The Significance of Formal Features in Language Change Theory and the Evolution of Minimizers

  • Montserrat BatlloriEmail author
Part of the Language, Cognition, and Mind book series (LCAM, volume 1)


On the one hand, this paper puts forward that the historical evolution of an n-word is conditioned by the presence or absence of a syntactic formal feature [uNeg]. Particularly, it shows that historically minimizers can either become Polarity Items or Emphatic Polarity Particles (with metalinguistic content) depending on their having an uninterpretable formal feature [uNeg] or not. On the other hand, it points out three different ways of fixing the syntactic expression of negation within natural languages—i.e. three different ways of licensing the [uNeg] formal feature: (1) under an unvalued [iNeg] Pol feature and either a Focus Operator that encodes the meaning [same]/[reverse], or a Force Operator that encodes [objection]; (2) under an anti-veridical operator Op¬ [iNeg]; and (3) under a non-veridical operator. Furthermore, the paper argues in favour of the significant role of syntax in the expression of metalinguistic negation. Hypotheses are tested through a syntactic and discursive characterization of three different types of Catalan negative expressions (pla/poc ‘no’, pas ‘not at all’, gens/gota/mica ‘any, none, nothing’) to show that their diachronic evolution, their distributional behaviour from a Romance comparative standpoint, and their licensing requirements fit perfectly. The contrast between two Old Catalan items with a similar origin, distribution and evolution (pas and gens), displays that pas had a formal [uNeg] feature licensed under a non-veridical or an anti-veridical operator in Old Catalan and, hence, it has evolved into a Negative Emphatic Polarity Particle (NEPP) with metalinguistic content in Modern Catalan, while gens did not and it has become a simple Polarity Item (PI). It is a well-known fact that Catalan pas conveys metalinguistic negation (that is, it intervenes in presupposition-denying contexts, descriptive semantic contradictions or other types of objections to a previous assertion), whereas gens does not. As for the loci of [uNeg] licensing, they are confirmed when tested through the Catalan and Italian data. First, it is shown that pas has undergone a change in its licensing conditions, so that Modern Catalan pas is licensed under anti-veridical operators (i.e., the negative marker no, which is underspecified as Op¬ [iNeg]). Second, Modern Catalan poc has an [uNeg] formal feature which is licensed under an unvalued [iNeg] Pol feature and a Focus Operator that acts as a probe for its movement to the Specifier of FocusP. And third, pla is licensed under an [iNeg] Pol feature and the relative polarity feature [objection] encoded in a ForceP Operator. Comparative data prove that Italian mica has an uninterpretable formal feature [uNeg] that can be licensed under two operators: First of all, under an [iNeg] Pol feature and a Focus Operator, in the same way as Modern Catalan poc. And, secondly, under an anti-veridical operator (Op¬ [iNeg]), like Modern Catalan pas.


Formal features Diachronic evolution Negative expressions Metalinguistic negation Licensing conditions Locus of licensing Grammaticalisation pathways Microvariation 



Previous versions of this paper were presented at the XXVIIe Congrès International de linguistique et de philologie romanes (CNRS-Université de Lorraine, Nancy, France. July 15–20 2013), at the 19 e Congrès International des Linguistes (Université de Genève. 21–27 2013), at the Ibero-Romance Linguistics Seminar: Spanish and Catalan Linguistics Miniworkshop (University of Cambridge. Queen’s College. March 6th 2014), and at the Workshop on Negation (UAB. Barcelona. December 18th–19th 2014), whose audiences I thank for suggestions, comments, questions, and discussion. Thanks especially to Maria Teresa Espinal, Marie Labelle, Ian Roberts, Álvaro Octavio de Toledo and Ioanna Sitaridou for their suggestions, discussion and encouragement. I am especially grateful to Pierre Larrivée and Chungmin Lee, and to the five anonymous reviewers, whose observations and suggestions were very useful and contributed to considerably improve different aspects of this work. All errors are my own. This research has been supported by two grants from the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación (FFI2011-29440-C03-02) and (FFI2014-56968-C4-4-P).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departament de Filologia i ComunicacióUniversitat de GironaGironaSpain

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