable possession (29) and kinship (28) in Old English.

The semantic contexts in which a variation between the s-possessor and an ofPDE phrase is possible include the marking of relations of kinship, alienable possession (60), authorship (compare (42) with (61)), characteristics, depictions (62), and arguments in eventive noun phrases.

    1. (60)
    1. a.
    1. The timbered town house of the marquesses of Huntly (ECS 1730)
    1. b.
    1. as a guest to the family’s town house in Bristol (B0R 719)
    1. (61)
    1. Anita Brookner’s novels are London-based (CKN 1064)
    1. (62)
    1. a.
    1. They’ve got a picture of Mrs Thatcher on them. (A3T 453)
    1. b.
    1. My father had been a great admirer of Kemal Ataturk … and Ataturk’s picture hung in the living-room. (ANU 524)

Variation between case and adposition, as well as the variation between adpositions considered in Section 4.4.1, marks an important continuity between ofOE and ofPDE. Two previously-proposed criteria for distinguishing lexical from functional adpositions are found not to differentiate ofOE and ofPDE, which emerge as remarkably similar to one another despite differences in the nature of case and the inventory of adpositions between OE and PDE.

4.5 Overview of findings

Table 12 summarises the outcomes of the comparison of ofOE and ofPDE.

Table 12

Summary of comparison.

Dimension of comparison Overview of findings Type of distinction Section
External syntax ofOE mostly adverbial; ofPDE mostly adnominal change in which context is most frequent 4.1.1
OfPDE-phrases depend on verbs, nouns, adjectives, adpositions
OfPDE-phrases depend on verbs, nouns, adjectives, adpositions continuity
OfOE-phrases, but not ofPDE-phrases, observed as clausal adjuncts reduction in contexts
Internal syntax ofOE has only nominal complements 4.1.2
ofPDE has nominal complements or clausal complements some expansion
ofPDE has adpositional complements but very limited minimal expansion
Morpho-phonology No evidence for reduction of ofOE 4.2
OfPDE reduction to -a reduction
In the BNC reduction and hedge uses correlate but not absolute association
Semantic relations ofPDE marks more relations than ofOE expansion 4.3
ofPDE marks relations not marked by ofOE quantities, depictions, characteristics, body parts. expansion
ofPDE as used with verbs and adjectives close to spatial semantics of ofOE continuity
Both adpositions can mark kinship, alienable possession continuity
Both adpositions can mark spatial relations continuity
Variations ofOE and ofPDE vary with other adpositions continuity 4.4
ofOE and ofPDE vary with genitive case expansion of semantic contexts for case variation

5 Evidence from early Middle English

A survey of the uses of of in early Middle English (1150CE-1250CE), the period of English immediately following Old English, supports claims made in the previous section, concerning continuity in the use of of between Old and present-day English, and differences in the number of semantic relations available to of over time.17 Of in early Middle English (henceforth ofeME) appears in this data set 160 times per 10,000 words.

OfeME is used to mark some semantic relations not observed in the Old English data. These are body part relations and non-bodily inherent parts (63); quantity relations, both with nouns and the adjective ful, ‘full’, (64); qualities (65); inalienable possession (66). Unlike ofPDE, ofeME is not observed marking quantity relations where the noun on which the of-phrase depends is a unit of measurement (50).

    1. (63)
    1. early Middle English (cmlambx1.133)
    1. ðeo
    2. det
    1. steorren
    2. star.pl
    1. of
    2. of
    1. heuene
    2. heaven
    1. ‘the stars of heaven’
    1. (64)
    1. (cmvices1.145)
    1. sand
    2. send.pst.3sg
    1. ane
    2. one
    1. drope
    2. drop
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ϸire
    2. your
    1. swete
    2. sweet
    1. mildsce
    2. mercy
    1. ‘Send one drop of your sweet mercy.’
    1. (65)
    1. (cmsawles.181)
    1. ϸe
    2. det
    1. swetnesse
    2. sweetness
    1. of
    2. of
    1. hare
    2. 3sg.poss.fem
    1. song
    2. song
    1. ‘the sweetness of her song’
    1. (66)
    1. (cmlambx1.43)
    1. to
    2. to
    1. brekene
    2. break-inf
    1. ϸa
    2. det
    1. erming
    2. poor
    1. licome
    2. body
    1. of
    2. of
    1. ϸa
    2. det
    1. ilca
    2. same
    1. men
    2. man
    1. ‘to break the poor body of that same man’

