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Illusions of transitive expletives in Middle English


This paper examines a type of existential there sentence found in Middle English that has been argued to have a structure similar to transitive expletive constructions (TECs) in other Germanic languages, or to follow from the presence of NegP below T during the relevant period. Based on an exhaustive analysis of the 74 examples of this construction found in the Penn Parsed Corpora of Historical English (out of a total of over six thousand sentences from 1125 to 1913 containing there coded as expletive), we observe that 67 contain both a modal verb and clausal negation licensing a negative associate, unlike TECs found in other Germanic languages, and that the construction is found only between 1390 and 1600. We argue that the availability of this construction was due to a transitory alignment of three syntactic properties in this stage of the language: (i) modals were still main verbs merged within vP, but took a reduced complement consisting of only an inner clausal phase, and did not take a thematic external argument; (ii) English still had negative concord; (iii) Voice and viewpoint Aspect shared a single syntactic projection. The confluence of these three factors provided a non-thematic specifier position, [Spec,vP], into which there could merge. Before the late 14th century, modals were full verbs taking a thematic external argument and full clausal complements, and after about 1600, they were merged directly in T, occurring in a monoclausal rather than a (reduced) biclausal structure. At no point did the English monoclausal spine have the structural room to accommodate a true Germanic TEC.

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We are grateful to the members of the Syntax–Semantics Project at the University of Toronto, the participants at ICHL 22, particularly Richard Zimmermann and Hedde Zeijlstra, the participants at the Workshop on Parameters in Diachronic Syntax at SLE in Leiden, and three anonymous reviewers for their questions and comments. The contributions of Bronwyn Bjorkman were supported by the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship program, administered by the Government of Canada.

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Cowper, E., Bjorkman, B., Hall, D.C. et al. Illusions of transitive expletives in Middle English. J Comp German Linguistics 22, 211–246 (2019).

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  • Middle English
  • There
  • Modal existential construction
  • Modals
  • Negation
  • Transitive expletives