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Testing linguistic theory and variation to their limits: The case of Romance

Adam Ledgeway
p. 271-327


Théorie linguistique et variation. Le cas des langues romanes

Grâce à l’examen d’une série d’études de cas éclairantes puisées en grande partie dans les données de variétés dialectales romanes trop souvent mises à l’écart, cet article a pour objectif de mettre en relief l’importance du rôle des données romanes, et surtout de celles tirées des variétés non-standard, dans l’évaluation et dans l’enrichissement des théories syntaxiques actuelles. En particulier, on met en évidence comment les variétés dialectales, bien qu’à peine exploitées dans le passé, offrent un terrain expérimental extrêmement fertile et encore peu exploré aujourd’hui, qui permet d’explorer de nouvelles pistes à propos de la structure, du changement et de la variation linguistiques. En même temps, on exposera les avantages mutuels pour les linguistes théoriques et les spécialistes en linguistique romane à adopter une approche à la fois plus intégrée et réciproquement informée dans leurs traitements respectifs des faits linguistiques. On montrera ainsi comment une connaissance des outils et des principes établis dans les deux champs peut apporter des enrichissements considérables aux analyses linguistiques et empiriques.

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1Drawing on a number of corpus studies, including a considerable amount of data taken from my own corpora of textual and fieldwork studies on the dialects of Italy, I shall explore, in a manner which is accessible to both general scholars of the Romance languages and linguists, how the richly documented diachronic and synchronic variation exhibited by the Romance languages, and especially their dialectal varieties, offers an unparalleled wealth of linguistic data (often of a typologically exotic nature) of interest not just to Romance linguists, but also to general linguists. This perennially fertile and still under-utilized testing ground, I will show, has a central role to play in challenging linguistic orthodoxies and shaping and informing new ideas and perspectives about language change, structure and variation, and should therefore be at the forefront of linguistic research and accessible to the wider linguistic community. At the same time, a familiarity with current key ideas and assumptions in theoretical linguistics has an important role to play in understanding the structures and patterns of Romance, and, in particular, those known to us only through the texts of earlier periods where native speakers are not available to provide crucial grammaticality judgments and fill in the missing empirical pieces of the relevant puzzle.

2Following a brief introduction in §1 to linguistic variation across Romance in relation to parameters, universals and language typology, I shall then explore in §2 some case studies of microvariation across Romance which highlight what Romance can do for syntactic theory by way of testing, challenging and expanding our theory of language and the empirical base. By the same token, the tools and insights of current theories of syntax can also be profitably used to throw light on many of the otherwise apparently inexplicable facts of Romance microvariation, the topic of the §3 where I shall highlight what syntactic theory can do for Romance through the exploration of a number of Romance case studies which have traditionally proven, at the very least, extremely difficult to interpret in a unitary and satisfactory fashion.

1. Linguistic variation

1.1 Parameters

  • 1  The abbreviations for languages and localities cited in the following discussion are: Abr. (Abruzz (...)

3One of the areas in which research into Romance has proven particularly influential is the investigation of linguistic parameters, those dimensions of linguistic variation along which natural languages are said to vary. To cite just one simple example, in his Issues in Italian Syntax, Rizzi (1982) observed that whereas in languages like English it is impossible to move a relative pronoun like to whom in (1a) from the embedded indirect question which lies they told… to the next clause up, such movement is possible in the corresponding Italian example (1b), where a cui successfully raises out of the embedded clause headed by che bugie.1

4Rizzi’s solution, subsequently widely adopted, was to propose that the difference between English and Italian observable in (1) is a consequence of a different parametric setting on the boundaries for movement in natural languages (viz. subjacency): in English inflected verb phrases (IPs) constitute boundaries for movement, of which a maximum of only one can be crossed in any one derivation, whereas in Italian complementizer phrases (CPs) count as boundaries for movement, of which again only one can at most be crossed. Therefore, the ungrammaticality of (1a) follows because the phrase to whom illicitly moves over two boundaries, namely I wonder and they told, whereas (1b) is grammatical because the relative a cui crosses only one boundary, the CP introduced by che bugie.

5In more recent years the significance of Romance dialects for the generative enterprise has also been increasingly recognized, inasmuch as they offer fertile, and often virgin, territory in which to profitably study parametric variation. While neighbouring dialects tend to be closely related to each other, manifestly displaying in most cases a high degree of structural homogeneity, they do nonetheless often diverge minimally in significant ways which allow the linguist to isolate and observe what lies behind surface differences in particular parametric settings across a range of otherwise highly homogenized grammars. By drawing on such microvariation, it is possible to determine which phenomena are correlated with particular parametric options and how such relationships are mapped onto the syntax. A clear example of such reasoning comes from the so-called dative shift construction, a phenomenon attested in a number of Germanic languages whereby an underlying indirect object, such as to Mary in (2a), can be reanalyzed and promoted to direct object, where Mary now comes to precede the old direct object a book. Furthermore, it has been claimed that the possibility of dative shift is linked to another structural property, that of stranding prepositions in wh-questions and relative clauses, as demonstrated in (2b)

6In contrast, it is claimed that Romance languages do not display either dative shift or preposition stranding (Kayne 1984; Larson 1988: 378; Demonte 1995: 8), as the sharp ungrammaticality of the Italian examples in (3) demonstrates:

7This apparent Germanic vs Romance parametric variation is complicated by the fact that something very similar, if not identical to dative shift, is found in many southern Italian dialects (Sornicola 1997: 35-36; Ledgeway 2000: 46-52; 2009a: 844-847), witness the representative Neapolitan and Cosentino examples in (4):

8Beginning with the Neapolitan example (4b), we see that the recipient argument a Mario, the underlying indirect object in (4a), has been advanced to direct object and is now marked by the prepositional accusative (pa), as shown by its position in front of the old direct object na torta and by the fact that a Mario is now referenced by an accusative clitic pronoun o “him”, and not the third person dative pronoun nce in (4a). Other neighbouring southern dialects such as Cosentino, by contrast, exhibit a more constrained type of dative shift, inasmuch as recipient arguments (cf. dative clitic cci “to him” in (4d)) may only surface as direct objects (cf. accusative clitic u “him” in (4e)) in monotransitive clauses.

9These Italian dialects reveal therefore three important things. Firstly, dative shift is not a Germanic vs Romance parametric option. Secondly, the supposed link between dative shift and preposition stranding, argued to be derivable from a single parametric option, does not hold, the presence of both phenomena in languages like English simply representing a fortuitous combination rather than the principled outcome of a particular parameter setting, since preposition stranding is not found in these same southern dialects (cf. 4c). Thirdly, it is incorrect to subsume all instances of accusative marking of recipient arguments under the generic heading of dative shift, since some of the dialects of southern Italy prove sensitive to the mono- vs ditransitive distinction (cf. 4e). It follows therefore that what might otherwise be taken to represent the surface reflexes of a single parametric setting, in dialects like Neapolitan, namely the accusative marking of all recipient arguments irrespective of whether they occur in mono- or ditransitive clauses, turns out in fact to conceal two distinct structural operations in the light of evidence gleaned from dialects such as Cosentino.

