rate of language change

Larry Trask larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk
Fri Jan 29 16:32:22 UTC 1999

On Thu, 28 Jan 1999, Peter &/or Graham wrote:

> Larry said:
> > Paul, Marie, elle a couche avec.
> >you won't find this construction in any
> >reference grammar of French.

> There are two different things here:  the preposition at the end, and the
> naming of players before the sentence proper.   I want to reply about the
> naming of players.

> (a) I don't know what this last device is called - it's clearly a form of
> topicalisation - does it have a special name?

OK.  The underlying sentence is this:

	Marie a couche avec Paul.

You can express this in two other ways, both of them acceptable to my
French students:

	Paul, Marie a couche avec.

	Marie, elle a couche avec Paul.

The first of these illustrates topicalization, and the second
illustrates left-dislocation.  My original example illustrates both of
these at the same time, which is what makes it so strange.

There is also right-dislocation:

	Marie a couche avec lui, Paul.

I believe this is also normal in spoken French.  Indeed, spoken French
commonly uses both left- and right-dislocation in the same sentence, as
in one of my other examples:

	Jean, il l'a achetee, la bagnole.

> (b) There are grammars which mention it.   I know that only because I have
> read about it, but I can't remember where.   Examples were such things as
> "Marie, le livre, elle l'a lu."

And this is *double* left-dislocation!  It's a fine example of the
rather dramatic changes occurring in French sentence structure.  If this
becomes the norm, then French will effectively have a sentence structure
like this:

	Marie le livre ellalu.

That is, Subject-Object-Verb word order, with a verb exhibiting both
subject agreement and object agreement -- exactly what we find in
Basque, for instance.

This is a magnificent example of how a language can change its
grammatical structure drastically, including even its word order, in a
very short time.  And, of course, with *no* "external influence".

What is happening in French is what we call `markedness shift' -- that
is, originally marked constructions are increasingly being preferred in
cases in which speakers formerly preferred the originally unmarked
construction, with the (possible) result that the former marked patterns
are becoming unmarked (ordinary), while the former unmarked pattern is
becoming marked (confined to certain special circumstances).  French
hasn't gone all the way yet, but it might.

> (c) I happened to met it in Italian this very morning on the train,
> in a slush novel - though I haven't seen it mentioned in grammar
> books for that language.  Anyone know how common it is in Italian?

I know little about Italian, but Anna Giacalone Ramat has reported that
spoken Italian has grammatical features not to be found in the reference
grammars.  Her example is the `personal a' -- now standard in Spanish,
supposedly absent in Italian, but actually (she says) very common.

> And does it occur in Spanish?

Spanish has lots of "pleonastic" pronouns, but I'm not aware that
Spanish is doing what French is doing.  Maybe somebody else knows.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk

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