Existential constructions. An investigation into the Italo-Romance dialects.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures


Our project provides an in-depth analysis of a multifaceted linguistic phenomenon (existential constructions) based on the novel evidence offered by an increasingly vulnerable language family, Italo-Romance. Existential constructions (e.g., 'there's a student at the door') have long fascinated linguists of all theoretical persuasions. The bulk of the existing literature has focused on the Definiteness Effects (DEs), i.e., the restrictions on the principal participant ('a student', in the example provided above). In many languages, this can only be grammatically definite (e.g., introduced by 'the') under strict conditions. An example of this is the English structure 'there's the student', with unstressed 'there', which is only grammatical if 'the student' is intended as a member of a list, possibly the only one.
Our project sheds new light on the DEs while also uncovering features of existential constructions which have so far been neglected. Building upon the work of the Stanford-Berkeley Existentials Group, we test the hypothesis that the DEs derive from the tendency for the participant to lack semantic and pragmatic properties which warrant the grammatical encoding as a canonical subject. Our work on Sardinian (Bentley 2009a,b) indicates that topicality, identifiability, specificity and animacy are such properties. If the only participant of an event is not topical, i.e., it has not been mentioned before and cannot be taken for granted, and lacks one or more of the other features, it is unlikely to be encoded as a subject. Rather, it will figure in an existential structure. Whereas cross-linguistically the DEs are explained by the properties of canonical subjects, the manifestations of the DEs vary in accordance with the language-particular treatment of subjects (position in syntax, cross-referencing or agreement on the verb, case...).
The Italo-Romance dialects offer an ideal basis to test our hypotheses, since they display a range of different constraints on the subject. We shall analyse the spread of the DEs among these dialects, and how they correlate with the language-particular treatment of the subject. We shall also investigate further the rationale of the DEs and how this compares with the semantic and pragmatic restrictions on the subject. The said dialects also offer evidence which suggests that there are significant features of existentials which have not yet received the due attention. In particular, the counterparts of English 'be' (from Latin ESSE/STARE or HABERE) and 'there' (ci, vi, ghe, n(d)e, (n)ke, ddoi...) can be neutral or contentful (e.g., deictic, indicating location, or evidential, indicating hearsay). The investigation of these forms will enhance the current understanding of the form/function interface in existential structures.
To collect our evidence we shall conduct extensive fieldwork in Italy, availing ourselves of the advice of an international pool of experts who have offered us their support. Our objectives are both empirical (to create an atlas of the existential constructions of Italo-Romance) and theoretical (to shed new light on the discourse-semantics-morphosyntax interface in existentials). Our project also has an impact outside the academic research community, in that it involves the creation of materials (including a DVD with a collection of children's stories) which will be used for didactic and other cultural purposes both in the UK and in Italy. With our research we thus contribute to the preservation of dialect culture.
Our research is timely on two accounts: on the one hand, our findings both benefit from and feed into the results of other research teams who are currently studying existentials in language families other than Italo-Romance. On the other hand, our project is part of a much more extensive undertaking by the global research community to understand a unique family of languages which have so much to contribute to linguistic research before they are finally lost.

Planned Impact

Our project will have an impact outside the academic research community, in that we shall produce materials which can be used for didactic and other cultural purposes both in the UK and in Italy. These materials will be distributed to universities, cultural institutions, and the local authorities of the areas where the fieldwork will have been conducted. With this activity we aim to contribute to the preservation of dialect culture.
The primary beneficiaries of the project outside the research community will be undergraduate students in the UK and Italy. In the UK, our DVD with recordings of dialect children's stories, accompanied by a booklet of orthographic transcriptions, will serve as a concrete testimony of the linguistic complexity of past and modern Italy. It will be possible to use these materials as part of the preparation for the year abroad, in the case of students of modern languages, as well as in level-2 and level-3 modules on stylistics and on the linguistic history and the linguistic situation of Italy (see Impact plan). The dialect texts will also, of course, constitute valuable teaching aids in level-1 phonetics modules. Rather than transcribing phonetically from written texts, students will be guided by audio recordings (downloadable on computer or IPod) which will foster their understanding of the differences between the sound systems of English and Italo-Romance.
In Italian universities, linguistics undergraduates are encouraged to engage in study activities that require fieldwork in local communities. The Italian students who will act as helpers in our project will be able to combine the work that they do for the project with this kind of study activity. Both these students and others will be able to use our collection of stories in study projects and dissertations on the competence in and the perception of the dialect among specific cross-sections of the Italian population. Other study projects will involve the comparison of specific features of the dialects that we will have investigated with their counterparts, if any, in cognate dialects.
Comparable activities are run by cultural institutions like the Centro di Studi Filologici e Linguistici Siciliani, Palermo. Suffice it to mention a survey conducted in 167 Italian schools by the President of the Centre, Giovanni Ruffino, to investigate and advance the children's perception of the linguistic complexity of Italy. Our materials will offer an opportunity to cultural institutions to initiate more such activities.
The project will have further-reaching benefits if, after the three years, our dataset will be used for the creation of teaching units on the whole repertoire of dialect, regional and standard Italian which will unavoidably emerge during the interviews. Whereas the DVD is a tangible output that will immediately be available for exploitation in the way outlined above, the timescale for these other potential impacts to be realised is not predictable at this stage.
Most of the collaboration arrangements which are needed for the project to have the above impacts are already in place. We have an established relationship with the Italian and UK colleagues who will be the primary users and disseminators of the above outputs, and we shall dialogue with them throughout the duration of the project. We shall, of course, make sure that our DVD reaches the local authorities and any other relevant institutions in Italy and elsewhere (see Impact Plan).
Our project will also benefit the RAs, in that they will acquire skills that could be applied in a range of employment sectors. They will become competent in web-page maintenance, the use of spreadsheets, and the editing of audio materials for multimedia teaching units. This will enhance their professional profile inside and outside the academia. We shall ensure that the project has this impact by arrang
Description We studied the grammar of a large number of dialects of Italy, thus contributing to the documentation of these dialects and to theoretical research in linguistics. We also produced materials in the dialects which will contribute to the fostering of dialect culture.
Exploitation Route We produced a collection of children's stories in the dialects, which is already being used for didactic purposes in the UK and abroad, and which has been distributed to cultural institutions in Italy for further dissemination among the general public. The scientific results of our project have been published in research papers that are being cited by colleagues. A research monograph has been published with OUP. The two RAs have now found full-time employment as lecturers in Austria and Puerto Rico.
Sectors Education

URL http://www.existentials.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/
Description We produced a collection of fairy tales in dialects of Italy, which we then distributed to cultural organizations in Italy and other european countries.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural

Title Online dataset on existential constructions in Italo-Romance and Sardinian 
Description This is an audio dataset with transcriptions. It can be downloaded from the project's web pages. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact COllaboration with ASIT team in Italy (team working on the Syntactic Atlas of Italy. 
URL http://existentials.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/resources/dataset/