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The fine structure of Romance interrogative it-clefts

Applicant Bonan Caterina
Number 184384
Funding scheme Early Postdoc.Mobility
Research institution Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages Department of Italian University of Cambridge
Institution of higher education Institution abroad - IACH
Main discipline Romance languages and literature
Start/End 01.09.2019 - 31.08.2021
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Keywords (9)

experimental linguistics; dialectology; romance; syntax; theoretical linguistics; focalization; wh-movement; clefts; northern italian dialects

Lay Summary (French)

La structure fine des clivées interrogatives : le cas des langues Romanes.
Lay summary

Le mouvement des éléments interrogatifs a été le sujet de nombreux travaux en linguistique formelle. Bien que les mécanismes responsables pour le déplacement en première position de phrase des éléments interrogatifs, comme dans l'exemple (1a), soit en règle générale compris, et que le grand débat sur la syntaxe des éléments interrogatifs 'in situ', comme celui en (1b), devienne de moins en moins âpre, il n'en est pas de même pour la syntaxe des éléments interrogatifs dans les phrases clivées, comme celle en (1c):

(1)         a.         Quand est-ce que tu as vu Michel?

             b.         Tu as vu Michel quand?

             c.          C'est quand que t'as vu Michel?

Dans les dialectes de l'Italie du Nord, les clivées interrogatives comme celle en (1c) sont de loin la stratégie d'interrogation la plus productive et, au même temps, la moins étudiée. Aussi bien qu'à partir de Jaspersen (1927) les clivées déclaratives, comme celle en (2), aient été le focus d'un grand nombre de travaux, aucune analyse théoriquement satisfaisante et universellement valide n'a encore été produite pour les clivées interrogatives.

(2)         C'est Michel que j'ai croisé au marche

Ce projet de recherche s'étend sur un domaine empirique et théorique très précis, à savoir les clivées interrogatives dans les langues Romanes et la cartographie de structures syntaxiques, respectivement. Cette dernière est une emprise qui, à partir de la fin des années 80 et surtout suite à l'influente analyse de la périphérie gauche proposé dans Rizzi (1997), vise à produire un mappage aussi fin que possible des structures fonctionnelles des langues naturelles.

Les principaux buts de ce projet sont, d'un côté, l'établissement d'un corpus plurilingue d'interrogatives clivées et, de l'autre côté, l'élaboration d'une théorie syntaxique visant à expliquer aussi bien les propriétés distributionnelles des éléments interrogatifs dans les clivées que leur propriétés sémantiques.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 02.09.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
156160 Optional wh in situ in French interrogatives: Syntax and prosody 01.09.2015 Project funding (Div. I-III)
202764 Different types of focus in diachrony: formal and typological variations 01.09.2021 Postdoc.Mobility


Interrogative wh-movement has been the subject of much work in formal linguistics. While the mechanisms behind wh-fronting, as in example (1a), appear satisfyingly clear, and while scholars are getting increasingly closer to a definitive explanation of the much-debated syntax of wh-in situ, as in (1b), the same cannot be said of cleft questions, as (1c):(1)a.What did Mike read?b.Mike read what?!c.What is it that Mike read?Despite being by far the most natural question formation strategy in Northern Italian Dialects (NIDs) (Poletto & Vannelli 1997, Munaro 1999, Poletto 2000, a.o.), clefts are still remarkably understudied. Although since Jaspersen (1927) declarative clefts have been the subject of much literature (Smits 1989, É. Kiss 1999, Hedberg 2000, Reeve 2011, Belletti 2015, Haegeman et al. 2015, a.o.), interrogative clefts lack a satisfactory analysis.The diachronic interaction of loss of subject-verb inversion and rise of clefts in many Gallo-Romance varieties (including western and central NIDs) makes most Eastern Venetan dialects, which still retain compulsory subject-verb inversion and have clefts, unique. Understanding the interaction between the two phenomena before subject-inversion is lost appears crucial, which is why the study of Romance it-clefts is particularly urgent at present time.This work focusses on a specific empirical and theoretical domain, that of the morphosyntax of Romance interrogative it-clefts. Its aims are at least twofold: first, establish a solid, empirically-validated corpus of Romance clefts; second, build a theoretical model to account for all the variations observed. Since the structure of interrogative it-clefts is linked to that of their declarative counterparts, systematic comparisons are to be foreseen - this will result also in a parallel refinement of the cartography of declarative it-clefts, whose current status is problematic. Haegeman et al. (2015) argue that the starting point of any work on the cartography of Romance it-clefts should be Belletti (2009;2015). However, Belletti’s model faces some problems: limited learnability (it is not clear how children should make use of the linguistic input to derive such complex underlying structures); difficult applicability to varieties other than standard French and to interrogative clefts (Bonan 2017); and theoretically unmotivated use of silent functional nominal heads à la Kayne & Pollock (2009), which would probably be better explained in terms of chain formation à la Krapova & Cinque (2008), or Featural Relativized Minimality (fRM) (Friedmann et al. 2009, Villata et al. 2016). For this, both a collection of novel data from Romance and a refinement of the existing theory seem in order.Since the wide distribution of cleft interrogatives makes NIDs a perfect starting point for any study of the issue, while the most widely-studied Romance variety is French, the feasibility of this project is guaranteed iff the research focusses on data from two macro-areas: on the one hand, experimental evidence from contemporary oral French and, on the other hand, novel fieldwork on Trevigiano (a Venetan dialect) and selected data from the burgeoning literature on NIDs.The main results of this work would be, first, the establishment of a substantial, empirically-validated database to be freely distributed and used for further work and, second, the understanding of complex yet central theoretical matters such as the way focus via clefting is derived and how its derivation is helped or constrained by other linguistic phenomena.