On explaining the rise of <i>c'est</i>-clefts in French

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In Contemporary French, <i>c’est</i>-clefts are claimed to occur with significantly higher frequency than their counterparts in other Romance languages and in older stages of French. Starting out from the assumption that <i>c’est</i>-clefts exist in order to mark focus on the clefted constituent, historical linguists commonly seek to explain the observed increase from Old to Modern French as resulting from the decline of alternative focusing strategies. In particular, the loss of flexible focus accents and the severe restrictions on non-canonical constituent orders are generally held responsible for the rise of clefting. This contribution puts standard explanations to the test of corpora and argues that they fail to account for a number of observations. Finally, it proposes that a more comprehensive account of the evolution of <i>c’est</i>-clefts needs to take into account not only phonological and syntactic change, but also an independent pragmatic innovation, viz. the emergence of the informative-presupposition cleft type as defined by Prince (1978).


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