Changing from OV to VO: More evidence from Old French

Changing from OV to VO: More evidence from Old French

By Laurie Zaring

Ianua. Revista Philologica Romanica, Vol.10 (2010)

Medieval Latin and Old French - French with Latin headings

Abstract: The change in word order from OV in Latin to VO in Old French is generally thought to have occurred early in the history of the language; for example, Marchello-Nizia (1995) finds that VO order is essentially fixed beginning in the early 13th century. The present study extends Marchello-Nizia’s analysis by drawing data from two other texts and examining the order of objects with nonfinite as well as finite verb forms. We show that OV word order with nonfinite verbs is still readily attested in both texts even in the 13th century and that its loss represents a continuum of gradual change from finite to participial to infinitival verb forms, adding a crucial grammatical factor to our understanding of the change.

Introduction: One of the more obvious syntactic changes in the development of the Romance languages involved a switch in basic word order from the Latin SOV to the Romance SVO, a change still underway in early Old Romance. In Old French (OF), for example, the fact that objects can precede their verb is well known and has been widely discussed for close to a century (e.g., see Foulet 1928 [1998]). Marchello-Nizia (1995) presents a particularly illuminating examination of the change which analyzes in depth the differences in verb-object order in two texts, the Chanson de Roland, a verse text dating from about 1100, and the Queste du Saint-Graal, a prose text dating from 1230-1240. The goal of the present study is to further develop Marchello-Nizia’s in two ways: first by drawing data from two other texts, one representing 12th century verse and the other 13th century prose, and second by examining verb-object order with not only finite verbs but also nonfinite ones. We will see that this extension of Marchello-Nizia’s study not only confirms her findings but allows us to develop a fuller picture of how object-verb (OV) order was lost in the history of French. Marchello-Nizia concludes that OV order is essentially gone by the early 13th century; our findings show that this is true when the verb is finite, but that OV order is still alive and well when the verb is nonfinite (a past participle or infinitive) even in the early 13th century, although it occurs less frequently in the 13th century than in the 12th and it is more frequent with infinitives than with past participles. We also find a difference in the range of discourse functions which preverbal O serves in our two texts, similar to that found by Marchello-Nizia for finite verbs. We conclude with Marchello-Nizia that phonological factors having to do with stress assignment most likely played a role in the change, but also that a grammatical factor, namely verb form, was crucially involved.

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