1.2 Language universals

10Romance varieties also have much to contribute in the area of so-called universal principles of language, essentially a system of rules forming part of the genetic endowment known as Universal Grammar which are believed to hold of all human languages. A good illustration of the valuable role that Romance can play in testing linguistic universals concerns the licensing of nominative Case. Within current theory, it is assumed that Infl, the locus of verbal inflection, may be specified as [+tense] or [-tense], featural specifications which in turn are argued to correlate respectively with the verb’s ability or otherwise to license a nominative Case-marked subject. This [±tense] distinction is supported by the evidence of many of the world’s languages, including French where tensed verbs license nominative subjects (5a), but untensed verbs such as infinitives and gerunds only allow null (Caseless) PRO subjects (5b):

11Yet, the evidence of Romance dialects reveals that the supposed universal correlation between the specification of Infl and the availability of nominative Case is entirely spurious (Ledgeway 1998; 2000: ch. 4; Mensching 2000).14 In particular, dialects from the length and breadth of the Romance-speaking world demonstrate an abundant use of overt nominative subjects in conjunction with infinitival verbs:

1.3 Typological variation

1.3 Typological variation

  • 2  See, among others, Maurer (1968), Carballo Calero (1981), Loporcaro (1986), Jones (1993: 78-82), L (...)

12Data like those exemplified in (6) also illustrate how investigations of Romance dialects frequently reveal that the extent of typological variation within Romance, and indeed even within Indo-European, can in particular cases prove to be considerably greater than is traditionally assumed. In this respect, one only has to think of such examples as the Romance inflected infinitives, gerunds and participles illustrated in Tables 1 and 2 with representative examples in (7)2, which, as intermediate categories, clearly throw into turmoil traditionally narrow interpretations of finiteness in terms of a binary finite vs non-finite dichotomy (cf. Ledgeway 2007c):

Table 1. Romance inflected infinitives (cant- “sing”)







































Table 2. Romance inflected gerunds & participles (cant- “sing”)


Present/Past Participles


Pv. de At.


















-vo (-ve)



-no (-ne)



  • 3  See Parrino (1967), Lüdtke (1974; 1976), Mancini (1993), Harder (1998), Ledgeway (2004b; 2012a: §6 (...)

13Another acute example comes from the unique infectious development of inflection in the Marchigiano dialect of Ripatransone.3 Simplifying somewhat, in addition to the usual person/ number agreement, the Ripano finite verb simultaneously displays masculine/feminine gender agreement with the subject, not to mention the possibility of agreement with a so-called third person neuter subject, by means of final inflectional vowel contrasts which, to all appearances, seem to have been grafted onto the verbal paradigm from the nominal paradigm. By way of example, we illustrate below in Table 3 the nominal paradigm for fijj- “son, daughter” and prəʃuttə “ham” together with the present tense paradigm of the verb magnà “to eat” and piovərə “to rain”:

Table 3. Ripano nominal & present indicative paradigms






























14Far from being limited to finite verbs, such a rich and complex system of agreement has come to permeate even non-finite verb forms such as past participles (8a), gerunds (8b) and infinitives (8c), not to mention other parts of speech including predicative nominal complements of the copula avé “to have” (9a), wh-interrogatives (9b) and quite remarkably, on a par with such languages as Welsh, prepositions (9c):

1.4 Interim conclusions

15From the preceding introductory discussion, it is clear that the wealth of Romance standard and especially dialectal data, although frequently overlooked in the past, have a great deal to contribute to research into such areas as parametric variation, linguistic universals and typological variation. Nonetheless, the syntax of the dialects still represents a relatively poorly understood area of Romance linguistics, to the extent that there still remains a considerable amount of fieldwork to be done in recording and cataloguing the linguistic diversity within the Romània, as well as in bringing such facts to the attention of the wider linguistic community. With this in mind, in what follows we shall offer a number of valuable insights into the little-studied syntax of the Romance dialects in an attempt to highlight their significance for issues in general linguistic theory and their potential as relatively unexplored experimental territory in which to investigate new ideas about language structure, change and variation. Keeping the technical detail to a minimum, we shall discuss a number of issues relating to the syntax of Romance under the two broad headings of what Romance can do for syntactic theory and what syntactic theory can do for Romance. Under the former heading we shall review a number of assumptions about language structure and variation that have been proposed in the literature, demonstrating how in the specific cases examined the Romance dialect data contradict such principles and parameters, rendering them either invalid or in need of further elaboration. Under the latter heading, by contrast, we shall bring to light some of the less familiar and more problematic aspects of Romance syntax which can be shown to find an enlightening interpretation in light of current theoretical assumptions.

2. What Romance can do for syntactic theory

2.1 Pro-drop parameter

  • 4  On the status and distribution of expletive subject clitics, see Oliviéri (2009) and Kaiser, Olivi (...)

16Undoubtedly, one of the best known and most widely studied parameters is the so-called pro-drop (or null subject) parameter (for a recent overview, see Biberauer, Holmberg, Roberts and Sheehan 2009). Limiting our attention to Romance and Germanic, it is traditionally claimed that, with the exception of modern French, morphological Agr(eement) for person and number on the Romance verb is sufficiently rich to license a null subject (11a), whereas in such languages as English Agr is so impoverished that that it is unable to recover the identity of a null pronominal subject which must instead be phonologically expressed (10a). By the same token, it is also assumed (cf. Chomsky 1981: 28; Rizzi 1986: 410; Haider 2001: 285) that expletive (or non-referential) pronouns are null in the former (11b) but overt in the latter (10b).4

17On a par with others, Rizzi (1982: 143ff.) derives this supposed universal distinction from the pro-drop parameter, which he argues yields the four language types illustrated in Table 4:

Table 4. Typology of null subjects


Type 1


Type 2


Type 3


Type 4


Null referential



Null expletive



18Language types 1 and 2 are exemplified by English and Spanish, respectively. In Spanish both null expletives and null referential pronouns are licensed, whereas in English both types of null pronoun are excluded. Type 3 is argued to characterize German where, in contrast to referential pronouns which are invariably overt (12a), overt expletive pronouns are only licensed when they occur in clause-initial position (12b):

19On the other hand, Rizzi (1982: 143) explicitly argues that type 4 languages with overt expletive subjects but null referential subjects are “excluded for intrinsic reasons”. However, the evidence of a number of non-standard Romance varieties demonstrates that type 4 languages do indeed exist. For example, although Neapolitan is a pro-drop language (13a), it also displays structures such as those in (13b) where the subject position is filled by the overt expletive chello “that” (Sornicola 1996; Ledgeway 2009a: 290-294; 2010), a pattern replicated by a number of other Romance varieties (14a-e).

20With the exception of the northern Occitan example in (16f), for which see Kaiser, Oliviéri and Palasis (in press), in most cases the use of the overt expletive in such examples is associated with specific pragmatic functions (Sornicola 1996: 325-326; Ledgeway 2003; 2009a: 290-291; Hinzelin 2009), typically marking the illocutionary force of the clause as exclamative (cf. 14c) or interrogative (often with rhetorical overtones; cf. 14d-e), a usage which still requires much more detailed investigation. Summing up, the data considered here lead us to conclude, with Kaiser, Oliviéri and Palasis (in press), that the ability to drop referential pronouns and the availability of overt expletives are not necessarily mutually exclusive or, for that matter, two interrelated properties of a single pro-drop parameter. At the same time, however, the overt expletives of most of these Romance dialects cannot be equated tout court with those of languages like English and French in view of the marked pragmatic functions of the former and the purely syntactic nature of the latter.