OfeME selects for nominal complements in the vast majority of observations, but clausal complements, with the complementizer hu, ‘how’, are observed. Items selecting for ofeME-phrases represent both expansion and continuity from the Old English period. Nouns and verbs select for ofeME-phrases; there are a greater number of prepositions and adjectives observed with of than in the Old English period. Adjectives observed include afered, ‘afraid’, freo, ‘free’, ful, ‘full’, and imindie, ‘mindful’, the adpositions observed are adun, ‘downwards’, forϸ, ‘forth’, fur, ‘for’, up, ut. Some of these items are also observed selecting for ofOE or for of-phrases in PDE. Examples of of in combination with her and ϸer, as ϸerof and herof are also observed in the eME data.

OfeME-phrases are mostly adverbial, like ofOE-phrases, as Table 13 shows, but there is a more than ten-fold increase in adnominal examples of of compared to the Old English period.

Table 13

Frequency of ofeME in the PPCME M1 period.

Head on which ofeME-phrase depends Raw frequency of of Frequency of of per 10000 words
Adjective 260 12.24
Adposition 248 11.67
Noun 1262 59.40
Verb 1383 65.09
herof or ϸerof 171 8.05
clause level adjunct 70 3.30

6 Discussion

The comparison of ofOE and ofPDE has a number of consequences for the characterization of the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions, indicating that this is best viewed as distinction comprising multiple properties, a continual rather than absolute distinction. There are also consequences for how the category of adpoisitions is composed, containing lexical and functional adpositions with minimal differences existing between them. The differences and similarities between ofOE and ofPDE have implications too for certain aspects of grammaticalization generally and for the grammaticalization path proposed for of and similar adpositions in particular.

6.1 Characterizing the lexical versus functional distinction

One of the open questions in the literature concerns whether the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions can best be characterized as an absolute split between lexical adpositions on the one hand and functional adpositions on the other or as a continuum between lexical and functional poles. Firstly, the degree of continuity between ofOE and ofPDE suggests that the distinction between the adpositions is not an absolute split. Continuity is evident with respect to variation with case (4.4.2), the predominance of nominal complements, and some semantic relations (4.3). Secondly, there are only a few dimensions in which ofPDE has some property ofOE lacks. These are morphophonological reduction, and taking non-nominal complements, yet in these areas the differences between ofOE and ofPDE have been shown to be contextually limited. Other differences between ofOE and ofPDE are differences in which ofOE has a property to an extent, and ofPDE has the same property to a different, greater extent. It is possible that the properties which constitute the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions are continual whilst the underlying distinction itself is absolute; the nature of the properties and the nature of the distinction need not be identical. However, the predominance of continual properties is suggestive of a continuum distinction, especially combined with the evidence that ofOE and ofPDE have properties in common. A continual distinction between lexical and functional adpositions would not only mean that the category of adpositions can contain items of various lexial or functional status, but also that any individual adposition, like ofeME might be identified as more or less lexical or functional relative to other adpositions.

The findings of continuity between ofOE and ofPDE seem to support the view of the relationship between the lexical versus functional distinction and the category of adpositions arrived at in Mardale’s final assessment (2011: 69–70), also voiced by Tseng (2001: 19). Some adpositions are lexical, others are functional, and some, perhaps like ofeME are more or less lexical or functional. The fact that ofeME shows some differences from ofOE but is similar to ofOE in ways that ofPDE is not supports this assessment of adpositions as a mixed set of lexical, functional, and partly functional, partly lexical items.

