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Preverbal indefinite subjects in spoken and written French

1. Background and status quaestionis

Informal (mostly spoken) (henceforth IF) and formal (typically written) French (henceforth FF) are quite different. Some authors even speak of a diglossic situation and argue in favor of the co-existence of two different grammars in French (e.g. Klein 2012; Rowlett 2013). This opposition between IF and FF is particularly evident with the expression of the subject of the clause. Whereas in FF all types of subjects are possible in the canonical preverbal position (1), IF seems to be more “discourse-configurational” (De Cat 2007): it tends to explicitly mark the discourse function of the subject by using specific constructions, which are unacceptable in FF (Klein 2012). For instance, in IF, dislocation (2) is used for topical subjects (given information, what the sentence is about, mostly rendered by a pronoun or a definite noun phrase) (Barnes 1985; De Cat 2007). Presentational clefts (3) are used to indicate that the subject is focal (i.e. the new information, which is often rendered by an indefinite noun phrase). In my PhD, I show that presentational clefts are indeed mostly used to introduce indefinites (almost 90% of all the corpus examples).


(1) FF: Une lettre est arrivée pour toi. ‘A letter arrived for you.’                                          (Van De Velde 1995:20)

(2) IF: Tintin, il est connu ‘Tintin, he is famous’                                                                             (De Cat 2002:2)

(3) IF: Il y a un ami qui m’a téléphoné. ‘There’s a friend who called me’                        (Cappeau & Deulofeu 2001:5)


As for preverbal subjects, and particularly indefinite preverbal subjects, it has often been claimed that they are not frequent and not acceptable in IF (4), in contrast with FF (e.g. Lambrecht 1988, 1994; Cappeau 2008). However, this hypothesis has not been corroborated by means of systematic empirical analysis: most previous studies on indefinite preverbal subjects are indeed based on some invented examples or on (restricted) corpus data of either exclusively spoken or written French (e.g. Cappeau & Deulofeu 2001/2006b; Cappeau 2005; Dobrovie-Sorin & Beyssade 2012, but see Cappeau & Deulofeu 2006a; Cappeau 2008). Therefore, we know very little about the frequency of preverbal indefinite subjects in both registers. Moreover, to the extent that indefinite preverbal subjects do occur in IF (5), this raises the question under which circumstances they do occur.


(4) IF: ? Un ami m’a apporté ce livre. ‘A friend brought me that book.’       (Cappeau & Deulofeu 2001:4)

(5) IF: Des gens sont venus ils ont tout dérangé.  ‘Some people came they messed everything up’

           (Cappeau & Deulofeu 2001:20)


2. This research project in a nutshell: general goal, research questions and relevance

The goal of this research project is to describe and explain the occurrence of indefinite preverbal subjects in IF and FF by means of a combination of qualitative and quantitative corpus analysis and an experimental data analysis.  

       The two main research questions to be addressed are the following: (i) Do IF and FF indeed differ with respect to the frequency and the properties of indefinite preverbal subjects, and if so, to what extent? (ii) Which are the exact morpho-syntactic, semantic and contextual factors that license indefinite constituents in preverbal subject position, and how do these factors interact?

       By analyzing preverbal indefinite subjects, the research project will (i) not only fill the empirical gap about indefinite preverbal subjects in French, but (ii) will also be used as a test case for the hypothesis that IF is more discourse-configurational than FF.



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Date:1 Oct 2017 →  31 Jan 2019
Keywords:written french
Disciplines:Language studies, Literary studies