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Sa nature proveir se volt: A New Examination of Leftward Stylistic Displacement in Medieval French through Textual Domain, Information Structure, and Oral Représenté


Among all the studies performed on medieval French syntax during the last decade, one construction in particular, variously known in the literature as “stylistic fronting” or “leftward stylistic displacement”, has provoked particularly lively debate. Atheoretically conceived, this construction is characterized by the presence of non-subject constituents to the left of the finite verb, such as adjectives, adverbs, nouns, infinitives, past participles, and prepositional phrases. One or more such elements may appear in both main and subordinate clauses, either to the left or to the right of the subject, when the subject is expressed. Originally at the heart of this debate was the apparent similarity between the medieval French construction and one found in contemporary and historical Scandinavian languages (Holmberg 2000; Hrafnbjargarson 2004). On the basis of a corpus containing instances of leftward stylistic displacement involving infinitives, past participles, and a small group of adverbs, Labelle and Hirschbühler (2013, 2014a, 2014b, 2017) have successfully illustrated that the medieval French construction is different from the Scandinavian one; there remains, however, much work to be done in terms of the holistic description of medieval French leftward stylistic displacement, particularly in view of the full variety of elements that can be displaced.

The aim of the current project is twofold: firstly, to continue the descriptive project of Labelle and Hirschbühler (2017) by offering as complete a picture as possible of the totality of morphosyntactic variation that is inherent in this family of constructions, and secondly, to begin to understand what factors may (or may not) condition this variation. To that end, we construct a ~225,000-word plurigeneric corpus from portions of twelve texts ranging in date from the late-twelfth to the mid-fifteenth centuries and undertake a complete description of the leftward stylistic displacement that we find there. In addition to describing the construction itself as it appears through time, we consider three external textual and discursive variables: domain (a macro-version of text type), information structure, and reported discourse status. As a result of our study, we conclude that domain, on its own, is not a particularly good predictor of the morphosyntactic variation intrinsic to leftward stylistic displacement; we find that time, however, is an excellent predictor of this variation, an indication of a construction where change is very much at work. Using a series of decision trees for the information-structural tagging of our data, we also find that leftward stylistic displacement generally bears one of two information-structural values. On the basis of these, we propose a reanalysis of the structure of subordinate clauses in medieval French. With respect to discourse type, we find that discourse type (direct discourse versus narration) is not a good predictor of the morphosyntactic variation that characterizes leftward stylistic displacement. We conclude, finally, that leftward stylistic displacement represents a fertile ground for continued research in medieval French, especially as it pertains to subordinate clauses.

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