Gradience, Determiners and Null Possessors: Revisiting French Inalienable Syntax

Michael D. Kliffer

Abstract


While syntax is a crucial part of understanding inalienable possession, it must be seen as interacting with lexical semantics and pragmatics. A case in point is the French double dont construction (DOC), which differs from regular genitive relatives in having two NPs which are linked to the antecedent of the complementizer dont. Tellier (1991) claims that the second NP must be either deverbal or inalienable. This paper will examine 3 aspects of Tellier's work that call for further study. First is the argument/adjunct dichotomy which she proposes as a means of distinguishing relational from alienable nouns in the lexicon. It is argued here, on both empirical and theoretical grounds, that such a dichotomy
presents too many problems to be adopted for the lexicon in a
simple, binary fashion. Secondly, the special status of the definite determiner,
which Tellier treats as a flag of inalienability for the 2nd possessum of DOCs, is questioned. The existence of other determiners in that position, as well as the possibility of a generic (i.e., non-possessive) reading for Ns occurring with Ie, suggest a less automatic link between inalienability and Ie. Finally, constraints on possessor construal are examined,
an issue going beyond DOCs. Tellier, among others, contends
that a relational noun can have a null possessor only in generic contexts, a claim that applies, as she admits, exclusively to isolated Ss, i.e., independently of any discourse or pragmatic context. We can avoid such an extreme requirement by viewing counter-examples to this constraint
as pragmatically marked, invariably linked to special contexts
such as a medical scenario. Such markedness alleviates the need for explicit local mention of a possessor. These three issues pose significant but not insurmountable obstacles for handling inalienable possession within a G-B framework.

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