[University home]

Existential constructions:
An investigation into the Italo-Romance dialects

Our Research

Despite receiving a great deal of attention in the specialist literature, existential constructions still raise a number of important questions. What principle underlies the definiteness effects, i.e., the constraints on the pivot (see hope in There is hopeā€¦), and what is the rationale of the striking cross-linguistic variation in the encoding of these constraints? Should a distinction be drawn between existential and locative predications and why do languages differ in the extent to which they encode existential and locative meanings together? Is evidentiality a recurrent property of the semantics of existentials cross-linguistically, how does this property develop diachronically, and how is it encoded in morpho-syntax?

This AHRC-funded project tests the hypothesis that the definiteness effects derive from the interaction of constraints on the subject (Beaver, Frances, Levinson 2005; Mikkelsen 2002) and the further claim that the cross-linguistic variation in these effects ultimately depends on the variation in the language-specific degree of tolerance of subject markedness (Bentley 2010). To test these hypotheses, we study how, in a selection of Romance dialects of Italy, the semantic and pragmatic properties of the subject correlate with its coding and behaviour. We then ascertain how our findings correlate with the variation in the semantics and the morpho-syntactic treatment of the pivot. The Romance dialects of Italy offer fertile ground for our pursuit, in that they involve parametric variation in subject coding and behaviour (see, for instance, the variation in the cross-referencing of the subject with a clitic).

An earlier investigation of Sardinian uncovered evidence of deictic (speaker-oriented) and evidential marking in existential constructions (Bentley 2011). On this evidence we build our starting hypothesis in the investigation of the relation between existentials and locatives: existential structures may be modified in locational terms, although this kind of modification is not an inherent property of their semantics. As for the evidential parameter, we aim to ascertain which types of deictic adverbial have evolved into existential and then evidential pro-forms in Italo-Romance (the latter development appears to have occurred in Campidanese Sardinian), and whether first-hand experience vs. hearsay is the only evidential contrast marked by the selection of the existential pro-form. Whereas patterns of evidential marking have been recorded in the existential constructions of languages unrelated to Romance (e.g., Ulwa, Misumalpan, Koontz-Garboden forthcoming), no such pattern had so far been attested in this language family. The Sardinian evidential structure is also the first ever attestation of a Romance evidential strategy (in the sense of Aikhenvald 2004) which is derived from a locative adverbial, and it could be the only Romance evidential strategy which is not embedded in the verbal system.

To collect our evidence we conduct extensive fieldwork in Italy, availing ourselves of the advice and the support of an international pool of experts in dialectology. Our objectives are not only theoretical (to shed new light on the discourse-semantics-morphosyntax interface in existentials), but also empirical, in that we aim to create an atlas of the existential constructions of Italo-Romance.

We hope that our project will also have an impact outside the academic research community, in that it will deliver materials which will be used for didactic and other cultural purposes both in the UK and in Italy. With our research we thus aim to contribute to the preservation and the fostering of dialect culture.