However, the differences between these different sorts of adposition are minimal. The differences between ofOE and ofPDE are found to be slight, with the similarities between them sometimes more striking than the differences. This is especially the case in terms of variations, where there is no difference between the adpositions. Those differences that exist are mostly questions of degree (the number of semantic relations marked, the proportion of adverbial and adnominal uses, the number of distinct heads selecting for an of-phrase). It is not unreasonable to suppose that the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions more widely is also a relatively small or close distinction. Items belonging to the category adposition emerge as more functional than items of other categories like nouns and verbs, by virtue of some of the few available definitional properties of adpositions like morphological invariance, a role marking relations, and the inability to have discourse primacy (see Section 2.2). A close distinction between lexical and functional adpositions follows from the fact that even lexical adpositions are more functional than lexical items belonging to other categories. The lexical or functional status either of adpositions generally or the category adposition would therefore seem to be best resolved as functional: the sometimes quite limited differences between a lexical and a functional adposition evidenced by ofOE and ofPDE speak to this conclusion. Some of the features of ofOE, like variation with case and non-spatial semantics, which have sometimes been assumed to indicate the functional status of an adposition, lead to the same conclusion that even lexical adpositions are in fact rather functional, and in this sense adpositions generally might be termed “semilexical” (Mardale 2011). The apparent smallness of these distinctions also offers a general explanation why adpositions generally and some individual adpositions in particular have proven resistant to definitions of lexical and functional status.

Following on from the characterization of the lexical versus distinction amongst adpositions as continual and small, the category adposition can be said to consist of some members which are functional items and some members which are lexical items, and some items which are more or less functional or lexical. In this respect the category adposition would seem to be relatively similar to some other major categories, like the category verb in containing items with differing statuses relative to the lexical versus functional distinction. Nevertheless, the category adposition may well be distinctive insofar as the differences between lexical and functional items are not prominent. On the evidence of ofOE and ofPDE, the extent of semantic relations marked is a major difference between a lexical and a functional adposition (4.3). The importance of semantic relations in the lexical versus functional distinction might also be specific to the category adposition in contrast to other major categories. All adpositions are more functional than lexical in respect to some non-semantic properties, like morphological invariance and light weight, such that semantics is one of a relatively small number of dimensions in which individual adpositions might differ from one another. One of the definitional properties of an adposition is marking relations between entities, and as such it is unsurprising that the number and nature of the relations marked should be important in classifying individual adpositions with respect to the lexical versus functional distinction. The property, marking relations between entities, which is one of the small number of properties which might unite the otherwise hetergeneous category adposition can also be used to draw distinctions amongst adpositions (Asbury et al. 2006; Hagège 2010: 259–261; Deacon 2014: 3).

OfOE and ofPDE have been found to differ in multiple dimensions, such as the semantic relations marked, types of heads, types of complements. Although semantics is the dimension in which there are the most obvious and greatest differences between OfOE and ofPDE, there is no single property by which this lexical and functional adposition can be distinguished. Neither variation with case nor spatial semantics, properties previously proposed as distinguishing a lexical from a functional adposition can be used to successfully differentitate textitofOE and ofPDE, indicating that these properties have no special status for the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions. The lexical versus functional distinction established here comprises multiple properties, in line with the positions taken by Zwarts (1997), Tseng (2001), and Mardale (2011). What the comparison of ofOE and ofPDE also shows is that the multifaceted nature of the distinction is neither an epiphenomenon of making multiple comparisons between different adpositions (as in Tseng 2001) nor a result of drawing together findings from multiple previous assessments (evident in Mardale 2011).

6.2 Grammaticalization

The comparison of ofOE and PDE has implications too for some descriptions of grammaticalization. The following discussion assumes that ofPDE is the outcome of a grammaticalization process which involves some morphophonological reduction as well as expansion in semantics and to an extent in syntax.

Semantic bleaching, defined in terms of the lowered prominence but retention of core meanings of a lexical item (Hopper & Traugott 2003: 98; Narrog & Heine 2021: 84ff.) aligns with the semantic differences identified between ofOE and OfPDE (see Section 4.3). OfPDE can mark relations associated with space and origins but these are less prominent than the corresponding relations in the Old English period. The term semantic bleaching has sometimes been defined in terms of the loss of earlier meaning, not just as the lowered prominence of earlier meaning, as has the term generalization (Lehmann 2015: 34, 88). However, of does not show evidence for this sort of loss of meaning as part of grammaticalization. The relations marked by ofOE are a subset of those marked by ofPDE, such that any relation ofOE marks, ofPDE also marks.