21The wealth and extent of the Romance evidence is such that our typology of null subjects does not, however, stop here. Turning our attention to medieval Romance, it has long been noted (Adams 1987; Roberts 1993: §3.2; Benincà 1994; 2006; 2010: §3.2.1; Salvi 2004: 16f., 26-31; Ledgeway 2012a: 74-75) that these varieties display an asymmetric distribution of null subjects, a pattern more robustly represented in Gallo-Romance (French, Occitan, and northern Italian dialects) than either in Ibero-Romance or central-southern Italo-Romance (Salvi 2004: 30f.). In particular, whereas in root clauses null subjects are freely licensed (15a-c), in subordinate clauses pronominal subjects must usually be phonologically expressed (16a-c), although not interpreted as emphatic or contrastively-focused. Illustrative in this respect is the old Umbro-Tuscan example in (16c), where, despite the coreference of main and embedded clause subjects, the latter is overtly realized yielding a structure which would be judged ungrammatical, for example, in modern Italian where the presence of an overt pronoun in the same context would typically signal switch reference.

22This asymmetrical distribution leads us to conclude that null subjects in medieval Romance were not licensed exclusively, if at all, by rich verb inflection for person and number, insofar as verbal Agr is equally rich in both root and subordinated clauses, but by a structural property (to be discussed below in §3.2) which aligns the verb with distinct positions in both clause types. Indeed, the unreliability of verb morphology as a diagnostic for correctly predicting the distribution of null subjects is further evidenced by Ripano, a pro-drop variety, whose verb was seen in Table 3 above, witness the three singular persons of the paradigm (namely. magnu (m.) vs magne (f.)), to privilege the marking of gender over that of person, despite traditional claims that the licensing of null subjects is directly linked to the overt marking of the person feature.

23In summary, the null pronominal types seen in medieval Romance and Ripano cannot be readily accommodated in terms of currents theories of a binary null subject parameter (cf. also Oliviéri 2009; Kaiser, Oliviéri and Palasis in press) and, in particular, the typology of null subjects predicted by such models as that observed in Table 4 above which ultimately reduce tout court the distribution of null pronominals to the availability of rich morphological Agr for person on the finite verb.

2.2 Verb positions

24The confines of the verbal domain are generally taken to extend beyond the immediate v-VP shell, where the external and internal arguments are first-merged, to include a dedicated structural position Infl(ection) (Chomsky 1981; 1986) > T(ense) (Chomsky 1995). The latter represents the locus of verbal inflection and licenses the external argument’s Case and phi-features with which it enters into a Spec-head configuration upon raising of the subject to its associated specifier position (SpecIP > SpecTP). Not only can this head position be lexicalized by distinct auxiliaries (cf. epistemic use of Catalan auxiliary deure “must” to express supposition in (17a)) but, in the absence of the latter, may be overtly filled by the raised lexical verb where its finite inflectional features can be licensed (cf. epistemic use of the future in substandard Catalan to express supposition in (17b); see Badia I Margarit 1962, I: 391).

25These structural assumptions provide a natural way of interpreting the observed contrast in the (unmarked) position of the finite verb in languages like English (18a) on the one hand and French (18b) on the other:

26Exploiting the fixed positions of VP-adverbs like “always” as a diagnostic indicator of the left edge of the v-VP complex, we can now straightforwardly distinguish between overt verb-raising languages like French, where the finite verb raises to the Infl position to the left of VP‑adverbs, and languages like English, where the verb remains in situ to the right of such VP-adverbs and the Infl position is not overtly lexicalized in the syntax, a difference traditionally retraced to the respective richness of verbal inflection in the two languages (Emonds 1978; Pollock 1989; Belletti 1990).

27Nonetheless, recent research has revealed a much more nuanced interpretation of Romance verb movement than these familiar broad-brush treatments which classify Romance tout court as having overt verb movement. Following the seminal work of Cinque (1999), Infl is now commonly interpreted as a general label for the rich inflectional area of the clause (the I‑domain) made up of a series of distinct functional projections dedicated to marking various temporal, aspectual, modal and voice distinctions ranging over the lexical verb, its arguments, and possible adjuncts which can also be identified by the semantically corresponding adverbial modifiers they host (cf. also Cinque 2002; 2006; Belletti 2004; Rizzi 2004). Armed with these assumptions about a universal fixed hierarchy of adverb positions and corresponding functional projections, we can now construct a fine-grained typology of Romance varieties along the lines of (19):

28Although in all three varieties exemplified in (19) the finite lexical verb invariably leaves its base position to vacate the verb phrase, witness its position to the left of the completive adverb “everything” immediately adjacent to the VP, it raises to different functional projections within the I-domain as illustrated by its differential position with respect to different adverb classes. For example, in Spanish (19a) the finite verb raises to the head position of the continuative aspectual projection immediately below the adverb “still”, whereas in Italian (19b) it appears to raise slightly higher to the head position of the habitual aspectual projection below the adverb “usually”, and in French (19c) it raises to the highest available position above all adverb classes.

29On the basis of evidence like this, let us assume that the various adverbs and their associated functional projections making up the inflectional core of the clause can be broadly divided into two “spaces” termed the Lower Adverb Space (LAS) and the Higher Adverb Space (HAS). Broadly speaking, the HAS comprises modal functional projections variously spelt out by speaker-oriented adverbs marking such categories as evidential (e.g. “apparently”), epistemic (e.g. “presumably”) and irrealis (e.g. “perhaps”) modality, whereas the LAS principally includes aspectual functional projections lexicalized by adverbial classes including perfective (e.g. “always”) and continuative (e.g. “still”) aspects, with temporal projections and associated adverbs (e.g. TPast- “then”, TAnterior “already”) variously scattered across both spaces. Assuming in this way the clause to consist of a highly articulated functional structure, we can interpret a number of surface differences across Romance in terms of the varying extent of verb movement around different adverb classes in these two adverbial spaces, as illustrated in (20a-e):

  • 5  Lois (1989), Cinque (1999: 152), Ledgeway and Lombardi (2005: 86-89, 102 n. 12), Monachesi (2005: (...)

30It can be seen that whereas in French (20e) the finite lexical verb raises to the highest position within the HAS (Rowlett 2007: 106f.), in Calabrian (20a), Romanian (20b) and Spanish (20c) they typically raise only as far as the LAS.5 Italian (20d) represents an intermediate case insofar as the finite lexical verb targets a clause-medial position sandwiched between the HAS and the LAS (Cinque 1999: 31, 110f., 180 fn. 80; Ledgeway and Lombardi 2005: 87f.).

  • 6  Lois (1989: 34, 40), Cinque (1999: 45-49, 146-148), Abeillé and Godard (2003), Monachesi (2005: 13 (...)

31These same assumptions about the fixed positions of adverbs also allow us to plot the differential position of non-finite verbs such as the active participle in the following examples:6

32In contrast to what was observed with the finite verb (cf. 20e), the active participle moves least in French (21a), staying very low in the clause within the LAS to the right of the manner adverb “well” just above the v-VP, whereas in Calabrian (21d), Romanian (21e) and Spanish (21f) the active participle, unlike the finite verb in (20a-c), moves to the highest available position in the HAS beyond the perfective aspectual projection spelt out by the “always” adverb. In Sardinian and Italian, on the other hand, the position of the active participle displays greater freedom, raising in Sardinian (21b) no higher than “always” in the LAS, and possibly above “always” to a position in the HAS in Italian (21c).

  • 7  Roberts (1985), Lightfoot and Hornstein (1994), DeGraff (1997), Rohrbacher (1997), Vikner (1997).

