Current Issues in Italian, Romance and Germanic Non-canonical Word Orders

Syntax – Information Structure – Discourse Organization

by Anna-Maria De Cesare (Volume editor) Davide Garassino (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 250 Pages
Series: Studia Romanica et Linguistica, Volume 44


This volume aims at offering an up-to-date survey on non-canonical word orders and their interplay with information structure and discourse organization. The contributions analyze different non-canonical syntactic structures (fronting, inversion, dislocations, and cleft constructions), focusing on Italian alone or on Italian in a contrastive perspective with one or more Romance (French, Romanian, Portuguese, Spanish) and/or Germanic (English and German) languages. The authors tackle the main issue of the volume from a variety of perspectives and by relying on different theoretical frameworks. At the same time, they all offer a fine-grained description of the structures analyzed on the basis of a solid empirical foundation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Editorial
  • Part I. Fronting and Inversion
  • On Non-Focal Fronting in Italian and Spanish
  • Obliques and the initial syntactic position
  • Verb-subject inversion in Romance; the other way round
  • Part II. Left and right Dislocations
  • I am (not) scared of left dislocations The rendering of the structure in the French and English translations of Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel I am not scared
  • La dislocazione a destra nell’italiano scritto: rilievi statistici, pragmatici e sintattici
  • Part III. Cleft constructions
  • Some remarks on different classifications of cleft constructions and their areal distribution
  • Using cleft sentences in Italian and English. A multifactorial analysis
  • Signor Presidente, sono due anni che aspettiamo: la scissa durativa italiana in un confronto interlinguistico sul corpus multilingue EUROPARL
  • Pseudocleft Sentences in Spoken Italian. Syntax, Semantics, Information Structure, and a Comparison with Spanish
  • Series Index

Anna-Maria De Cesare (Basel) / Davide Garassino (Zurich)


The aim of this volume, entitled Current Issues in Italian, Romance and Germanic Non-canonical Word Orders. Syntax – Information Structure – Discourse organization, is to offer an up-to-date survey on non-canonical word orders and their interplay with information structure and discourse organization. In the literature, non-canonical word orders are broadly understood as syntactic structures that deviate from the canonical, unmarked word order, namely SVO. It is generally assumed that, with respect to SVO sentences, non-canonical word orders are more restricted in their information partitionings and discourse functions.

This volume is divided into three thematically distinct sections, which cover the types of non-canonical word orders that are analyzed in the nine contributions collected here:

a.    Part I. Fronting and inversion, i.e. syntactic structures based on clause internal reorganization of main sentence constituents, and specifically on fronting of non-subject constituents (cf. Manuel Leonetti; Lunella Mereu) and Verb-subject inversion (Dieter Vermandere / Karen Lahousse);

b.    Part II. Left and right dislocations, i.e. syntactic structures involving extraposition of a non-subject constituent with anaphoric or cataphoric clitic resumption, respectively (Valeria Buttini; Fabio Rossi);

c.    Part III. Cleft constructions, in which a constituent is clefted at the beginning or at the end of a syntactic structure and which involve a copular clause (Barbara Wehr; Davide Garassino; Ada Valentini; Alessandro Panunzi).

In order to shed new light on the interface between non-canonical word orders, information structure and discourse organization, all the papers included in this volume are based on a solid empirical foundation generally involving more than one language or language variety. The nine contributions collected in this volume analyze different non-canonical syntactic structures in Italian, focusing on Italian alone or comparing Italian with at least another Romance (French, Romanian, Portuguese, Spanish) and/or Germanic (English and German) language.

Besides using invented examples, the contributions included in this volume use a variety of corpora. Specifically, the papers make use either of already existing or self-constructed corpora of both written and spoken language. The written corpora used in the studies fall into two broad categories: multilingual comparable ← 7 | 8 → corpora (such as the ICOCP corpus, a multilingual comparable collection of online news, used by Garassino) and translation corpora (the EUROPARL corpus; cf. Valentini; see also Wehr and Buttini who rely on self-made corpora containing literary texts and their translations). The data from the spoken language include both spontaneous and semi-spontanous speech. The former is represented by the multilingual comparable corpus C-ORAL-ROM (cf. Leonetti; Panunzi) and the small corpus of the Rome variety of Italian ARCODIP (Mereu), while the latter is represented by a sub-corpus from CLIPS (cf. again Mereu).

