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date: 24 April 2018

Existential and Locative Constructions in the Romance Languages

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

Existential constructions express a proposition about the existence or presence of an entity or a set of entities in an implicit domain. Romance existentials are usually formed with a copula and a post-copular phrase or pivot. They exhibit a wide range of variation in copula selection; verb agreement; the presence of expletive subjects; the presence and function of an etymologically locative preform; and, lastly, the categorial status of the pivot, which is normally a noun phrase but can also be an adjective (as is the case, for example, with Calabrian). A locative phrase, called coda, can be found as an optional adjunct in Romance existential constructions. By contrast, locative constructions express a predicative relation between a location and a theme and obligatorily exhibit a locative adverbial.

While existential constructions have noncanonical morphosyntax, as testified by word order, verb agreement, etc., a distinction must be drawn between two types of locative construction in Romance, the one with canonical morhosyntax, the other with VS order and, in some languages, lack of V-S agreement. This latter type is called inverse locative. In terms of information structure, existentials are all-new or sentence-focus constructions, while locatives are predicate-focus or, if inverse, argument-focus constructions.

Both existentials and locatives have a nonverbal predicate: the locative phrase in locatives and the post-copular noun or adjectival phrase in existentials. In locatives the predicate selects a theme argument, which, an exception being made for inverse locatives in some dialects, serves as the syntactic subject. Contrastingly, in existentials, there is no overt argument. As a result, some languages turn to the pivot for verb agreement, as this is the only overt DP endowed with phi features (Italian, Friulian, Romanian, etc.). Others do not license this noncanonical agreement (French, some Calabrian dialects, etc.). Others still (Spanish, Sardinian, Catalan, Gallo-Italian, etc.) only admit it with classes of pivot that can be defined in terms of specificity. Specific pivots only figure in contextualized existentials, which express a proposition about the presence of an individual or an entity in a given and salient context.

Contextualized existentials are readily found in the Romance languages and would at first seem to defy the semantico-pragmatic constraints on the pivot that are known as Definiteness Effects. The cross-linguistic variation in subject agreement mentioned above is another type of Definiteness Effect, which depends on language-specific constraints on subjecthood.