Following the notion that semantic expansion and syntactic context extension occur in parallel (Lehmann 2015: 35; Bybee 2015: 133, 239), it is anticipated that an expansion in the number of available semantic relations will be accompanied by a commensurate expansion in terms of the syntactic contexts in which of is observed. This expectation is not met in the case of of: there is semantic expansion and syntactic differences which seem to be motivated by semantic expansion, but the syntactic differences are not themselves expansions and are not motivated by the general fact of semantic expansion itself but rather by specific semantic relations. What syntactic distinction there is between ofOE and ofPDE consists of a shift in which syntactic context is most common, although the relevant contexts are common to both adpositions: ofOE-phrases are predominantly selected for by verbs, but ofPDE-phrases are predominantly adnominal (see Tables 3 and 4). This distinction would seem to be related to the semantic expansion of of to mark relations associated more with the noun phrase than the verb phrase or clause, like alienable possession, kinship, and body-part relations (36), (37), (40), (48). Nouns (in English, at least) are the core means of referring to body parts, property, and family members. The syntactic distinction between adverbial ofOE and adnominal ofPDE would therefore seem to be a consequence of the identity of a number of particular semantic relations involved in the semantic expansion of the adposition. The evidence that ofeME can mark more possessive and part-whole relations (64), (65), (66) than can ofOE and is also more frequent as an adnominal adposition than ofOE supports this position (see Tables 3 and 13). Such associations mean that it is possible to link syntactic distinctions between ofOE and ofPDE to individual semantic relations available to ofPDE. However, there is no requirement to link syntactic distinctions between the adpositions to the general fact that ofPDE marks a greater number of relations than does ofOE.

The finding that syntax is not a major differentiating dimension between ofOE and ofPDE as compared with semantics contradicts some proposals concerning grammaticalization in constructional contexts. Both within and beyond the framework of Construction Grammar, it has been suggested that linguistic items do not undergo grammaticalization in isolation, but grammaticalize within constructions (Traugott 2003: 643ff.; Noël 2007; Lehmann 2015: 194; Bybee 2015: 132). Grammaticalization is said to apply to an item in “highly constrained pragmatic and morphosyntactic contexts” (Traugott 2003: 645). The reduction and semantic changes to of in the context of the hedges kinda (18) and sorta are an illustrative example of the adposition undergoing change as part of a grammaticalizing construction (see Section 4.2). There is no constructional context, however, for other changes to of. The syntactic contexts in which of is observed remain relatively stable over time, an initial indicator that the mostly semantic grammaticalization of of does not occur in any particular construction (see Section 4.1). The noun phrase is the environment in which the most obvious semantic changes impact of (see Section 4.3). Therefore, identifying adnominal dependency as a construction in which of grammaticalizes might be a possibility. However, no “highly constrained” (Traugott 2003: 645) noun phrase or set of noun phrases in which of grammaticalizes is identifiable. For instance, no individual lexemes or noun phrases fulfilling particular roles are the context for changes to of. Moreover, given that ofOE-phrases are observed as adnominal dependents with several of the same semantic relations as are observed with ofPDE-phrases in the noun phrase, describing the changes to of in terms of an adnominal construction offers no analytical advantage. An understanding of grammaticalization as occurring within a construction misses the fact that it is the possible range of relations which can be marked by of which differs between the Old English noun phrase and its present-day English counterpart. The noun phrase has not grammaticalized and the set of possible relations holding between head and dependent (however these are marked) has not altered. Of represents an interesting example of grammaticalization seeming to affect an item not limited to a particular context.

The change from ofOE to ofPDE does not require two distinct categories, one for the lexical adposition and one for the functional. The grammaticalized status of ofPDE does not seem to have any consequences for the categorial status of the adposition. OfPDE remains an adposition in the majority of these uses. This is attested, for example, by the fact that nominal complements of of remain in the majority over time (see Tables 8 and 9), nominal complemention being a common but not consistent property of adpositions (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 598–599). The view of the category adposition proposed in light of the evidence from of is that the category contains functional, lexical, and more or less functional and lexical items allows for ofOE and ofPDE to belong to the same category. A grammaticalizing adposition in this case has not undergone decategorialization presumably because the category adposition is already more functional than lexical.