From a theoretical point of view, the papers included in this volume describe the interplay between non-canonical word orders, information structure and discourse organization by relying on a variety of linguistic frameworks and approaches.

     The paper of Manuel Leonetti analyzes non-focal fronting in Italian and Spanish, i.e., cases in which the fronted constituent is neither associated with a Focus nor with a sentence Topic. Based on spoken data taken from the C-ORAL-ROM corpus and Old Italian, he argues that the limited productivity of non-focus fronting in Italian compared to Spanish is related to a deeper asymmetry in the syntactic expression of information structure in these languages. While the central Romance languages, such as Italian, opt for maximally transparent information-structural partitions (between Topic-Comment and Focus-Background), Spanish, together with Portuguese and Romanian, allows for non-canonical word orders without informational partitioning. In the former group of languages, non-focal fronting is thus rare and restricted to a few negative and weak indefinite quantifiers.

     The contribution by Lunella Mereu is devoted to the information status of obliques occurring in clause initial position. It shows that these constituents can be associated not only with the information function of Topic, but also of Focus. On the basis of a corpus of spoken Italian, the paper then describes different types of focused obliques in initial position. Finally, an analysis of the prosodic properties of obliques occurring in different syntactic positions enables the author to present a new principle governing the relation between a syntactic sequence and the information status of constituents within the sentence.

     Dieter Vermandere and Karen Lahousse focus on Verb-subject word orders in Italian, French and Spanish and challenge the idea that the asymmetries between these languages are determined by a different parameter-setting both from a macro-comparative (i.e. typological) and a micro-comparative perspective (i.e. in Romance). Drawing on data from Italian, they argue in favor of a ← 8 | 9 → constructionalist view that takes into account the pragmatic properties of VS word orders. Finally, by analyzing the contexts in which VS is attested in French and Italian, they show that French VS constructions constitute a ‘subset’ of Italian VS constructions. The main difference between the two languages is due to the fact that French VS word orders undergo stronger register and semantic restrictions.

     Valeria Buttini studies the English and French translations of a contemporary Italian novel (Io non ho paura by Niccolò Ammaniti) searching for the translation equivalents of Italian left dislocation. Her inquiry reveals the existence of important differences in the frequency, the status (especially in respect to the diamesic specialization) and the discourse-pragmatic functions associated with this structure in the three languages examined. In particular, in the French translation, in contrast to the Italian orginal, left dislocations are more frequent in the mimetic than in the diegetic parts of the texts, which suggests that these structures are perceived as more typical of the spoken language. Moreover, left dislocations express a contrast more often in French than in Italian. In the English version, on the other hand, left dislocations are avoided; Buttini claims that their use mainly depends on stylistic factors.

     Fabio Rossi’s contribution is devoted to Italian right dislocation and provides new insights on this non-canonical word order from various points of view. First, in contrast to most of the research available so far, which focuses on the analysis of spoken Italian, his interest lies in written texts (mainly drawn from corpora of newspapers and contemporary novels). Second, he compares the frequency of right dislocation based on a specific set of verbs – vedere ‘to see’, sentire ‘to hear’ and sapere ‘to know’ – and shows that right dislocation is more frequent than left dislocation in contemporary novels; this phenomenon can partly be explained on the basis of the high grammaticalization degree of the syntactic structures analyzed. Third, he describes the discourse functions performed by right dislocations in written texts, claryfing the function generically called ‘expressive’ and highlighting that these constructions play an important role in text organization as they also function as cohesive devices.

