Handling the OE hit-cleft

We have seen then that the gender agreement pattern of OE hit-clefts calls for an analysis involving extraposition-from-NP. Such examples therefore present a problem for Ball (1991: 39-40), since her expletive account cannot accommodate them. She notes, "This is a surprising fact: if these are true clefts, in which the focus is the logical antecedent of the relative pronoun, we should expect gender agreement with the focus" rather than with the precopular pronoun. Rather than revise her synchronic analysis of the PDE construction, Ball builds a case for analysing the OE tokens as instances of a separate construction. For tokens with a predication meaning, this is relatively straightforward, since Ball (1977) also analyses PDE predicational it-clefts, such as (16) above, as forming a structurally distinct sentence type from the it-cleft proper (see also Declerck 1983). However, it is much more difficult to argue that the OE tokens with a specificational meaning form a separate construction from the present-day specificational it-cleft. To do so, Ball claims that they are functionally (as well as formally) distinct, invoking Higgins' (1979) distinction between specificational and identificational copular sentences.

According to Higgins (1979: 265), examples such as (19) have two possible readings. On the specificational reading, the individual referred to as Mary Gray is identified as matching the description the girl who helps us on Fridays. On the identificational reading, on the other hand, we are provided with the name (Mary Gray) of the individual referred to by the definite NP subject. Here, the subject NP is a referring expression and the postcopular NP is a label or naming device, as in 'the girl who helps us on Fridays is called Mary Gray'.

(19) The girl who helps us on Fridays is Mary Gray (Higgins 1979: 265)

Higgins' (1979) class of identificational copular sentences and his use of the term identificational are not universally accepted and a reviewer reminds me that the terms specificational and identificational are subject to confusion.[1] To clarify, both of these sentence types serve an identifying function. However, while specificational sentences identify a specific referent, identificational sentences identify only the name of an already established individual.

As a means of sidestepping the difficult Old English data (which would otherwise undermine her expletive account), Ball claims that the non-predicational OE hit-clefts are actually identificational rather than specificational examples. For instance, she argues that in (10), repeated here as (20), "there is an otherwise established entity in the context [the one knocking at the door] which lacks only a name" (Ball 1991: 64).

(20) pa cwadon pa geleafullan, 'Nis hit na Petrus pat par cnucad, ac

Not-is it-n. not Peter-m. rel-нєЇspan>. there knocks but

is his angel! is his angel-m.

'Then the faithful said: It isn't Peter who is knocking there, but his angel.'

(Elfric, Catholic Homilies vol. I [Ball 1991: 39])

However, this does not seem to be an accurate interpretation of the sentence. Here, what is at issue is not really the name of the referent but the identity of the referent (as either Peter or his angel). Thus, this example clearly prefers a specificational analysis. Ball (1991: 66) concedes that "these tokens could also be read as specificational" and she concludes that "There is a fine line between identification and specification'.

The expletive analysis of it-clefts can only account for the historical cleft data in cases where gender agreement is obscured. It is therefore unsurprising that Ball (1991) situates the origin of the specificational it-cleft within the Early Middle English period, at a time when the system of gender marking was disappearing.[2] As I explained in 4.1, Ball claims that, during this period, the Old English NP BEON Rel-Clause examples underwent a series of complex structural changes, developing into a sentence type which is ostensibly indistinguishable from the already extant "identificational" it-cleft. She notes that "The resulting structure is superficially similar...except that the complement is within the VP, and this hit is expletive" (Ball 1991: 68). Ball's categorization of the EME data set is therefore based on a formal distinction which is imperceptible (existing only at an underlying level) and an alleged difference in meaning which is extremely difficult to disentangle. This is evident from the fact that Ball abandons the specificational/ identificational distinction in her handling of the Late Middle English data. She informs us that "Specificational and identificational it-clefts are classed together here because of the difficulty of reliably distinguishing them...[They] are close both in interpretation and function" (Ball 1991: 220).

Ball's adoption of the expletive account of specificational it-clefts therefore has a significant effect on the way that she handles and sorts the historical data. It leads her to discount the illuminating Old English tokens and, in turn, to provide a more complex origin story for the specificational it-cleft (see also 4.1). In effect, Ball's adherence to the PDE it-cleft analysis developed within the generative tradition of the time means that she has to work against the data, positing historical categories and providing diachronic analyses which are largely dependent upon these theoretical assumptions.

  • [1] Mikkelsen (2005) argues that Higgins' (1979) identificational class is not a semantically uniform category and shows that many of his examples can be accommodated into a tripartite taxonomy of predicational, equative, and specificational copular sentences.
  • [2] Filppula (2009) is exceptional in that he assumes that it-clefts have an expletive structure while maintaining that OE contains genuine it-cleft tokens with a specificational meaning. However, Filppula does not discuss the gender agreement evidence in any detail, except to note that, for the example given as (20) above, "Mitchell [1985: 102] takes hit and not the focused noun, as in clefts, to be the antecedent of the relative pronoun here and therefore rejects this as an example of a cleft sentence" (Filppula 2009: 277).
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