Determining whether lexical ofOE or functional ofPDE is the more prototypical is challenging given the well-known difficulties in identifying a prototypical adposition at all (Huddleston & Pullum 2002; Hagège 2010). OfPDE more frequently marks a relation between two NPs and might therefore be considered the more protoypically relation marking (see Tables 4 and 9), yet ofOE has a stronger association with spatial relations (22) (27), and might therefore be considered the more prototypical. It has been concluded here that adpositions are more functional than lexical, in which case ofPDE would be considered the more prototypical. Such a conclusion would entail positing a change from a less to a more prototypical adposition, contrary to some previous characterizations of grammaticalization (Hopper & Traugott 2003:106).

In relation to the categorial status of ofPDE, the evidence that ofOE varies with the genitive case (see Section 4.4.2), comparable to how ofPDE varies with the s-possessive, combined with the evidence that ofPDE varies with other adpositions, including lexical adpositions (see Section 4.4.1), suggest that analysing ofPDE as a case marker, heading a Kase Phrase (as per Svenonious 2010) is not appropriate. The contexts in which the form of is not an adposition in present-day English are adverbial qualifiers: hedges and, the phrase of course. There is therefore an association between category change and grammaticalization of of, but in a small number of contexts, and where there is some evidence of loss of word boundaries.

Finally, the consideration of of in the history of English also has consequences for the specific grammaticalization path proposed for adpositions like English of and Latin and French de. Harris & Campbell (1995: 339) and Heine & Kuteva (2002: 33) propose grammaticalization paths in which partitive uses arise from possessive uses (more accurately, for Harris & Campbell 1995: 339 both possessive and ablatival relations feed into partitive relations). OfOE is far more frequently observed marking part-whole relations (45), (46) than marking possessive relations (26). The same is true of ofeME, although the set of possessive relations marked by ofeME is larger. In addition the part-whole uses of ofOE chronologically precede the expansion into greater numbers of possessive uses of the adposition evident from the early Middle English (65), (66) and present-day English data (36), (38), (42). There is sufficient evidence to challenge at least the consensus that marking part-whole relations is a development further along in grammaticalization than the marking of possessive relations. OfOE can mark some part-whole and some possessive relations, ofeME can mark more part-whole and some possessive relations, and ofPDE can mark a greater number of part-whole and possessive relations. It therefore seems that the interaction between partitive and possessive meanings are more complex than existing accounts allow for.

7 Concluding remarks

The lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions, as evidenced by ofOE and ofPDE is a continual distinction consisting of multiple properties. The distinction has been found to be greatest in the area of semantics. Some properties previously proposed as constituting the lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions, notably variation with case, and variation with other adpositions have been shown not to offer a distinction. The multifaceted nature of the lexical versus functional distinction and the importance of semantics are confirmations of pre-existing claims, but in this study these conclusions have been arrived at not by selecting evidence to support assumed distinctions or by comparing the assumed properties of unrelated adpositions but rather by comparing the corpus-based usage of ofOE and ofPDE. The lexical and functional adposition examined here have been found to be similar in multiple ways, sometimes unexpectedly so, and the continuity between the adpositions in terms of syntax is high. Similarity and minimal differences between lexical and functional adpositions may explain why adpositions have proven so contentious in the classification of linguistic items and categories as lexical or functional. The evidence of ofOE and ofPDE points to a lexical versus functional distinction amongst adpositions consisting primarily of a difference between lesser and greater semantic range, and this too may account for the difficult classification of adpositions as a class and the category adposition as lexical or functional. The category adposition seems to best be viewed as more functional than lexical given some of the properties common to all adpositions and the minimal differences between a lexical and a functional adposition identified in this case study.


acc= accusative, adp= adposition, comp= complementiser, dat= dative, dem= demonstrative, det= determiner, fem= feminine, gen= genitive inf= infinitive, masc= masculine, neg= negation, nom= nominative, npst= non-past, neut= neuter, obl= indeterminate non-nominative case, of= ofOE/eME, pass= passive, pl= plural, pst= past, ptcp= participle, rel= relativizer, sbjv= subjunctive, sg= singular


