A cleft sentence is two rearranged sentences that could otherwise be expressed by one clause. We use cleft sentences for emphasis, and it turns out they might also be contagious.
Another possibility is that the sentence was used to initiate a story with several additional steps, like this: “What we did was, we went to the store to buy the new tool, we stopped by Cece’s house to get the rest of the materials, and then we raced home and finished the project just in time.” The fact that context is important shows that our unconscious decisions to cleft or topicalize are often governed by “pragmatics,” a term that refers to the context of a conversation. The need to make ourselves clear can be affected by the conversation, the situation, the speakers, and other factors.
One thing that is interesting about Brenda’s example is that it has the subject “we” twice for the same action. This may be what caught Brenda’s attention; that person could have said, “What we did was go to the store to buy the new tool.” However, there are a number of reasons a person might say “we went” instead of “go.” Perhaps the rest of the story was in past tense, and so the speaker wanted to say “What we did was, we went to the store to buy the new tool. Then we finished the project.” You get the idea. Also, saying the “we” twice lends a less formal air to the sentence, so some English speakers may go with that construction for style. (Something linguists call “register.”)
The need to make ourselves clear can be affected by the conversation, the situation, the speakers, and other factors.
Now, there is one more fun question to address. Brenda said, “I first noticed this in my work as a communications coordinator at a community college in northern Ontario in the mid-1990s and it seemed to be adopted readily from that time.” We are now in the realm of sociolinguistics, as well as historical linguistics. Linguists often study a corpus—a collection of language samples, sometimes recordings which may have written transcriptions, and sometimes written language samples, like collections of newspaper articles—to figure out things like when, where, and by which speakers a construction started.
Clefting and similar movement types have been in English for a very long time, and not just in Canada. But without detailed linguistic research, we can’t really know for sure when the cleft that Brenda noticed began, because sometimes old constructions do catch our attention suddenly. All spoken languages are in a constant state of change, but most changes happen slowly, over centuries. This is how Latin got transformed into Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian. This is also why we don’t talk at all the way Shakespeare’s characters spoke hundreds of years ago. Trying to prevent languages from steering off in new directions is a bit like insisting that fashion remain fixed, so that our style of clothing never changes at all.
Clefting Is Contagious
However, there’s one interesting phenomenon about clefts that has been documented: One study found that clefting is contagious! Two linguists conducted research on a corpus of New Zealand conversations and found that people were likely to cleft a lot more when other speakers around them did! Have you ever noticed that when you travel to a place where people speak your language differently, like a different country or city, you may start to pick up their spoken mannerisms and expressions, to your surprise?
Some people from the northern U.S. say that when they visit the southern U.S., they start saying "y’all" after a few days, practically against their will. This is part of an amazing phenomenon called "accommodation." Speakers are known to "pick up" the style of other speakers, by way of unconsciously attempting to make ourselves understood, or to establish a sense of friendliness and solidarity with other speakers. Accommodation can also affect your pronunciation, and the way your voice rises up and down. Even from moment to moment, without traveling, we sometimes change these subtleties to ensure successful communication with people who speak differently than we do, but we don’t usually do it on purpose.
In closing, did Brenda discover a language trend in Canada that spread like wildfire? Probably not, but it is very possible that the group she was interacting with tended to cleft at higher rates than other groups. Also, it is tempting to perceive a way of speaking that we haven’t heard before as bothersome or “wrong” because it deviates from what we know, but such variations are inevitable, and usually serve a purpose. What it might take to find out that purpose is a linguist.
That segment was by Syelle Graves who has a PhD in linguistics. You can read more about her at syellegraves.com.
Claude, A., & Miller, S. (2008). Are clefts contagious in conversation? English Language and Linguistics 13(1).
Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., & Hyams, N. (2011). An Introduction to Language.
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