Reflexive Marking in the History of French

From October 2010 to June 2011
Project Leader(s): Richard Waltereit
Contact: Richard Waltereit
Sponsors: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) – Fellowship Scheme

This project proposes to investigate diachronic change in the anaphoric system of French. It is built around a striking difference between the use of reflexive pronouns in Old French and Modern French. In the former, the stressed reflexive pronoun soi was widely available for any singular subject, e.g. devant soi voit ses enemis 'he sees his enemies in front of himself', whereas in the latter, the personal pronouns lui or elle are typically used for reference to the subject of the clause (clause-mate anaphora), except with some indefinite pronoun subjects such as on 'one' or chacun 'everyone'. The arguably far-reaching theoretical implications of this have not been appreciated, nor has the change itself been sufficiently charted.

Apart from offering descriptive insights into the history of the language, a detailed investigation of this is important for a number of current issues in theoretical linguistics. Firstly, diachronic change in anaphoric systems promises to further our understanding of those systems themselves, in particular with respect to Binding. Secondly, the proposed research has a very particular bearing on the currently much-discussed topic of specificity. Finally, a detailed investigation of a particular instance of grammatical change should advance our knowledge of grammatical change more widely.

This change is put here into the wider context of reflexive marking, intended as the grammatical expressions of identity of arguments within the same clause. The range of relevant expressions includes the clitic pronoun as in il se lave 'he washes', the stressed pronoun as in Anne est fière d'elle 'Anne is proud of herself', and the stressed pronoun with même as in un égoïste ne pense qu'à soi-même 'an egoist thinks only of themselves'.


Professor Richard Waltereit
Prof of Romance Linguistics