Linguistics Department

Emilie Destruel Johnson's Disseration Defense

Thu, October 18, 2012 | PAR 10

12:30 PM - 3:30 PM

"The French c'est-cleft: Empirical studies of its meaning and use."


This dissertation contributes to a fuller description of the French c'est-cleft by reporting on three empirical studies on its meaning and use, and presenting a unified account of the cleft couched in Stochastic Optimality Theory. The first two studies in this dissertation explore the meaning of the cleft, more specifically the exhaustive meaning. First, the results from a forced-choice task, designed to test the level of exhaustivity of the cleft compared to exclusive-sentences and canonical-sentences, show that the cleft does not behave like the other two sentence forms. This is taken to indicate that the exhaustivity associated with the cleft is not truth-conditional. Instead, I argue that exhaustivity arises from a pragmatic constraint on the way speakers use language. This argument is supported further in the second study, a corpus study that shows there is no categorical ban on the type of NP that can occur in post-copular position in a cleft. In fact, the cleft interacts felicitously with a number of expressions such as universal quantifiers and additives, which have been claimed to never appear in post-copular position. This corpus study further shows that the primary aspect of the cleft is not to convey exhaustivity, but instead to convey contrast or correction. Finally, the third study, a semi-spontaneous production experiment, helps make precise the situations in which an element is clefted.  The results demonstrate that there is a clear asymmetry between the way grammatical subjects are non-subjects are marked: focused subjects are clefted 95% of the time whereas focused non-subjects remain in situ 77% of the time. Moreover, the experiment shows that there exist a some amount of free variation: subjects can be realized via prosody and non-subjects can be clefted. I conclude my research by proposing that the non-random alternation cleft/canonical is explained by a set of constraints on French’s syntax, prosody and pragmatics; the cleft emerging to provide contrast or a total answer to the question under discussion.



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