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Review of  Yes/no question-marking in Italian dialects

Reviewer: Ekaterina Chernova
Book Title: Yes/no question-marking in Italian dialects
Book Author: Sara Lusini
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Subject Language(s): Italian
Issue Number: 24.3120

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This monograph, a dissertation from the University of Leiden comprising five chapters, examines different strategies for the formation of yes/no questions in Italian dialects, in general, and the so-called ‘che fare’ questions in Sienese and Sicilian, in particular. Sara Lusini shows that Italian dialects exhibit a large number of typologically different polar question-marking strategies. However, she claims that not all of the attested devices can easily fit into a broader crosslinguistic typology of yes/no questions (e.g. Dryer 2005). Particularly, one of the most challenging strategies is a construction ‘che fare’ found in Sienese, which is formed by a question particle (QP) followed by two tensed verbs. Through the help of several syntactic tests and a production experiment, the author shows that ‘che fare’ questions are monoclausal rather than biclausal syntactic constructions.

Chapter 2: The typology of yes/no question marking in Italian dialects.

After a brief introduction in Chapter 1, Lusini offers an extensive typological overview of polar question-marking in Italian dialects. She begins the discussion with a brief description of the main strategies of yes/no question-formation found in world’s languages, as previously established by e.g. Dryer (2005), among others. Then, the discussion narrows down to yes/no question-marking in Romance languages (namely, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan and Romanian). The author concludes that all Romance languages make use of interrogative intonation and that all but Standard Italian may also employ a sentence-initial QP. Finally, according to the author, French is the language with the widest choice of interrogative strategies, as it is the only one that can bring interrogative word order into play, namely, verb raising to the left of a subject clitic. Thus, only a few grammatical yes/no question-marking devices among those found in the world’s languages are attested in Romance, including Standard Italian.

Interestingly, however, this is not the case in Italian dialects. According to the data collected in previous literature, as well as the author’s original fieldwork, Lusini argues that Italian dialects display an unexpectedly wide number of different polar question-marking strategies: (i) QP; (ii) interrogative intonation; (iii) interrogative word order; (iv) interrogative verb morphology; (v) interrogative verb morphology + QP. Some of the attested data, nevertheless, do not easily fit into the previously well-established classification (Dryer 2005). There are three such challenging cases. After some discussion, two of them -- namely, do-support (Lombard and Sicilian dialects) and clefted polar questions (Venetian, Piedmontese and Ligurian dialects) -- are classified as instances of interrogative word order modifications, i.e., the auxiliary verb raising in the former case, and object movement in the latter. The final and more complex issue is ‘che fare’ interrogative constructions found in Central and Southern dialects. The author reports an interesting strategy of yes/no question-marking found in some Italian dialects, which consists of a QP followed by a finite form of the verb ‘fare’ (‘do’). The QP ‘chi/che’ is argued to derive from a wh-word corresponding to ‘what’ and does not present any particular challenge. Meanwhile, the behavior of the verb ‘fare’ seems to be unusual. In Sicilian, ‘fare’ does not share the phi- and tense features of the lexical verb, as in (1), while, strikingly, it does so in Sienese, as in (2) (p. 67):

(1) Chi fa chianci? (Sicilian)
QP do.PRES.3.Sg cry.PRES.2.Sg
‘Are you crying?’

(2) Che fai piangi? (Sienese)
QP do.PRES.2.Sg cry.PRES.2.Sg
‘Are you crying?’

While in (1), with an invariable form of ‘fare’ (3rd person, singular), it is possible to classify the relevant construction as a single, grammaticalized QP (i.e., ‘chiffà’), the same is not possible in (2), with an agreeing form of ‘fare’. The next two chapters of the dissertation analyze this problematic case.

Chapter 3: Yes/no question-marking in Sienese.

In this chapter, Lusini offers a syntactic analysis of ‘che fare’ questions in Sienese. She argues that, despite looking like biclausal constructions, with two independent questions, they are, in fact, monoclausal polar questions. She observes that ‘che fare’ questions are subject to several syntactic restrictions which do not apply to biclausal discourses, namely: (i) ‘fare’ and the lexical verb share phi-, tense, mood and aspect features; (ii) ‘fare’ may combine with verbs that do not assign an agentive role to the subject; (iii) only a single negation is allowed; (iv) the subject cannot occur between ‘fare’ and the lexical verb. According to the author, the syntactic structure in (3) underlies the question in (2):

(3) [CP che [C fai [TP [T piangi [vP pro [VP ]]]]]]

In (3), the light verb ‘fare’ merges in C and the lexical verb in T undergoes a simultaneous Multiple Agree operation (in the spirit of Hiraiwa 2001, among others) with the subject in Spec,vP. In the line with Chomsky (2001), Agree is delayed until ‘fare’, a phase head, is merged into the derivation. The subject pro remains in-situ, in Spec,vP. In contrast, in Sicilian, ‘chiffà’ is argued to be an invariable single unit, or a discourse particle, which is merged above CP. This analysis explains why ‘che fare’ questions receive a marked interpretation only in Sicilian and not in Sienese. Additionally, a working hypothesis is formulated in which ‘che fare’ questions might be the result of a grammatical reanalysis of a biclausal construction into a monoclausal one. While Sicilian ‘che fare’ questions are purely monoclausal, their Sienese counterpart undergoes half of the grammaticalization process, since ‘fare’ still needs to establish syntactic agreement.

