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LINGUIST List 25.2314

Tue May 27 2014

Review: Romance; Historical Linguistics; Typology: Labeau & Bres (2013)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 19-Mar-2014
From: Paul Isambert <zappathustrafree.fr>
Subject: Evolution in Romance Verbal Systems
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-4775.html

EDITOR: Emmanuelle Labeau
EDITOR: Jacques Bres
TITLE: Evolution in Romance Verbal Systems
SERIES TITLE: Sciences pour la communication - Band 108
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Paul Isambert, Université de Tours


In their introduction, Emmanuelle Labeau and Jacques Bres stress the importance of a cross-linguistic and diachronic approach to linguistic phenomena, relating the book to Bybee et al. (1994) and similar works. They then introduce the following papers.

Aude Rebotier's ''The 'passé simple' takes a step back; who steps in?'' is a study of the use of the ''passé simple'' in French compared to the similar yet more frequent ''passato remoto'' in Italian. Working with a corpus of Wikipedia articles, the author shows that several variables, for example, the verbal lexeme, the animacy of the subject, the presence of some adverbials or prepositions, (dis)favor the use of concurring tenses, and that as a whole, the present and ''passé composé'' are the more frequent replacements, but with different profiles: the present is an alternative for the ''passé simple'' in general, while the ''passé composé'' takes over some of its uses only.

Mary T. Copple's ''Following the path: An emerging perfect(ive) viewed through temporal reference'' describes the evolution of the present perfect (PP) into a perfective (competing with the preterit). Texts from the 15th, 17th and 19th centuries are studied according to three main criteria: increase in frequency (i.e., the proportion of PP forms versus preterit forms), syntactic rigidification (i.e., fusion of the auxiliary and the participle), and semantic generalization (i.e., larger range of temporal reference). They all point to the same conclusion: the PP experiences the well-known evolution from resultative to perfective.

In ''Towards an unified account of the present perfect in Catalan and English'', Teresa Maria Xiqués addresses the difference between the use of the PP in the two languages: it has a hodiernal past interpretation in Catalan, which is impossible in English. Using Reichenbach's (1947) framework, the author argues that the temporal configuration of the PP is identical in all uses, although it remains unexplained why English prevents punctual time adverbials with this tense.

''French participle agreement with 'avoir': Current trends as an indication of grammaticalization'', Rebotier's second contribution to the volume, investigates the factors contributing to proper agreement (according to normative grammar) between the past participle and its pre-posed object; among others, the audibility of the agreement (the study is based on a written corpus) and the speech situation matter most, but interestingly, some factors inhibiting agreements also prevent a resultative or passive reading, hinting at the parallel development of form and function in the ongoing grammaticalization of the perfect with 'avoir' ('to have').

In ''Non-conventional uses of the pluperfect in Italian (and German) literary prose'', Pier Marco Bertinetto examines the aoristic interpretation of the pluperfect and its exploitation by writers as a replacement for the simple past. While the study focuses on literary use, the author hypothesizes that the evolution is parallel to the present perfect becoming a perfective, so languages missing the latter (like English) would be less likely to exhibit the aoristic pluperfect.

Bres and Lebeau's ''About the illustrative use of the 'aller' + periphrasis in French'' studies a frequent yet little studied use of the French 'go'-periphrasis (whose most common interpretation is future). This use often illustrates a fact and marks iteration (preventing any semelfactive interpretation), and, more generally, is clearly modal. The authors also claim that all the uses of the 'go'-periphrasis stem from a common, fundamental value, despite the apparent variety.

''The 'aller' perfect'', by Marianne Collier, compares the French future with its periphrastic counterpart when used with the perfective. Both tenses can be used for temporal reference (locating a process in the future before another one) or modality (expressing past probability); however, with 'aller' ('to go'), the latter use is much restricted (except in Canadian French). Moreover, when 'aller' itself is in the imperfect, it does not take over the modal values of the conditional.