33In the literature there is no general consensus regarding the correct interpretation of V-movement to different clausal positions (for an overview, see Schifano 2011; in prep.), although traditionally there have been many attempts, as noted above, to relate the extent of movement to the richness or otherwise of the inflectional Agr of the verb,7 witness Baker’s (1985; 1988: 13) Mirror Principle and Bobaljik’s (2002) Rich Agreement Hypothesis. In essence, approaches of this type attempt to drive syntactic operations from crosslinguistic morphological differences in individual languages. Admittedly, this view finds some initial support in the Germanic vs Romance contrast in (17a-b) where the Romance verb form, undoubtedly the inflectionally richest of the two, raises the highest. However, a brief comparison of the results reported in (20)-(21) above suffices to dispel such an approach, inasmuch as all the Romance varieties we have examined are what may be termed inflectionally rich languages, yet they display some quite marked differences in the extent of finite lexical and non-finite V-movement. This conclusion is further substantiated by the observation that much of the rich inflection of the modern French verb, unlike that of the other varieties examined, is predominantly orthographic, yet it shows higher verb movement of finite lexical verbs to the HAS than all other varieties.

34Thus, to conclude, we have seen that the rich comparative evidence of multiple verb positions across Romance forces us to recognize a richer functional structure for the clause than has traditionally been assumed. More generally, we have established that from an empirical and a theoretical perspective broad-brush characterizations of Romance as invariably involving overt V-raising prove neither descriptively nor explanatory adequate, inasmuch as a more nuanced picture has to be recognized. At the same time, this same evidence has highlighted the danger of assuming a direct correlation between the richness of inflection and the extent of V-movement.

2.3 Mapping the left periphery of the clause

35As seen in the previous section, one area of considerable interest in much recent syntactic research has been the investigation of the fine structure of the clause. Traditionally, the structure of the clause in a typical SVO language, of which almost all the modern Romance varieties are examples, has been taken to present (at least) the positions indicated in the linear template in (22a), exemplified from Italian in (22b):

36The linear arrangement in (22a-b) reflects the standard idea that the confines of the clauses can therefore be identified with the preverbal subject position situated at the left edge of IP and the complement or adjunct position situated at the right edge of VP (23a). However, in recent years research within generative syntax has been increasingly directed towards the investigation of the fine structure of the left periphery, the syntactic space immediately to the left of the sentential core (23b), culminating in the seminal work of Rizzi (1997) which has given rise to a widely-accepted view of the fundamental cartography of the C(omplementizer)-domain (cf. also Benincà and Munaro 2010).

  • 8  In these and following examples we indicate topicalized constituents by underlining, contrastively (...)

37Significantly, a considerable amount of work on the split C-domain has been conducted on the basis of the rich (dialectal) variation offered by Romance varieties (for an overview and relevant bibliography, see Ledgeway 2012a: 154-171), which in many cases provide invaluable overt evidence with which to map the fine structural organization of the left periphery. In particular, the left periphery, traditionally defined in terms of CP and its associated Spec(ifier) and head positions hosting wh-operators and complementizers (Chomsky 1986: §1), respectively, is now conceived as a split domain, hierarchically articulated into several fields and associated projections. Revealing in this respect are Italian topicalization examples such as (24a-c), where one of the constituents of the sentential core in (22b) conveying old/given information has been fronted to the left periphery and picked up, where available, by a resumptive clitic pronoun on the verb in the sentential core, a case of (clitic) left dislocation.8 This, however, does not exhaust all available structural possibilities, witness the examples in (25a-d) where as many as two constituents have been fronted under (clitic) left dislocation, illustrating the fact that topic is a recursive category and capable of multiple realizations within the same utterance.

38Further support for the richly articulated structure of the left periphery comes from a consideration of focus structures such as the Italian examples in (26), where a constituent of the sentential core in (22b) is fronted under contrastive focus to correct a previous assertion (cf. 26a-c). Significantly, however, fronted focused constituents are not in complementary distribution with fronted topicalized constituents, as the traditional simplex CP structure with its single left-peripheral position would lead us to believe, but can co-occur with left-dislocated topics in the strict order Topic + Focus, as shown in (27a-d).

39Evidence like this from Italian and other Romance varieties suggests that the existence of a single left-peripheral position is empirically inadequate. Rather, the relevant left-peripheral positions must be reconceived as distinct ragmatic-syntactic spaces along the lines of Benincà & Poletto (2004), according to which we can identify from left to right at least two fields termed Topic and Focus, respectively (see also Cruschina 2012). Not only is this demarcation between Topic and Focus justified at a ragmatic-semantic level, in that elements appearing in the Topic field are generally interpreted as “old” or “given” information whereas the Focus field is typically associated with informationally “new” elements, but it also finds confirmation at the syntactic level. For instance, in contrast to elements appearing within the Topic field, which often call for a resumptive pronominal (clitic) where available (cf. 24a-b, 25a-d), those appearing within Focus (cf. 26d) typically prove incompatible with a pronominal copy (Benincà 2001: 43ff.). Moreover, we have already observed that topic is a recursive syntactic category allowing several reiterations within a given utterance, whereas focus is restricted to just one occurrence per utterance.

40Robust evidence like this demonstrates that topicalized and focused constituents indeed target distinct spaces within the left periphery, forcing us to recognize a representation of the C-domain along the lines of (28) below:

Complementizer positions

41In addition to the Topic and Focus fields highlighted above, the left periphery of the clause also hosts complementizers. Now alongside finite complementizers derived from quod/quid and qu(i)a “(because >) that” which introduce tensed clauses (cf. (a) examples below), Romance varieties also present a series of non-finite complementizers derived from the prepositions de “of, from” and ad “to” to introduce infinitival clauses (cf. (b) examples below), which to all intents and purposes parallel the use of their finite counterparts:

42Despite appearances, the presumed parallelism between finite and non-finite complementizers is not, however, perfect, as revealed by their respective positions in relation to topics and foci: whereas finite complementizers precede topics and foci (31a), non-finite complementizers invariably follow both types of fronted constituent (31b).

43Evidence like this forces us to assume that the Topic and Focus fields outlined above are, in turn, closed off upwards by a higher complementizer position (termed Force) marking the illocutionary force of the clause and hosting such items as the Romance finite declarative complementizer que/che “that”, and downwards by a complementizer position (termed Fin(iteness)) specifying the modality and/or finiteness of the clause and hosting such items as the Romance infinitival complementizers de/ di “of”, as schematicized in (32).

  • 9  For Romanian see, among others, Dobrovie-Sorin (1994: 93-111), Motapanyane (2000: §4.2), and for s (...)

44Indeed, some Romance varieties present dual finite complementizer systems which appear to exploit both the higher and lower complementizer positions within the left periphery. Such is the case in Romanian and many southern Italian dialects,9 which contrast an indicative/declarative complementizer (qu(i)a “because” >) că/ca that lexicalizes the higher complementizer position, and therefore precedes topics and foci (33a), and a subjunctive/irrealis complementizer (e.g. si “if” > Ro. ) that lexicalizes the lower complementizer position, and therefore follows topics and foci (33b):

45Such dual complementizer systems are widely found in the dialects of southern Italy, as illustrated in Table 5 (Rohlfs 1969: 190; Ledgeway 2004a; 2005; 2006; 2009b; 2012b):

Table 5. Southern Italian dual complementizer systems


penso che verrà

“I think that he’ll come”

voglio che lui mangi

“I want that he should eat”


pensu ca vèni

vògghiu chi mmanciassi


critu ca vèni

ògghiu mi mancia


pensu ca vèni

vogghiu mu (mi) mangia


criju ca vèni

vuogliu chi mmangia


crisciu ca vène

ogghiu cu mmancia


pènsə ca vènə

vògliə chə mmangə


pènsə ca vènə

vògghiə chə mmangə


pènsə ca vènə

vòjjə chə mmangə

46Further compelling evidence for these two complementizer positions comes from those varieties which allow the simultaneous lexicalization of both positions around a fronted topic or focus constituent (a a case of so-called “recomplemenation”), including many early Romance varieties (34a-b; Wanner 1998; Paoli 2003a; Ledgeway 2004a: §; 2005: 380-389; Vincent 2006), and a number of modern Italian dialects (34c; Paoli 2002; 2003a,b; 2005; D’Alessandro and Ledgeway 2010) and modern Ibero-Romance varieties (34d; Demonte and Fernández-Soriano 2009; Gupton 2010: 227-234; Villa-García 2010).