Chapter 4: Prosodic differences between yes/no questions and biclausal discourses in Sienese.

In this chapter, the author provides some additional empirical evidence in favor of Sienese ‘che fare’ questions being a monoclausal construction. A production experiment with 11 native speakers was run in order to analyze the prosodic properties of ‘che fare’ questions such as those in (2), as well as their biclausal counterparts in (4):

(4) Che fai? Piangi?
QP do.PRES.2.Sg cry.PRES.2.Sg
‘What are you doing? Are you crying?’

The results of the experiment show that the two constructions exhibit different prosodic properties. First, the duration of ‘fare’ and of the inter-stress interval between ‘fare’ and the following word is much longer in biclausal questions (84,4%). According to the author, this is the result of the pre-boundary vowel lengthening which takes place before clause boundaries in biclausal discourses and, hence, cannot arise in monoclausal ‘che fare’ constructions. Furthermore, the results demonstrate that no pause can appear between ‘fare’ and the following word in monoclausal environments, while it is optional in biclausal ones. Nevertheless, when it comes to intensity and melody, no significant differences between the two structures are attested.


Lusini’s monograph deals with an interesting topic of microparametric variation among related linguistic varieties, namely, Italian dialects. This work reports and, importantly, classifies a large amount of data concerning different strategies of yes/no question-marking in Italian dialects. As such, it is a welcome contribution to previous crosslinguistic studies on the interrogative modality, as well as to theoretical and empirical research on microparametric variation. Furthermore, it provides an interesting theoretical account of a striking piece of data concerning a particular strategy of formation of polar questions, namely, ‘che fare’ questions in Sienese and other Central dialects.

The dissertation contains a lot of empirical data and information in general; more than can be covered with any justice in a short review. Despite the complexity, it is worth noting that the material is well organized and well written. Hence, the main goal of the monograph -- i.e., “to provide an account of polar questions in Italian dialects from a typological, theoretical and empirical perspectives” (p. 1) -- as well as more particular purposes are met with success.

Chapter 2 is perhaps the most difficult to follow, especially for readers not familiar with literature on Italian dialects and the specific type of data analyzed here, as the material discussed is abundant and complex. My only objection with respect to the data is the author’s claim that most Romance languages, except French, do not exhibit interrogative word order. In other words, according to Lusini, in most cases, what distinguishes a declarative clause from its interrogative counterpart is only intonation. Certainly, it might be difficult to determine whether the verb has been fronted above the subject in pro-drop languages. However, for instance, subject-verb inversion can be easily observed with overt Determiner Phrase (DP) subjects in non-marked questions, at least in Spanish (e.g. ‘¿Comprará María el libro?’ (‘Will Mary buy the book?’)). Nevertheless, the author decides not to treat this inversion in Spanish as a polar question-marking strategy because “its use is always motivated by language-specific information-structure requirements” (p. 21, fn. 6), in the sense that the inversion is optional in non-neutral, marked, questions (Escandell Vidal 1999). But does this mean that inversion is no longer an interrogative strategy? In my opinion, the discussion would have benefited from a more careful treatment of such subtle data.

From a theoretical point of view, the discussion is not hard to follow; the syntactic proposal offered in Chapter 3 is simple, elegant and clearly justified, and the results of the production experiment are explained and examined in detail, in Chapter 4. Moreover, perhaps the most ‘striking’ issue of the syntactic analysis, namely, a multiple Agree relation involving more than one probe and goal, is supported by extensive previous discussions in existing literature (e.g. Hiraiwa 2001, Nevins 2011, among others).

In sum, Lusini makes an interesting contribution to current research on the interrogative modality from typological, theoretical and empirical perspectives. Any linguist interested in typology, production experiments or theoretical syntax, in general, as well as a reader interested in modality, question-marking, modal particles or agreement, in particular, would benefit from this book.


Chomsky, Noam. 2001. Derivation by Phase. In M. Kenstowicz (ed.), Ken Hale, A life in language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1-50.

Dryer, Matthew. 2005. Polar questions. In M. Haspelmath, M.S. Dryer, D. Gil and B. Comrie (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures, ch. 116. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Escandell Vidal, M. Victoria. 1999. Los enunciados interrogativos. In Bosque I. and V. Demonte (eds.), Gramática Descriptiva de la Lengua Española. Madrid: Espasa Calpe.

Hiraiwa, Ken. 2001. Multiple Agree and the Defective Intervention Constraint in Japanese. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 40. 67-80.

Nevins, Andrew. 2011. Multiple agree with clitics: person complementarity vs. omnivorous number. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 29(4). 939-971.
Ekaterina Chernova is a PhD student at the University of Girona, working on a dissertation about wh-movement in (multiple) canonical and echo questions. Her main interests are the interrogative syntax across languages, with special attention to Slavic, Romance and Germanic, parametric variation, phases, among many others.

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