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‘There would be widespread (but by no means universal) agreement with the claim that SVO remains the normal unmarked order of declarative sentences in French’ (Martin Harris). Discuss this statement with respect to contemporary French, using examples to illustrate your answer.

‘There would be widespread (but by no means universal) agreement with the claim that SVO remains the normal unmarked order of declarative sentences in French’ (Martin Harris). Discuss this statement with respect to contemporary French, using examples to illustrate your answer.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Lecturer Nomination) Competition by Claire Hanson. It is nominated by Lecturer Janice Carruthers of Queen's University Belfast in the category of Languages & Linguisitcs
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Lecturer Nomination) Competition by Claire Hanson. It is nominated by Lecturer Janice Carruthers of Queen's University Belfast in the category of Languages & Linguisitcs

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
‘There would be widespread (but by no means universal)agreement with the claim that SVO remains the normal unmarkedorder of declarative sentences in French’ (Martin Harris). Discussthis statement with respect to contemporary French, usingexamples to illustrate your answer.
Language is continually changing and evolving and the French language isno exception. Study of word order, however, is a fairly recentdevelopment, as Posner (1997: 344) states that ‘it is only in the secondhalf of the twentieth century that syntax became in itself a serious topic of linguistic investigation’. During this time, there has been much discussionsurrounding the normal unmarked order of French and as Harris (1978)indicates, there is general agreement that SVO generally fulfils this role. There is also considerable evidence to support this viewpoint. However,there are exceptions to this word order in French and due to the dynamicnature of language, it has also been suggested that a new word order isemerging, replacing what has been traditionally seen as the unmarkedorder. For this reason, careful research needs to be carried out in order toidentify and understand the current status of the unmarked word order inthe French language and also to anticipate any future changes.In order to consider how word order in French emerged, it is necessary toexamine the historical development of the language, from Classical Latinthrough to contemporary French. Classical Latin had a case system whichallowed more freedom and flexibility within the sentence structure. Wordendings illustrated their role in the sentence, rather than their position inthe phrase. This resulted in it being traditionally thought of as a ‘free’language. However, Harris (1978) indicates that 70% of sentences wereverb final, arguing that SOV was the dominant word order. Typologicalanalyses also reflect this argument as many of the features of an OVlanguage can be observed. Latin had a case system, few verbalauxiliaries and lots of synthetic forms, all typological features of an OVlanguage according to Harris (1978). Vulgar Latin, the spoken language,continued to develop and change, influenced by the local languages and
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dialects. A gradual shift took place which resulted in phonetic erosion.Case endings started to break down, introducing the need for otherelements in order to provide clarification and distinguish meaning. Thisled to an increased number of prepositions in Vulgar Latin. Old Frenchprovided a transition stage between Latin, with its case system, andModern French, without any case system. It employed a two-case systemalthough this was weak and in a state of decline. Posner (1997: 350)continues to refer to the word order of Old French as 'free' although SOVhad become at this stage a fairly rare word order and other word ordershad begun to establish themselves as dominant. Consequently, OldFrench became known as a V2 language with 2 main word orderstructures, both with V as the middle element (SVO, OVS). This developedinto an intermediate stage which was known as the TVX stage (topic -verb - other constituents) with different linguistic elements slotting intothe T position. However, the T slot was frequently filled by the subject othe sentence, resulting in the grammaticalization of SVC by the 15
th
Century as the unmarked word order (Posner 1997). Nevertheless,remnants of the TVX order can still be seen in Modern French followingcertain adverbs e.g.
ainsi
, although this is more commonly linked withformal varieties of the written language. Modern French, therefore,reflects a typological shift from an OV language to a VO language,illustrating many of the features of this transition.Having examined the development of Modern French, typologicalapproaches therefore indicate that French displays many of the featuresof a VO language. Moreau’s survey (Ayres-Bennett and Carruthers 2001)suggests that in declaratives, the word order SVO is present in 70% of cases and Harris (1978) states that, apart from two important exceptions,SVO is the overall unmarked order in French. Interrogative structures alsoreinforce the view that French has made the typological shift towards aVO language. Inversion of word order usually serves as a marker of interrogation. However, even when inversion provides this grammaticalfunction, the inclination towards the SVO word order has led to theappearance of certain structures which permit the maintenance of this
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order, particularly in informal and spoken language. Harris (1978: 31)suggests that there is 'an increasing tendency in French to exclude allexceptions to the SVO order'. This is clearly seen within interrogatives.Intonation and the use
of est-ce que,
which over time hasgrammaticalized and become a fixed structure, allow the maintenance of the SVO word order. Harris (1978) also mentions cases where even the
est-ce que
particle unravels to produce
 
c'est que
, reinforcing once againthe trend to SVO. At the same time, the particle [ti], which also originallycame from an inverted structure, indicates interrogation while retainingthe SVO word order although Ayres-Bennett and Carruthers (2001) justlydispute its use and frequency in everyday language. Even in the moreformal registers, Harris (1978) recognizes the problem with usinginversion in interrogatives and therefore the development
of fausseinversion
which also signals the movement towards the SVO word order.However, despite this indication of the trend towards SVO, the problemarises in the analysis of the S slot, leading Lambrecht (1987: 218) to arguethat ‘the SVO clause is
not 
the predominant pattern at the level of surfacestructure’. Posner (1997) also disputes the predominance of SVO inModern French, indicating that in the spoken language, it hardly everoccurs. Consequently, it is crucial that the S slot is clearly defined, inorder to distinguish whether it has an effect on the stated word order of the French language. Lambrecht (1987) argues that the SVO clause, withlexical noun phrases in subject and object position, is not the predominantpattern, but that it is clitic pronoun - verb - object. With the Françoiscorpus of spoken French which Lambrecht (1987) examines, he discoversthat out of a total of 1,550 nouns, only 46 of these are lexical subjects,indicating that statistics such as Moreau’s are misleading. In contrast,there are a total of 1,440 clitic subjects which, by qualifying cliticpronouns as verbal prefixes, supports his argument that the predominantpattern is a verb-initial structure. Nouns are more frequently seen inobject position or as detached elements, with the result that in a non-detached structure, lexical nouns are rarely seen in the subject position. The fact that the S slot is often filled by a clitic pronoun in the spoken
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