  • 10  Rohlfs (1970: 205-207), Wheeler (1988: 272-274), Sauzet (1989), Joseph (1992), Bec (1967: 47f.).

47Finally, unique within Romance is the situation encountered in Gascon since around the sixteenth century, where the [+finite] feature of affirmative root clauses is exceptionally spelt out in the systematic lexicalization of the lower complementizer position Fin through the complementizer que “that”.10 Firm proof that que spells out the lower complementizer head is provided by the observation that, apart from object clitics, nothing can intervene between que and the finite verb such that all preverbal lexical subjects must occur to the left of que. This latter observation highlights the fact that, unlike in other Romance varieties, there is apparently no preverbal subject position within the sentential core in Gascon, such that all subjects have to be syntactically fronted to a topicalized (typically if old and definite; 35a) or focalized (typically if new and indefinite; 35b) position within the left periphery. These facts find an immediate explanation in the assumption that que lexicalizes the Fin position, since finiteness is standardly assumed to license nominative Case, hence Gascon would appear to have grammaticalized the locus of finiteness and, by implication, the licensing of nominative subjects within the left periphery (as happens in V2 varieties), rather than in the sentential core.

48The fine structure of the left periphery can therefore be summarized as in (36):

2.4 Interim conclusions

49The discussion so far has highlighted the importance of Romance data, and especially those from the still under-utilized non-standard varieties and dialects, in making us rethink some of our most basic assumptions about language structure and variation. In particular, we have seen that standard interpretations of the null subject parameter prove insufficient in terms of the limited range of null and overt pronominal subject types they predict, the limited predictive power of rich inflection in the distribution of null subjects, and the non-universality of inflection for person in licensing null subjects. Within the verbal domain we have established that the now classical typological distinction between V-raising and non-V-raising languages, which places Romance among the former, proves empirically inadequate. By contrast, we have observed that the extent of V-movement across Romance varies enormously, revealing a whole host of different positions which can, in turn, be taken to spell out the vast range of functional projections that make up the rich architecture of the sentential core. In a similar vein, this rich functional design of the clause has been shown to extend to the left periphery, where the Romance evidence forces us to recognize a richly-articulated functional space composed, at the very least, of topic and focus fields sandwiched in turn, between two complementizer positions.

3. What linguistic theory can do for Romance

3.1 Word order

50Undoubtedly one of the most striking differences between modern and medieval Romance varieties is manifested in the, often, radically differing word order patterns they permit in root clauses. By way of illustration, consider the old Neapolitan sentences in (37a-b) and their modern Italian translations in (38-b):

51(37a-b) exemplify a common early Romance structure in which the preverbal position is occupied by some constituent other than the subject, namely the direct object (viechy) and a non-subcategorized adverbial phrase (de poy queste parole), respectively. In the former case, the fronted rhematic direct object, which conveys new information, constitutes an example of informational focus (Lambrecht 1994: ch. 5; Cruschina 2012), and contrasts sharply with many modern Romance varieties such as Italian (cf. 26-27), where preposing of rhematic constituents is only found under quite restrictive pragmatic conditions (namely, to license contrastive focus), insofar as rhematic objects conveying informational focus canonically occur in postverbal position (cf. 38a). Similarly, example (37b) demonstrates how when the preverbal position is occupied by a constituent distinct from the subject, the latter, whenever overtly realized, is generally required to follow the verb, giving rise to an apparent case of verb-subject inversion. Significantly, in this and similar examples of inversion the subject does not simply follow the verb but also precedes any other sentential constituents (subcategorized or otherwise), witness the order subject (lo messayo) + direct object (licencia) in (37b). In modern Italian, by contrast, postverbal subjects generally follow their associated objects and other sentential constituents, and in such cases are typically associated with rhematic interpretations, whereas the postverbal subject in (37b) is clearly thematic. Consequently, in the modern Italian translation of (37b) illustrated in (38b) the thematic subject obligatorily occurs in preverbal position.

  • 11  See Skårup (1975), Vanelli, Renzi and Benincà (1985), Vanelli (1986; 1999), Adams (1987), Dupuis ( (...)

52Word order patterns such as those just considered, which can be easily replicated for other early Romance varieties (cf. 39a-g), have led a number of linguists to argue that medieval Romance word order is characterized by a verb second (V2) constraint.11 During this V2 stage sentences consist therefore of two principal parts (39a), a sentential core (IP) with fixed S V O Adv order on a par with what we have already witnessed in §2.3 for modern Romance, and a richly-articulated left periphery (CP) along the lines of (36) to whose lowest C(omplementizer) position (Fin) the finite verb raises in root clauses, where it is preceded by one or more elements fronted from the sentential core to the Topic and Focus fields to be assigned a pragmatically salient reading. In embedded clauses, by contrast, the left periphery generally hosts an overt Comp(lementizer) and the finite verb is consequently forced to remain within the sentential core, yielding the order S+V+O+Adv (39b). Thus, as the following representative early Romance examples demonstrate, alongside S+V+X (39c) we also frequently find in main clauses O+V(S) (39d), IO+V(S) (39e), OPP+V(S) (39f), and Adv+V(S) (39g), whereas embedded clauses invariably display rigid S+V+ O+Adv (39h):

53In conclusion, we thus see that the fine structure of the sentential core (§2.3) and the left periphery (§2.3.1) independently established above on the basis of modern Romance data provide us with the necessary pragmatico-syntactic tools to interpret the facts of medieval Romance word order.

3.2 Pro-drop parameter revisited

54Returning to our observation regarding the distribution of null subjects in medieval Romance (cf. examples (15)-(16) in §2.1), this same generalized raising of the finite verb to C(omp) under V2 also provides us with an elegant and highly natural explanation for the asymmetric distribution of null subjects in early Romance. In particular, when the verb raises to the vacant C position, null subjects are freely licensed (40a), whereas in subordinate clauses, where the finite verb is forced to remain in situ within the sentential core, pronominal subjects must be phonologically expressed (40b), although not interpreted as emphatic or contrastively-focused.

55This asymmetrical distribution leads us to conclude that null subjects in medieval Romance were not licensed exclusively, if at all, by rich verb inflection for person and number, but, by a property which the finite verb uniquely acquires by raising to the vacant C position, presumably the locus of finiteness in medieval Romance (cf. Ledgeway 2012a: §3.4.1).

