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Between demonstrative and definite: A grammar competition model of the evolution of French l-determiners

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 September 2020

Alexandra Simonenko
FWO & Universiteit Gent
Anne Carlier
Sorbonne Université


This article investigates the spread of the le/la/les-forms in the diachrony of French on the basis of large-scale corpora. It focuses on the issue of their “mixed” distribution viz. the observation that during a long period of time the le/la/les-forms in French do not pattern as either (anaphoric) demonstratives from which they originate (Late Latin ille), nor as (uniqueness-based) definites, which they end up becoming in Modern French. We model the phenomenon as a competition between two grammars which ascribe different Logical Forms to the l-forms and test model predictions in contexts which differ with respect to whether they satisfy the relevant conditions for either demonstrative or definite semantics. We also suggest that this change was part of a larger change involving the spread of presupposition triggers within noun phrases. We show that our model correctly predicts the relative rates of determiner spread in various contexts.



Cet article étudie le développement des formes le/la/les dans la diachronie du français sur la base de corpus à grande échelle, en examinant la question de leur distribution “mixte” : pendant une longue période les formes le/la/les en français ne se comportent ni comme les démonstratifs (anaphoriques) dont elles sont issues (ille du latin tardif), ni comme les déterminants définis (marqueurs d'unicité) qu'elles finissent par devenir en français moderne. Nous modélisons ce phénomène de “distribution mixte” comme une compétition entre deux grammaires qui assignent des formes logiques distinctes aux formes en l- et nous testons les prédictions de ce modèle tour à tour dans des contextes qui satisfont aux conditions d'emploi des démonstratifs, d'une part, et à celles des déterminants définis, d'autre part. Nous suggérons que ce changement s'inscrit dans une évolution plus globale impliquant l’émergence des marqueurs de présupposition d'existence au sein des syntagme nominaux. Nous montrons que notre modèle prédit correctement les différences quant au rythme de développement des déterminants en l- en fonction du type de contexte.

Copyright © Canadian Linguistic Association/Association canadienne de linguistique 2020

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This works owes much to the inspiration from Anthony Kroch and the relentless corpus work by Beatrice Santorini. We are extremely grateful to Igor Yanovich for most thorough and helpful comments on the statistical modeling part, as well as to our anonymous reviewers. The project has benefited from the discussions with participants of the Formal Diachronic Semantics workshop in 2016 and the workshop of the research group Multidisciplinary Empirical Research Modelling Acquisition In Diachrony that took places at the University of Mannheim in 2018. On the part of the second author, this research was carried out as part of the Franco-German PaLaFra project (ANR-DFG-14-FRAL-0006).


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