Article published in:Historical Linguistics 2007: Selected papers from the 18th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Montreal, 6–11 August 2007
Edited by Monique Dufresne, Fernande Dupuis and Etleva Vocaj
[Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 308] 2009
► pp. 109–122
VO vs V(…)O en Français
The passage from Latin to the Romance languages has been marked, along with other phenomena, by the movement of the nominal object to the right of the verb, and more generally by the development of strict adjacency among elements belonging to the same phrase or construction. We propose here an analysis of a particular point concerning the evolution of sentential constituent order in French: the progression of the cohesion between the verb and its nominal direct object – the direct object personal pronoun being generally cliticised as early as the Roman period. We know, thanks to numerous studies, that over the centuries a certain cohesion between the verb and its subject has developed, the expression of the subject and its position becoming increasingly constrained, or ‘grammaticalised’, from the 14th century. The same degree of certainty, however, does not exist for the object (by ‘nominal object complement’ we mean any direct argument of a transitive verb other than its subject, be it preceded by a determiner or not): what happened exactly? Is its relationship with the verb greater or less in French than that between the subject and the verb? Given that the degree of cohesion is marked in particular by the strength of the adjacency constraint between the verb and its object, it is therefore this feature that is examined here. In order to compare the syntax of the object with that of the subject, we have chosen to study the evolution of sentences for which the two direct arguments, the nominal object and the subject, are found on the same side of the verb. The four cases where the nominal object and the subject are both found together on the same side of the verb, either before or after, are the following: (1) S On V; (2) On S V; (3) (X) V S On; (4) (X) V On S. These four constructions are all attested in Old and Middle French (the direct object is underlined), but this is not true of Modern French, for which only construction (4) remains: 1. S On V: possible until the beginning of the 17th cent., impossible after. Li rois Tristran menace (Béroul v.770) the king Tristan threatens ‘The king threatens Tristan’ 2. On S V: possible until the beginning of the 15th cent. Ce cop li autre dui conperent. (Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain 4526) this blow the other two … ‘This blow is costly to the two others.’ 3. (X) V Sn On: impossible after the 17th cent. Donc perdreit Carles le destre thus lose-COND Charles the right bras del cors. (Chanson de Roland, v. 597) arm of-the body ‘Charles would lose his right arm.’ 4. (X) V On S: possible in Modern French (i.e., Ensuite prirent place les autres invités) Ja n’i avrunt reproece mi parent. (Chanson de Roland, v. 1076) never neg-loc have-fut reproach my parents ‘Never would my parents incur reproach.’ We have established a fine-grained chronology of the changes that have arisen in the relative position of the two arguments with respect to the verb, and we have observed that among the four constructions examined, three have disappeared: only one of them, the structure (X)-Verb-nominal Object-nominal Subject, has remained possible in Modern French. This phenomenon is explained by the progressive increase in the degree of cohesion between the nominal object and the governing verb. The first stage of this change can be seen in the fact that the order Verb-nominal Object was solidified in French prose from the beginning of the 13th century (1995); the disappearance of VSOn in the 17th century can be interpreted as a new stage in the cohesion between the object and the verb; after the position constraint, a new constraint is introduced between the 14th and the 17th century: adjacency with the verb. Finally, we have brought attention to the constraints that have governed the use of the construction VOnSn from the 17th century. We have therefore shown that there exists a two-stage progression in the degree of cohesion between the nominal object and the governing verb. This development is marked first, from the 13th century, by the grammaticalisation of the nominal object’s position after the verb – while the expression and the preposing of the subject with respect to the verb are not yet obligatory –, and second, by an adjacency constraint with the verb, which, since the 17th century, is stronger than that between the subject and the verb. Our study demonstrates that the cohesion between the verb and the direct object appears earlier and is stronger that that which occurs between the subject and the verb.
Published online: 30 November 2009