56Interestingly, this archaic pattern has been exceptionally retained in modern Corsican (Marchetti 1974: 25, 51, 85, 94, 119), which behaves as a canonical Romance null subject variety in root clauses (41a-b), but which in embedded contexts usually requires referential (41a-c) and non-referential (41d) pronominal subjects to be overtly realized, albeit in reduced clitic form (cf. tonic/clitic eio/e, o (1sg), tù/tu (2sg), ellu/ella / (e)llu/(e)lla (3m/fsg), noi/no (1pl), voi/vo (2pl), elli/elle / (e)lli/(e)lle (3m/fpl)). This distribution of null and overt pronouns is however only superficially similar to medieval Romance, in that modern Corsican is not a V2 variety and the finite verb occurs in the sentential core in all cases, irrespective of the realization of the pronominal subject. However, when the finite verb does raise to the vacant C(omplementizer) position, as happens in polar interrogatives (41e), realization of the clitic subject pronoun is blocked in a similar fashion to what was seen for medieval Romance (cf. 40a).

3.3 Placiti cassinesi

57We now turn to the area of Romance philology and, in particular, the Placiti cassinesi (Bartoli 1944-45; Castellani 1973: 59-76; Bianchi, De Blasi and Librandi 1993: 211-212). Ignoring the Indovinello veronese, the Latin features of which are hardly negligible, these four brief, formulaic, sworn declarations composed in Capua, Sessa Aurunca and Teano (all situated in the modern-day southern Italian region of Campania) and dating between 960 and 963 are generally taken to represent the first documented attestations of the vernacular within the Italian Peninsula. Below is reproduced the first of these, the Placito capuano from March 960, which relates to a land dispute between the abbot of Montecassino and a certain Rodelgrimo who claimed, through inheritance, ownership of the lands which the abbot maintained had been the property of the monastery of St. Benedict of Montecassino for thirty years. In the absence of any official documentation of ownership, the judge ordered the abbot to produce three witnesses to authenticate his claim, each of which was reported to have sworn the oath in (42):

  • 12  See Tabachovitz (1932), Ewert (1935), Castellani (1969; 1978), López (1994), Ayres-Bennett (1996: (...)

58Although a very short text, the Placito capuano is not without its problems, raising a number of qualitative and interpretive issues for the philologist. In particular, given the extremely brief and formulaic nature of the text, it is legitimate to question what is the value, if any, of the linguistic evidence that such a short piece can genuinely offer the historian of the language. Indeed, this is a problem which arises with many of the earliest attestations of the Romance vernacular including, for example, the earliest Romance text, the Strasbourg Oaths of 842, another short sworn oath produced in an early French dialect of disputed origin.12

59Another unresolved issue thrown up by the Placito capuano concerns the correct reconstruction of the pragmatico-semantic interpretation of the fronted constituents stacked up at the beginning of the embedded clause (namely, kelle terre, per kelle fini…, trenta anni), our reading of which is without doubt greatly hindered by the limited nature of our textual evidence. Again this is a frequent problem faced by philologists reading early texts, which in many cases only offer a rather brief glimpse of the language, especially when they only exist in fragmentary form, and whose linguistic physiognomy is often deliberately limited by the specific style and register of the text type.

60A final observation concerns the appearance of the complementizer ko “that” in (42). Contrary to our expectations in light of the discussion of dual complementizer systems above (cf. Table 5 in §2.3.1), the epistemic main clause predicate sao “I know” selects for an indicative clausal complement headed, not by the expected indicative complementizer ca, but by what appears to be the subjunctive complementizer ko. How are we then to interpret the appearance of ko in this instance? Is it an example of a scribal error, or should it be taken at face value? As we shall see below, a consideration of this question in light of our preceding discussion of the fine structure of the left periphery provides an illuminating solution.

61Putting together the results of the discussions of the previous sections regarding the fine structure of the left periphery of the clause (§2.3) and the philological evidence of the Placito capuano, it becomes clear that a knowledge of the relevant linguistic and philological facts can profitably complement one another. In particular, we begin by observing how, despite only providing a glimpse of the early vernacular, the Placito capuano is of immense interest both to the historian of the language and the historical linguist since, although a very short text, it is nonetheless astonishingly rich in linguistic evidence. More specifically, it is quite remarkable that such a short text, and the first one from the Italian Peninsula no less, should provide such extensive early evidence of the fine structure of the left periphery and, above all, incontrovertible proof for the existence of the two left-peripheral fields postulated in §2.1, which, in turn, hold the key to a proper pragmatico-semantic interpretation of the fronted constituents stacked up at the beginning of the embedded clause. In particular, the rigid ordering of the Topic + Focus fields postulated in §2.1, together with our observations regarding the potential recursiveness of topics but not focus, which is limited to a single occurrence, allows us to infer that the left periphery of the embedded clause hosts two thematicizations within the Topic field, namely kelle terre “those lands” (picked up by the resumptive clitic pronoun le “them”) and per kelle fini que ki contene “with those borders which are contained here”, and a contrastive focus trenta anni “(for) thirty years” within the Focus field, as illustrated in (43).

62Turning now to the unexpected used of the complementizer ko (< quod) rather than ca, this too finds a principled explanation in terms of the structural organization of the complement clause. As demonstrated in Ledgeway (2004a; 2005), in the early dialects of southern Italy, including those of Campania, the distribution of the two complementizers co/che (< quod/ quid) and ca (< qu(i)a) is not quite as neat as the traditional descriptions reviewed in §2.3.1 would lead us to expect (cf. Table 5). Whereas all types of subjunctive clause are introduced by che, indicative complement clauses are headed either by ca or che. Simplifying the facts somewhat (for detailed discussion, see Ledgeway 2005: §3), it will suffice to note here that either ca (44a) or che (44b) are employed when the left periphery of an embedded indicative clause does not contain any topics or foci, whereas che alone is found in the presence of fronted topics/foci (44c), as witnessed by the following old Neapolitan examples:

63In view of these distributional facts, it is possible to argue that old Neapolitan had just one indicative complementizer ca generated in the lowest complementizer position (Fin) which, whenever raised to the higher complementizer position (Force), as proves obligatory whenever topics or foci are present, is morphologically spelt out in the form che (namely, caFin cheForce). In short, the overt form assumed by indicative co/che is interpreted as nothing more than the surface morphological reflex of raising ca from its base position to the higher complementizer position within the left periphery. Indeed, this analysis is directly supported by old Neapolitan recomplementation examples such as (34b) above where, crucially, the higher complementizer invariably surfaces in the morphological form co/che but the lower position is always spelt out as c(h)a, and never vice versa.

64In this light, we can now return to the apparently erroneous selection of ko in the Placito in (42). It turns out after all that the use of ko here is not a scribal error or a singular mistake, but reflects the availability and use of two different complementizer positions determined by the informational structure of the embedded clause (cf. 45a) which, as we have seen in (43), contains a contrastively focused constituent preceded by two topicalized constituents. It is the activation of these Topic-Focus fields in the embedded left periphery which is directly responsible for the presence of ko, inasmuch as the complementizer ca is forced to move to the higher complementizer position in the presence of fronted topics or foci where it is spelt out as ko (45b). It now comes as no surprise therefore that the complementizer ca (or its graphic variants ka, cha) should not be employed in (42).

