On Northern Italian Dialects, again

Feb 6, 2011 by

Some time ago, I discussed Italian dialects, noting that Northern Italian dialects occupy an intermediate position between Southern Italian dialects and French. Curiously, when it comes to the dialect continuum from northern Italy to France, Northern Italian dialects show more similarity to the Langue d’Oïl varieties of northern France than to the neighboring Langue d’Oc varieties of southern France. Why?

The reason is the influence of Germanic languages on both Langue d’Oïl varieties of French and on Northern Italian dialects. Northern France was for a long time under the linguistic influence of Germanic-speaking Franks (who gave the name to the country and the language of France), while northern Italy has been influenced by Germanic-speaking Lombards (who gave the name to the northern Italian kingdom — now region — of Lombardy).

As a result of the Germanic influence, both the Langue d’Oïl varieties and the Northern Italian dialects exhibit some Germanic traits such as being non-null-subject languages. In other words, in these Romance varieties the subject of a sentence must be explicit, even if it can be understood from context or if it is non-referential, as in weather-sentences. The same is true of English: even if I point to the person who I am referring to, I cannot say *Speaks English. Furthermore, I have to use an overt subject pronoun it even when it does not refer to anything or anyone, as in It rains (dropping the subject here is ungrammatical: *Rains).

Since Standard French is based on a Langue d’Oïl variety, that of the Île-de-France region, Standard French too does not allow dropping/omitting the subject, just like English. In contrast, Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect, one of the Central rather than Northern Italian dialects. Therefore, Standard Italian is a null-subject language: if I point out who the referent is, I can say Parla Italiano. Also, weather-sentences appear in Standard Italian without an overt subject: for example, Piove is a perfectly grammatical sentence.

Northern Italian dialects, however, pattern with the Langue d’Oïl varieties, Standard French and English. As has been recently discussed by Anna Cardinaletti and Lori Ripetti*, Northern Italian dialects do not allow null-subject sentences (at least in some person/number combinations). Furthermore, an overt subject is required in these dialects in weather sentences. For example, in the Trepalle dialect one says Al plof — literally, ‘it rains’. Omitting al here leads to ungrammaticality.

As is to be expected from a parameter, the Null-Subject Parameter controls several surface phenomena. Hence, based on facts concerning the (im)possible omission of overt subjects in simple sentences, we can predict whether a given variety allows the lack of overt preverbal subject if the nominal or clausal subject appears after the verb. In a non-null-subject language like English or Standard French (or the Langue d’Oïl varieties of French), such structures are impossible; witness the ungrammaticality of the English Will arrive the children and Will be better to call him (the latter can be improved by inserting an expletive preverbal subject: It will be better to call him). Conversely, in a null-subject language, such as Standard Italian (or Southern Italian dialects) such structures are grammatical: both Arrivera Gianni (literally ‘Will arrive John’ = ‘John will arrive’) and È chiaro che ha ragione (literally ‘Is clear that is right’ = ‘It is clear that he is right’) are grammatical in Standard Italian.

As can be expected from the impossibility of dropping an overt subject in Northern Italian dialects, overt expletives are also required in sentences with postverbal subjects: again in Trepalle one must use the expletive al ‘it’ in sentences like Dopo al vegn i marcin (literally ‘Later it comes the children’) and Al sarò megl klamel (literally ‘It will be better to call him’).

*Cardinaletti, Anna and Lori Repetti (2010) Proclitic vs enclitic pronouns in northern Italian dialects and the null-subject parameter. In: D’Alessandro, Roberta; Adam Ledgeway and Ian Roberts (eds.) Syntactic Variation. The Dialects of Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 119-134.

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