In ''Indirect evidentiality and related domains: Some observations from the current evolution of the Romanian presumptive'', Monica-Alexandrina Irimia investigates how Romanian expresses indirect evidentiality with a modal auxiliary followed by 'be' and the present or past participle. The complex morphological data allow the author to study the evolution of tense/aspect/mood notions and how they are mapped onto particular structures. Despite highly idiosyncratic patterns, the semantics of indirect evidentials can be decomposed, showing that their main import is that an eventuality does not hold at the speaker's deictic center.

In ''Modals and tense in Contemporary European Portuguese and in Old Portuguese'', Alexandra Fiéis and Ana Madeira claim that, despite unchanging semantics, some Portuguese modal verbs have undergone degrammaticalization, as evidenced by syntactic considerations pertaining to the following infinitival phrase. Because of this structural change, the modals have acquired characteristics associated with lexical verbs, even though no difference in interpretation follows.

In ''Portuguese temporal expressions with 'haver' and their Romance counterparts -- Semantic interpretation and grammaticalization'', Telmo Móia tracks the current development of a modal into a preposition-like connective; this evolution, found in several other languages (see English 'ago'), can be explained by the fact that the (originally verbal) constructions have a meaning typically expressed by prepositional phrases, which they formally resemble at the discourse level.


As stated by the editors in their introduction, this volume takes diachrony seriously as an explicative factor in language structure: ''[A] diachronic approach significantly enhances the explanatory power of linguistic theory by showing how a specific form came to convey a certain function [...]'' (p. 1). Also crucial is the idea that a language is not ''a neat system'', but rather a complex layering of interacting sub-systems (Hopper, 1991). Finally, many -- if not all -- papers compare similar phenomena in several languages, thus offering interesting cross-linguistic insights.

Interestingly, most evolutions studied in this volume are quite recent, and actually, often still ongoing. As such, it stresses the fact that diachronic approaches do not deal with the past, but with change, and that change may be better grasped in the present (Janda & Joseph, 2003), if only because data are much more available. It also serves as a constant reminder that diachronicians study the same phenomena as other linguists; the papers on French, for instance, offer excellent insights into the most contemporary grammatical facts.

That said, the approaches in this volume vary widely, from the variationist, quantitative methodology of Rebotier's two papers to Fiéis and Madeira's strong generative stance. Again, this stresses that diachrony is not a theory, but rather a point of view -- actually, a linguistic phenomenon in itself, in need of explanation like any other linguistic phenomenon. Hence, despite the theoretical diversity, much can be learned from this book about the evolution of a language family.

Verbal systems, even restricted to Romance languages and considered only in diachrony, won't be exhausted by a single volume, and this book doesn't pretend to do so. Instead, it includes a set of contributions focusing on very precise issues (as opposed to more abstract theorizing). Theoretical considerations aren't absent, but they are played down in favor of data, which is actually the feature that makes this book stand out. Consequently, it will be of use to anybody interested in Romance linguistics (not only historical Romance linguistics), as it offers hard facts on quite complex systems.

The book could have benefited from a more thorough introduction strengthening the importance of diachrony; here, the editors mostly refer the reader to Bybee et al. (1994), and similar works, and then present the rest of the volume. Finally, more care could have been brought to the editing of figures, as most of them are screenshots that are, in some cases, not very legible, and in some cases, even including the spellchecker's wiggly underline. These are minor defects, though, and do not decrease the book's value.


Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins & William Pagliuca (1994), ''The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect and modality in the languages of the world.,'' The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Hopper, Paul J. (1991), On some principles of grammaticalization, in ''Approaches to grammaticalization,'' E.C. Traugott and B. Heine (eds.), vol.1, 17-35, John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Janda, Richard D. & Brian D. Joseph (2003), On language, change, and language change -- Or, of history, linguistics, and historical linguistics, in ''The handbook of historical linguistics'', B.D. Joseph and R.D. Janda (eds), 3-180, Blackwell, Oxford.

Reichenbach, Hans (1947), ''Elements of symbolic logic'', Macmillan, New York.


Paul Isambert holds a PhD from the University of Paris 3, France. He is currently working on grammaticalization in French and teaches at the University of Tours, France.

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