Linguistics Department

Colloquium - Cinzia Russi, PHD (UT Austin)

Mon, April 30, 2012 | UTC 3.134

3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

On the Relationship between Sentence Focus Category, Subject Verb Inversion and Genericity

A preliminary analysis of some Italian unaccusatives

This presentation reports the preliminary results of an on-going study that aims at providing an account of the relationship among of three linguistic phenomena: sentence focus category (Lambrecht 1994, 2000), subject-verb inversion, and genericity (inter al., Carlson 1982, 1989, 2008; Cohen 1999; Decklerk 1986; Krifka et al. 1995) in order to assess the interaction among semantics, information structure, and syntax in the structuring of language.

In my study, I focus on two sub-types of Italian unaccusative verbs. Specifically, sentences involving unaccusatives that denote lack/absence (e.g., mancare ‘lack; be lacking; be missing’: mi mancano i soldi ‘I lack money; I don’t have money’) and unaccusatives that denote necessity (e.g., servire ‘need; be needed’: mi serve aiuto ‘I need help’) are compared to sentences involving unaccusatives of change of location (e.g., andare ‘go’) and change of state (e.g., crescere ‘to grow’) to establish their degree of compatibility with subject-verb inversion in the contexts of sentence-focus characterizing (generic) sentences (Krifka et al. 1995: 2). In other words, my main objective is to determine if these sub-types of Italian unaccusatives behave uniformly with respect to subject-verb inversion in the environment of sentence focus and genericity.

My preliminary analysis reveal that subject-verb inversion applies categorically in sentences involving unaccusatives that express lack/absence or necessity, independently of whether the sentence refers to a generic or a specific situation. In contrast, in sentences involving unaccusatives of change of location or change of state subject-verb inversion only applies if the sentence refers to a specific situation (i.e., subject-verb inversion is categorically rejected if the construction refers to generic situations).

The contrasting behavior that different subclasses of unaccusatives display with respect to their compatibility with sentence focus category, subject-verb inversion, and genericity uncovers a complex interrelation among these three domains, which appears to hinge on specific syntactic and semantic properties of different verbs, particularly the subclass of Italian unaccusatives denoting the (related) notions of existence, absence, lack, need, necessity, and is yet to receive a comprehensive characterization.


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Lambrecht, Knud. 2000. “When subjects behave like objects: an analysis of the merging of S and O in sentence-focus constructions across languages.” Studies in Language 24. 611-682.

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