65This example also highlights the dangers of dismissing too hastily the linguistic attestations offered to us by even the most meagre of philological evidence. In this particular case, the Placito capuano provides an invaluable early example of the ca che alternation, which is not attested again in our textual record for the Campania region for at least another 350 years. Thanks however to this early attestation, we can conclude with confidence that the relevant complementizer alternation and associated positions licensed by the absence/presence of fronted topics and foci, otherwise richly attested in texts from the fourteenth century onwards (Ledgeway 2004a; 2005; Vincent 2006), must date back to at least the tenth century. Of course, it might be objected that the linguistic evidence of the texts is so formulaic that its value for the linguist is questionable on a number of counts. Indeed, a comparison of the Placito capuano with the other three Placiti cassinesi produced three years later in the nearby localities of Sessa Aurunca (46a) and Teano (46b-c) reveals such an extraordinarily high level of structural, discourse and lexical uniformity across all four texts that it would be naïve to imagine that all four sworn oaths represent authentic testimonies of the spontaneous spoken vernacular of the time.

66On the contrary, given the nature of the four oaths, which all had the specific purpose of persuading the court that a set of disputed lands had been in the possession of a given monastery for thirty years and consequently a legitimate part of the latter’s estate, it is more than likely that the illiterate peasants enlisted by the Church to serve as “independent” witnesses, presumably under the promise of personal financial reward, were given very precise instructions regarding what they were required to swear under oath. Nonetheless, it would be rash to disregard the evidence of these four short, highly formulaic written testimonies on these grounds alone; rather, given the Church’s deliberate efforts to place presumably authentic-sounding words and structures of the vernacular in the mouths of their witnesses, it is still possible to see in the language of these four texts a deliberate hypercharacterization of some of the most salient traits of the spoken language of the time such as the fronting of topicalized and focused constituents, which still constitutes to this day a characteristic feature of the spoken, rather than written, registers of Romance (cf. Duranti and Ochs 1979).

67The discussion in this section has demonstrated that, when theory and philological evidence are considered together, the results of traditional philological and linguistic scholarship can be considerably enhanced. More specifically, we have seen that current theoretical assumptions about the design and architecture of the left periphery of the clause provide us with some novel and powerful tools to shed light on the interpretation and linguistic choices of one of the earliest Romance texts. At the same time, the Placiti cassinesi provide independent and robust evidence for these same syntactic assumptions. In short, and as abundantly demonstrated in this case study, linguistics and philology should complement each other to produce enlightening results, rather than be seen as alternatives to be pursued in isolation from each other.

3.4 Dual complementizer systems

68Above in §2.3.1 we observed how Romanian and a number of southern Italian dialects employ a dual complementizer system (cf. Table 5) which distinguishes between a realis complementizer derived from quia (> ca,) and an irrealis complementizer derived from quid (> che, chi), quod (> cu), modo (> mu, ma, mi) or si (> ): while the former heads clauses selected by declarative and epistemic predicates (typically marked by the indicative; 47a), the latter is employed after predicates such as volitionals that characterize the state or events of their complements as unrealized at the time of speaking (typically marked by the subjunctive; 47b).

69We also saw that both complementizers differ with respect to their relative positions in conjunction with fronted topicalized and focused constituents. For instance, as the preceding Salentino examples demonstrate, while ca precedes all such fronted elements (47a), cu must follow (47b). Facts like these led us to propose in terms of Rizzi’s (1997) split CP perspective that the realis complementizer (e.g. ca) lexicalizes the higher Force head and the irrealis complementizer (e.g. cu) the lower Fin head, as sketched in (48):

70A further distinction between the two complementizers which, at first sight, does not seem to immediately follow from (48) concerns their phonological realization (Calabrese 1993; Terzi 1994; 1996; Ledgeway in press). For example, while in Salentino ca must always be pronounced (49a), cu may optionally remain unpronounced (49b), a case of what we may term C-drop.

  • 13  Cf. Wanner (1981), Giorgi and Pianesi (1997; 2004), Poletto (2001), Scorretti (1994), Giorgi (2009 (...)

71Strikingly, even in those Romance varieties which do not display a dual complementizer system it is not infrequent for the finite complementizer (viz. que/che) to remain phonologically unpronounced, on condition that it introduces an irrealis complement (50b, 51b, 52), but not, crucially, when it introduces a realis complement (50a, 51a).13

72In view of the superficial similarity in the conditions regulating the distribution of C-drop in varieties with dual complementizer systems and languages such as Spanish, Italian and Occitan with apparently only one complementizer, it is tempting to extend the analysis of dual complementizer systems to languages of the latter type. In particular, we have established on the basis of dual complementizer systems that C-drop is a property uniquely licensed by the lowest C-related position, presumably involving a residual V2 effect with raising of the modally-marked finite verb to CFin in the absence of the irrealis complementizer (Poletto 2001), but not by the realis complementizer which lexicalizes the highest C-related position Force and hence unavailable to finite verb raising under V2. By the same token, in its irrealis uses standard Romance que/che must also lexicalize Fin, thereby explaining its complementary distribution with finite verb raising under C-drop, in contrast to its realis uses where it lexicalizes the highest position Force.

73In short, we are led to conclude that the dual complementizer system explicitly attested for such varieties as Romanian and the dialects of southern Italy must also be assumed to hold more generally for Romance where, despite the difference between the two complementizers not being overtly lexicalized, the relevant distinction between the two homophonous complementizers (que/che) is marked indirectly by their differential positions within the left periphery and their compatibility with C-drop (53a-c).

3.5 Noun positions

  • 14  See further Arnholdt (1916), Sandfeld and Olsen (1960: 98-114), Alisova (1967), Reiner (1968), Lap (...)

74Oversimplifying somewhat, prenominal and postnominal adjectives positions typically correlate with the following respective interpretations in the modern standard varieties of Romance:14 (i) inherent / non-inherent (54a); (ii) descriptive / distinguishing (54b); (iii) subjective / objective (54c); and (iv) figurative / literal (54d).

  • 15  Ledgeway (2007a; 2009a: 241f.), Vincent (2007), Thiella (2008: ch. 4), Giusti (2010a: 599-609).

75Matters were, however, quite different in early Romance, insofar as contrastive readings were not necessarily associated with the postnominal position as in modern Romance, but could equally be licensed in the prenominal position (Ledgeway 2007a; 2009a: 214f; Vincent 2007; Thiella 2008: ch. 4; Giusti 2010: 599-609).15 This is illustrated in the following near minimal pairs, where the adjective in each case invariably gives rise to a contrastive reading irrespective of its pre- or postnominal position.

76Strikingly similar is the situation found in modern Walloon (Bernstein 1991), where all adjectival classes (apart from those expressing nationality) occur in prenominal position (56a-c), perhaps representing a conservative feature, although one cannot also exclude the (reinforcing) influence of neighbouring Flemish varieties.

  • 16  Cf. the postnominal position of the adjectives in (57a-c) with the corresponding prenominal positi (...)