     Barbara Wehr’s contribution is devoted to cleft constructions. After discussing Lambrecht’s definition of cleft constructions, the paper presents different taxonomies of clefts proposed in the literature. It then demonstrates that the areal distribution of clefts hypothesized in particular in Wehr (2015) – involving a decline in the frequency of use of cleft sentences from Western to Eastern Europe – can be corroborated by a corpus analysis including English, French and Romanian. This analysis is based on literary works by Lewis Caroll and ← 9 | 10 → their translations in both French and Romanian. The last part of her paper addresses the issue known as the “compensation mechanism”, whereby there is a direct correlation between the availability and frequency of use of clefts, on the one hand, and the availability of alternative focusing strategies, such as prosodic stress alone or in combination with a marked word order, on the other.

     Davide Garassino tackles the similarities and differences in the use of Italian and English cleft sentences on the basis of a comparable corpus of online newspapers (the ICOCP corpus). He proposes a probabilistic approach to the study of clefts whose aim is to determine the relative “weight” of several syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic factors influencing the occurrence of clefts in both languages. His results show that the main differences between Italian and English clefts are pragmatic and concern the information status of the cleft constituent and the discourse function of the structure. These observations point to a clear functional specialization of cleft sentences in the two languages: While Italian clefts are preferably used as cohesive devices with a Given-New information structure, English clefts are more frequently used for highlighting a discourse-new cleft constituent that often conveys a contrastive-corrective value.

     Ada Valentini analyzes a special form of cleft sentence typical of Italian, the so-called frase scissa temporale or spuria (temporal or spurious cleft sentence). Her goal is to discuss the semantic and pragmatic status of this construction within the family of cleft sentences, showing its discourse-pragmatic functions and possible translation equivalents in English based on data drawn from the EUROPARL corpus. In her view, Italian temporal clefts belong to the family of cleft constructions since the temporal cleft constituent can bear focus as the English translations show; regardless of the form used for translating this structure (i.e., both clefts and non-cleft constructions), the Italian temporal cleft constituent corresponds to a focal element in English. From a pragmatic point of view, temporal clefts are mainly characterized by a Given-New information structure (although other information articulations such as New-Given are far from being uncommon) and are often used for expressing specific hearer’s / reader’s expectations in discourse.

     In his contribution, Alessandro Panunzi discusses the boundaries of the class of pseudocleft sentences by focussing on Italian and English and opts for a definition of pseudoclefts as specificational copular structures headed by a semantically empty element (corresponding to a wh- pronoun). The second part of the contribution provides a description of pseudoclefts in spoken Italian ← 10 | 11 → from a contrastive perspective with spoken Spanish on the basis of a corpus of spontaneous speech (drawn from the C-ORAL-ROM corpus) and in the framework of the Language into Act Theory. The parameters taken into consideration concern the prosodic and informational patterns of pseudoclefts. The results of this study show that, in Italian, pseudocleft sentences are much more frequent in formal than in informal speech. This data confirm the idea that pseudocleft sentences play an essential syntactic and pragmatic role in the thematic organization of the discourse. The results of this study also show that pseudoclefts are much more vital in spoken Spanish than in spoken Italian and that there are important differences in the information structure associated with these constructions in both languages. In spoken Spanish we find a higher number of (semi-)grammaticalized pseudoclefts than in spoken Italian.

Finally, we would like to express our deep gratitude to the colleagues who participated in this volume. We are also very grateful to the colleagues who evaluated the contributions: Laura Baranzini, Emanuela Cresti, Andreas Dufter, Angela Ferrari, Volker Gast, Alberto Gil, and Iørn Korzen. We would also like to thank Rocío Agar Marco for her help in editing some of the papers included here. Finally, we thank the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft for supporting the workshop entitled L’ordine dei costituenti in italiano e in prospettiva contrastiva (University of Basel, 26–27 June 2014) during which the papers collected in this volume were first presented.

Basel, 8.2.2016

← 11 | 12 → ← 12 | 13 →

Part I.  Fronting and Inversion


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Pragmatics Non-canonical syntax Italian Linguistics
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna-Maria De Cesare (Volume editor) Davide Garassino (Volume editor)

Anna-Maria De Cesare is currently Assistant Professor and Professor of the Swiss National Science Foundation at the University of Basel (Section of Italian Linguistics). Davide Garassino is currently Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich (Institute of Romance Studies).


Title: Current Issues in Italian, Romance and Germanic Non-canonical Word Orders
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