The role of pragmatics for grammatical change: the case of preverbal non

Pierre Larrivée

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What is the role of pragmatics in the evolution of grammatical paradigms? It is to maintain marked candidates that may come to be the default expression. This perspective is validated by the Jespersen cycle, where the standard expression of sentential negation is renewed as pragmatically marked negatives achieve default status. How status changes are effected, however, remains to be documented. This is what is achieved in this paper that looks at the evolution of preverbal negative non in Old and Middle French. The negative, which categorically marks pragmatic activation (Dryer 1996) with finite verbs in Old French, loses this value when used with non-finite verbs in Middle French. This process is accompanied by competing semantic reanalyses of the distribution of infinitives negated in this way, and by the co-occurrence with a greater lexical variety of verbs. The absence of pragmatic contribution should lead the marker to take on the role of default, which is already fulfilled by a well-established ne ... pas, pushing non to decline. Hard empirical evidence is thus provided that validates the assumed role of pragmatics in the Jespersen cycle, supporting the general view of pragmatics as supporting alternative candidates that may or may not achieve default status in the evolution of a grammatical paradigm.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1987-1996
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - May 2011

Bibliographical note

NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of Pragmatics. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Larrivée, Pierre (2011). The role of pragmatics for grammatical change: the case of preverbal non. Journal of Pragmatics, 43 (7), pp. 1987-1996. Doi 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.12.012


  • pragmatics
  • evolution
  • grammatical paradigms
  • default expression
  • Jespersen cycle
  • sentential negation
  • pragmatically marked negatives
  • evolution of preverbal negative
  • non
  • Old French
  • Middle French
  • negative
  • pragmatic activation
  • finite verbs
  • non-finite verbs
  • semantic reanalyses
  • infinitives negated


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