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Patten's (2012) it-cleft origin story

In Patten (2012), I re-examine this collection of Old English hit-tokens and reconsider their place in the history of the it-cleft construction. As I see it, the Old English data is particularly instructive. During this period of the language, all nouns are marked for gender. This means that we have an additional source of evidence for identifying the structure of Old English cleft sentences. In the Old English hit BEON NP Rel-Clause examples, the relative pronoun shows gender agreement with the initial hit rather than with the postcopular NP. For example, as is shown in Ball's gloss of (10) above, the neuter pet relative does not agree with either Petrus or angel, both of which are masculine. On this basis, Mitchell (1985: 102) and Ball (1991: 67) conclude that in this and in other examples of the OE construction the antecedent to (or the head of) the relative clause must be the pronoun hit. In other words, this gender agreement pattern calls for an extraposition-from-NP analysis, similar to that outlined in 3.2, in which the relative clause (situated in an extraposed position) restrictively modifies the subject pronoun (see Ball 1991: 63).[1]

I take these tokens to represent early instances of the PDE specificational it-cleft construction. With this analysis in place, the it-cleft configuration dates back all the way to Old English and its structure remains relatively unchanged from that time. I argue that this very simple diachronic story has a number of important advantages. First, this account explains and provides support for some of the more controversial or problematic details of the extraposition analysis of it-clefts. For instance, pertinent questions such as how we are able to restrictively modify the pronoun it and why the restrictive relative clause is necessarily in an extraposed position can be answered if we analyse the PDE it-cleft in relation to the language system of earlier periods of English.

During Old and Middle English, it was much more common for pronouns to function as the antecedents of restrictive relative clauses. Such restrictively modified pronouns are labelled determinative by Declerck (1988), among others. For example, in (11) and (12), the pronouns pis and it are modified by adjacent relative clauses, in subject and object position, respectively.

(11) la, Petrus, pis pat ic pe sede, mcej beon hredlice jecyded. lo Peter this that I you said may be quickly proved 'What I have said, Peter, can be quickly proved.'

(Gregory's Dialogues [Ball 1991: 58])

(12) pis is it pat settip pee in silence... 'This is what sets you in silence...'

(e15th The Book of Privy Counselling [Ball 1991: 59])

Likewise, in Old English, relative clauses commonly occurred in sentence-final position. Suarez-Gomez (2006: 80) finds that in LOE "extraposed relative clauses are almost twice as frequent as clause-internal relative clauses" (see also O'Neil 1976). Therefore, it seems that while these originally paratactic structures have gradually become more integrated with their antecedents over time, the it-cleft construction has retained the older pattern. It is difficult to provide a definitive reason as to why the cleft clause never adjoined to the antecedent it. However, Ball (1991: 263) claims that "it + relative clause is not attested in first position", either in cleft or noncleft sentences. As a result, the behaviour of the cleft clause could well be part of a more general restriction affecting determinative it, perhaps resulting from prosodic factors (see Bolinger 1977: 76).

This leads us to a very simple and intuitive origin story for the hit-cleft which is consistent with a usage-based model of language change (see 2.2). As instances of the specificational copular construction, we would expect the OE hit-clefts to have developed from simple specificational NP BE NP sentences introduced by neuter pronominal subjects, such as the hit BEON NP sentence in (13). Here, the pronoun hit is a full anaphoric NP meaning the one that was standing there.

(13) ...sade pat Petrus par stode. pa geleaffullan cwadon pat hit nare ...said that Peter there stood the faithful said that it not-were Petrus, ac ware his engel.

Peter but were his angel

'[Rhoda] said that Peter was standing there. The faithful said that it wasn't Peter, but was his angel.' (/Elfric, Catholic Homilies vol. II [Ball 1991: 24])

Once we add a paratactic relative clause to the subject pronoun, in accordance with the paratactic relative clause construction and the determinative pronoun construction, we obtain a hit-cleft, as in the example in (10).[2] Here, the initial hit is restrictively modified by the extraposed clause and functions as the determinative head of the definite description it (the one) that is knocking there. At the point of origin then, the it-cleft's now atypical structure was entirely regular, being consistent with (or rather, inheriting from) the productive linguistic patterns of the period. While these higher-order constructions have fallen out of productive use (the determinative pronoun construction) or have undergone important structural changes (the paratactic relative clause construction), their influence remains entrenched within the now conventionalized it-cleft schema.

In addition to the support it provides for an extraposition-from-NP account of the PDE construction, an OE origin for the it-cleft is consistent with the evident diachronic facts. For instance, the Old English hit-clefts share not only a superficial structural likeness with PDE it-clefts, but also (what appears to be) a specifying function. In the example given in (10) above, the faithful mistake St. Peter, who they believe to be in prison, for his angel; in other words, they incorrectly identify (or specify) his angel as the one who is knocking there. Furthermore, there are other sentence types in Old English which exhibit this same cleft structure. In addition to the specificational hit-cleft tokens, OE contains structurally identical hit-structures which instead have a predicational meaning and still other cleft tokens are introduced by the demonstratives pis and pat (as opposed to hit). For example, (14) is an OE predicational pat-cleft. As in (10), the neuter relative pronoun pat shows agreement with the subject pronoun. Again, this calls for an extraposition-from-NP analysis, in which the precopular pat is a restrictively modified determinative. However, this token is predicational, since the postcopular NP (a painful journey) describes, rather than identifies, the entity referred to by the determinative NP (the journey that the loathsome despoiler made to Heorot).

(14) Pat was geocor sid pat se hearmscapa to DEM-n.n.s was grievous journey-m. REL-n.s. DEM-m.n.s despoiler to Heorute atea!

Heorot took

'That was a painful journey that the loathsome despoiler had made to Heorot.' (Beowulf [Ball 1991: 35, 54])

For Ball (1991: 63), these OE tokens (along with their present-day counterparts) are not really cleft sentences since they do not contain expletive subjects. However, on my extraposition-from-NP account, they demonstrate a close family of cleft constructions (including both specificational and predicational it- and demonstrative clefts), which is much the same in OE as it is in PDE, as shown in (15) to (18).

(15) It's Howard who plays the bassoon [specificational it-cleft]

(16) It's a wonderful instrument you've got there [predicational it-cleft]

(17) That's Howard playing the bassoon [specificational demonstrative cleft]

(18) That's a wonderful instrument you've got there

[predicational demonstrative cleft]

  • [1] Indeclinable that does not become the norm until the thirteenth century. While there are certainly precursors to the modern use of that in OE, lack of gender and number agreement involving neuter singular pcet was very rare. As Mitchell (1985: 108) notes, in OE "pcet was still part of a well-preserved demonstrative/relative declension" (see also Mitchell 1985: 101; Suarez-Gomez 2006: 85).
  • [2] Ball (1991: 67) provides a very similar account of the origin of these OE tokens (which for her are not true clefts). She notes that they are "simple sentence[s] expanded by the adjunction of a relative clause"
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