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date: 23 June 2018

Morphological and Syntactical Variation and Change in Catalan

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Catalan is a Romance language closely related to the Gallo-Romance languages. However, from the 15th century onward, it has adopted some linguistic solutions that have brought it closer to the Ibero-Romance languages, due to close contact with Spanish.

Catalan exhibits five main dialects: Central, Northern, and Balearic, which are ascribed to the Eastern dialectal branch; and Northwestern and Valencian, which belong to the Western one. Central, Northern, and Northwestern Catalan are historical dialects that derived directly from the evolution of the Latin spoken in Old Catalonia (the Catalan-speaking territory located on both sides of the Pyrenees). Conversely, Valencian and Balearic are dialects resulting from the territorial expansion of the old Crown of Aragon in the Middle Ages.

As a Gallo-Romance language, Catalan lost all final unstressed vowels different from a (manum > ma “hand,” viridem > verd “green,” but dominam > dona “wife”), which had important consequences on various aspects of nominal and verbal inflection. Regarding nominal inflection, for instance, the dropping of final unstressed vowels led to adjectives such as verd “green, sg.,” which were initially uninflected for gender, being formally identified with gender-inflected masculine ones (like alt “high, masc. sg.”). This triggered the development of analogical feminine forms parallel to those of etymologically gender-inflected adjectives (e.g., verda “green, fem. sg.,” analogical with alta “high, fem. sg.”). As for verbal inflection, the loss of final unstressed vowels caused some forms of the paradigm to become inflectionally unmarked. In various ways, inflectional markers were reintroduced by means of analogical processes and this led to important dialectal variation; for instance, in the first-person singular of the simple present indicative (canto > cant “I sing,” but now canto in Central and Northwestern, cante in Valencian, cant in Balearic, and canti in Northern Catalan).

Some of the most distinctive morphosyntactic features of Catalan are the following:

(1) Catalan is the only Romance language that exhibits a periphrastic past tense expressed by means of the verb anar “go” + infinitive (Ahir vas cantar “Yesterday you sang”). The periphrastic past coexists with a simple past (Ahir cantares “Yesterday you sang”). Conversely, Catalan does not have a periphrastic future with the movement verb go.

(2) Depending on the dialect, proper names may take the definite article (el, la) or a specific personal article (en, na from the vocative Latin forms domine “lord” and domina “lady,” respectively): El Joan (l’Ernest) or en Joan (n’Ernest), la Núria (l’Antònia) or na Núria. The personal article is not used in Valencian (Joan, Núria). Definite and personal articles are not present in vocative forms: Oh, Joan!

(3) Demonstratives show a two-term system in most Catalan dialects: aquí “here” (proximal) / allà or allí “there” (distal); but in Valencian and some Northwestern dialects there is a three-term system. In contrast with other languages with a two-term system, Catalan expresses proximity both to the speaker and to the addressee with the proximal demonstrative (Aquí on jo sóc “Here where I am”; Aquí on tu ets “There where you are”). The demonstrative systems show the same deictic properties as the movement verbs anar “go” and venir “come” in Catalan dialects.

(4) To express possession by means of a pronoun or a determiner, Catalan may use the genitive clitic en (En conec l’autor “I know its autor”), the genitive personal pronoun (el nostre fill “our son”), the dative clitic (Li rento la cara “I wash his/her face”) or the definite article (Tancaré els ulls “I will close my eyes”).

(5) Existential constructions may contain the predicate haver-hi “there be,” consisting of the locative clitic hi and the verb haver “have” (Hi ha tres estudiants “There are three students”), the copulative verb ser “be” (Tres estudiants ja són aquí “Three students are already here”) or other verbs, whose behavior can be close to an unaccusative verb when preceded by the clitic hi (Aquí hi treballen forners “There are some bakers working here”).

(6) The negative polarity adverb no “not” may be reinforced by the adverbs pas or cap, in some dialects, and it can co-occur with negative polarity items (ningú “anybody/nobody,” res “anything/nothing,” mai “ever/never,” etc.). These polarity items exhibit negative agreement (No hi ha mai ningú “Nobody is ever here”). However, negative polarity items may express positive meaning in some non-declarative syntactic contexts (Si mai vens, truca’m “If you ever come, call me”).

(7) Catalan dialects are rich in yes-no interrogative and confirmative particles (que, o, oi, no, eh, etc.: (Que) plou? “Is it raining?,” Oi que plou? “It’s raining, isn’t it?”