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French Is An Svo Language Notes

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Olivia Alter

HT2 Dr Temple 'French is an SVO language.' Discuss.

It would seem obvious to talk about French as an SVO language, especially when one looks at a simple declarative sentence such as 'John lit le journal', made up of a subject, verb, and object. However, since language is 'constantly undergoing change' (Harris, 1978), and history tells us that the French language has developed through replacing a case system, or SOV structure in Latin, so the current SVO structure may be developing, or 'drifting' too, towards what could be considered a verb-initial type. It is through the examination of Modern French as an SVO language, and especially the exceptions to this rule, that one may be able to predict further linguistic change, specifically in a morphological and syntactic domain, even if the change is not completely evident right now. Taking a sentence such as 'le chat est sur la table', or the example used above, one can see that the basic, unmarked word order of surface structures consists of a noun phrase (a determiner and a noun; in other words, the subject) and a verb phrase (a verb and its complement, or object), in an SVO structure. It is only in particular cases that the SV order changes, namely inversion, or verb-second, and with the use of object pronouns; but this does not necessarily mean that the SVO structure is disrupted. When the verb is an auxiliary 'être' or intransitive (for example, 'dormir'), there may be subject-verb inversion for interrogation (discussed later) or for emphasis, like in the sentence 'grande fut ma deception' (Dubois & Lagane, 1989). Inversion is also used with inserted phrases in speech ('…, dit Marie,…'), when a sentence begins with certain words ('peut-être', 'sans doute', 'aussi', 'du moins', and 'encore'), and with circumstantial complements in more formal registers, such as 'ainsi devait-elle partir' (Harris, 1978). Harris explains this verb-second exception to the basic word-order through the development of French, where a TVX structure was established in the transition from SOV to SVO. As verbs moved to a medial position, the preceding constituent could have been a topicalised noun (a subjet) or an anaphoric element, such as the adverb 'ainsi' above. When no other element was placed in primary position, the subject was always topicalised and inserted there; this use became more frequent, especially since the decline of Latin case suffixes could prove confusing if the sentence was not subject-initial. Nevertheless, the TVX structure, where T represents something

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