77By contrast, in a number of, especially non-standard, Romance varieties including Occitan (57a; cf. Wheeler 1988: 268), Sardinian (57b; cf. Jones 1993: 42) and central-southern Italian dialects (57c; cf. Rohlfs 1969: 330; Ledgeway 2007a), the prenominal adjectival position is extremely restricted and generally replaced by the postnominal position, which is neutral to the contrastive vs non-contrastive distinction:16

78Building on our discussion and analysis in §2.2 of variable verb positions around different adverbial classes distributed across the clause, it is possible to make sense of the variation witnessed in (54)-(57) along parallel lines in terms of the varying extent of N(oun)-movement in different Romance varieties. In particular, distinct adjectival positions can be reinterpreted as the surface reflex of the head noun variously moving across a rigidly-ordered series of different adjectival classes situated immediately above the NP, as shown in the structural representation in (58):

79Assuming the much-simplified structure in (59a) in which AP1 and AP2 can be broadly understood as the “areas” in which non-contrastive and contrastive adjectives, respectively, are generated, we can now formally capture in a highly simple manner the differences between the non-standard varieties in (57a-c) on the one hand and standard Romance varieties (54a-d) on the other: in the former the nominal head typically raises to the highest available position above the highest adjectival projection (AP1), which hosts non-contrastive adjectives from where it precedes both non-contrastive and contrastive adjectives (59b), whereas in the latter the noun only targets the higher adjectival projection (AP1), from where it precedes non-contrastive adjectives but follows those with a contrastive reading (59c):

80By the same line of reasoning, we can explain the frequent prenominal position of contrastive adjectives in early Romance (cf. 55a-c) by assuming that N-raising is only optional in the early varieties (60a-b), an archaic pattern still preserved to the present-day in Walloon where the nominal head barely moves at all (60c):

81In conclusion, we see that there are truly striking parallels between the nominal and verbal domains and the functional structures associated with these, as revealed by the fixed positions of distinct classes of adjectival and adverbial modifiers, respectively. In particular, we have seen how different diachronic and diatopic varieties of Romance provide clear evidence for some considerable microvariation in terms of the extent of N-movement. Among the various patterns observed, we also identified a strong diachronic tendency for Romance nouns to climb progressively higher within the available nominal functional structure, the end result of which has given rise in a number of non-standard varieties to a semantic neutralization of the erstwhile interpretive difference between contrastive and non-contrastive adjectival readings.


82Although modern linguistics as a discipline developed in large part out of the philological study of individual languages and language families such as Romance, it is a striking characteristic of contemporary research in both Linguistics and in Romance Studies that the traditional link between the two disciplines is often not as strong and prominent as it might be. To be sure, analyses within Romance linguistics which fail to take account of the most enlightening ideas and principles of linguistic theory risk overlooking and/or misconstruing the relevance of all or part of the available empirical evidence they are so at pains to correctly reconstruct, evaluate and interpret. By the same token, linguistic analyses which are blindly driven by theory-internal considerations with little or no real interest in actual data such as those offered by textual corpora and the numerous dialectal varieties of Romance run the risk of presenting a largely idealized and, by definition, necessarily selective representation of the available linguistic evidence. The result is a partial theory which is only capable of accounting for a subset of the available data that largely ignores the imperfections and irregularities characteristic of authentic linguistic productions. The discussion of the preceding sections, by contrast, has demonstrated that when theory and Romance evidence are considered together, the results of traditional Romance and linguistic scholarship can be considerably enhanced.

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1  The abbreviations for languages and localities cited in the following discussion are: Abr. (Abruzzese), Arl. (Ariellese, eastern Abruzzo), Bal. Cat. (Balearic Catalan), Cal. (Calabrian), Cat. (Catalan), Cic. (Cicagnino, Liguria), Cos. (Cosentino, northern Calabria), Crs. (Corsican), Ctz. (Catanzarese, central Calabria), Dmc. Sp. (Dominican Spanish), Eng. (English), Erv. (Ervedosa do Douro, north-eastern Portugal), Fr. (French), Ger. (German), Glc. (Galician), Gsc. (Gascon), It. (Italian), Leo. (Leonese), Lgd. (Lengadocien), Lul. (Lulese, Nuoro, Sardinia), Mes. (Messinese, north-eastern Sicily), Nap. (Neapolitan), Occ. (Occitan), Pal. (Palermitano), Pgl. (Pugliese), Pv. de At. (Póvoa de Atalaia, central-eastern Portugal), Rip. (Ripano, south-eastern Marches), Ro. (Romanian), Sal. (Salentino, southern Puglia), Sic. (Sicilian), Sp. (Spanish), Srd. (Sardinian), Tsc. (Tuscan), Umb. (Umbrian), Wal. (Walloon, southern Belgium).

2  See, among others, Maurer (1968), Carballo Calero (1981), Loporcaro (1986), Jones (1993: 78-82), Longa (1994), Vincent (1996; 1998), Ledgeway (1998: 41-46; 2000: 109-114; 2009a: 585-590), Mensching (2000), Lobo (2001).

3  See Parrino (1967), Lüdtke (1974; 1976), Mancini (1993), Harder (1998), Ledgeway (2004b; 2012a: §6.3.4), D’Alessandro (2011).

4  On the status and distribution of expletive subject clitics, see Oliviéri (2009) and Kaiser, Oliviéri and Palasis (in press).

5  Lois (1989), Cinque (1999: 152), Ledgeway and Lombardi (2005: 86-89, 102 n. 12), Monachesi (2005: 178), D’Alessandro (2010: 35f.), Ledgeway (2012a: §4.3.2).

6  Lois (1989: 34, 40), Cinque (1999: 45-49, 146-148), Abeillé and Godard (2003), Monachesi (2005: 134-136).

7  Roberts (1985), Lightfoot and Hornstein (1994), DeGraff (1997), Rohrbacher (1997), Vikner (1997).

8  In these and following examples we indicate topicalized constituents by underlining, contrastively focalized constituents by small caps, and informationally focalized constituents with bold.

9  For Romanian see, among others, Dobrovie-Sorin (1994: 93-111), Motapanyane (2000: §4.2), and for southern Italy Calabrese (1993), Lombardi (1997; 1998), Ledgeway (1998; 2004a; 2005; 2006; 2007c), Manzini & Savoia (2005, I: 455-501, 650-676).

10  Rohlfs (1970: 205-207), Wheeler (1988: 272-274), Sauzet (1989), Joseph (1992), Bec (1967: 47f.).

11  See Skårup (1975), Vanelli, Renzi and Benincà (1985), Vanelli (1986; 1999), Adams (1987), Dupuis (1989), Fontana (1993; 1997), Roberts (1993), Benincà (1995; 2006), Lemieux and Dupuis (1995), Ribeiro (1995), Vance (1997), Lombardi and Middleton (2004), Salvi (2004), Ledgeway (2007b; 2008).

12  See Tabachovitz (1932), Ewert (1935), Castellani (1969; 1978), López (1994), Ayres-Bennett (1996: 16-30).

13  Cf. Wanner (1981), Giorgi and Pianesi (1997; 2004), Poletto (2001), Scorretti (1994), Giorgi (2009: 1840-1845; 2010: 43-47).

14  See further Arnholdt (1916), Sandfeld and Olsen (1960: 98-114), Alisova (1967), Reiner (1968), Lapesa (1975), Vincent (1986; 2007: 57-61), Bernstein (1993), Giorgi and Longobardi (1991), Bosque (1996), Berruto (1998), Pountain (1998), Demonte (1999), Abeillé and Godard (1999), Radatz (2001), Cinque (2010), Gonzaga (2004), Ledgeway (2007a).

15  Ledgeway (2007a; 2009a: 241f.), Vincent (2007), Thiella (2008: ch. 4), Giusti (2010a: 599-609).

16  Cf. the postnominal position of the adjectives in (57a-c) with the corresponding prenominal position in their French (le vieux pont d’Avignon) and Italian (una piccola patata; una nuova macchina) translations.

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Table des illustrations

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Adam Ledgeway, « Testing linguistic theory and variation to their limits: The case of Romance », Corpus, 12 | 2013, 271-327.

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Adam Ledgeway, « Testing linguistic theory and variation to their limits: The case of Romance », Corpus [En ligne], 12 | 2013, mis en ligne le 14 mai 2014, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Adam Ledgeway

University of Cambridge

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