  1. There has been a related but distinct interest in classifying categories of linguistic items, not the items themselves, as lexical or functional (with reference to the category of adpositions see Chomsky 1986: 3, van Riemsdijk 1998, Grimshaw 2000). This article is interested primarily in distinctions on an item-by-item basis. [^]
  2. The definition of an adposition has been much debated (Huddleston & Pullum 2002; Asbury et al. 2006; Hagège 2010; Deacon 2014: 3; Acedo-Matellán et al. 2021). The characterizations of adpositions used here are intended as generalizations. [^]
  3. One position seen in the syntactic literature (van Riemsdijk 1998; Grimshaw 2000) is indeed to treat the category adposition as a functional category. However, this is a specific use of the concept of functional status which applies to categories, not to individual items, and refers to the pairing of functional and lexical categories in the formal syntactic architecture (Abney 1987). Defining the category adposition as functional in this way does not necessarily preclude a lexical versus functional distinction amongst individual adpositional items. [^]
  4. On the question of polysemy and homonymy in relation to spatial and non-spatial uses of adpositions, see Cann (2000: 9–10). [^]
  5. A comparison of the latest Old English data and early Middle English data (see Section 5 for the later) shows that these linguistic periods are distinct with relation to the uses of of. Of is around three times more frequent in the early Middle English data than in the late Old English data; of is used to indicate a quantity with the adjective ful, or to mark body part relations are observed in the later data but not earlier. [^]
  6. For example, of adnominal part-whole uses of ofOE in translated texts, 96/145 are renderings of Latin ex or de, 49/145 are not and either have no direct parallel in the Latin or render some other Latin syntax. [^]
  7. The measure of normalised frequency adopted throughout this article is per 10000 words. [^]
  8. The overlap between adpositions and particles is well-known, see Huddleston & Pullum 2002; Hagège 2010 and references therein. [^]
  9. The dating of a text follows the YCOE classifications. [^]
  10. The decision whether a text is translated or not follows the YCOE classifications. [^]
  11. <Of> in the phrase of course is tagged as an adverb, in the phrase matter of fact as a noun or an adjective, and in the phrase out of date as an adjective, but sometimes in all these expressions ofPDE is tagged as a preposition. In the expressions all of a NP sort of a NP, hell of a NP, sort of, and kind of of is sometimes tagged as an adposition, sometimes as an adverb. [^]
  12. Other items known to show this suffixal form of of are lotsa and typa. Items in -a were identified from Margerie (2010) and Andersen (2016: 332). Other reductions of of retrieved from the BNC include helluva. [^]
  13. Separating those ofOE-phrases selected for by verbs as arguments and those appearing as adverbial adjuncts is difficult; ofOE-phrases are not obligatory with any Old English verb. No attempt is made to quantify these two classes of ofOE-phrase given the number of debatable examples, but the different relationship between an ofOE-phrase and a verb in individual examples is accepted. [^]
  14. (cochdrul, ChrodR_1: 29.7.445) is the YCOE token identifier. [^]
  15. There is ongoing debate as to whether Old English has Determiner Phrases (DPs); the designation Noun Phrase (NP) is used here without passing comment on this question. [^]
  16. A number of the verbs which select for ofOE-phrases can also take genitive-case-marked complements standing in an identical semantic relation to the head as an ofOE-phrase. These verbs include hælan, ‘to heal’, and asceadan, ‘to segregate’— although the attested examples fall outside the YCOE and appear in Old English poetry (Koike 2004: 29). Whether or not any variation is observed is on a lexeme-by-lexeme basis. [^]
  17. Early Middle English data was retrieved from the texts of the M1 subcorpus of the Penn-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Middle English (PPCME2) (Kroch et al. 2000), numbering 212464 words, and comprising the texts of the Kentish, Lambeth, and Trinity Homilies, the Katherine Group, Vices and Virtues, and the Ormulum. [^]


The author thanks Kersti Börjars, Tine Breban, and Nigel Vincent for their many instructive thoughts on earlier versions of this article, as well as the anonymous Glossa reviewers for their considered and helpful suggestions.

Funding information

Research reported in this article was carried out as part of the author’s PhD programme, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom and by the President’s Doctoral Scholars scheme at the University of Manchester.

Competing interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.


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