Word Order in {French: The Role of Animacy

TitreWord Order in {French: The Role of Animacy
Publication TypeArticle de revue
Année de publication2021
AuthorsThuilier, Juliette, Margaret Grant, Benoît Crabbé, and Anne Abeillé
JournalGlossa: a journal of general linguistics
Date de publicationapr

A major goal of the quantitative study of syntax has been to identify factors that have predictive power on speaker choices in the face of word-order or valence alternations (e.g. Arnold et al. 2000; Bresnan et al. 2007; Bresnan & Ford 2010; Bader & Häussler 2010). In this paper, we study the role of animacy on the order of constituents in French. Animacy has been shown to affect sentence production in other languages, either directly (Feleki & Branigan 1999; Kempen & Harbusch 2004; Tanaka et al. 2011) or indirectly through grammatical role assignment (McDonald et al. 1993). Corpus studies however, have failed to find such an effect in French (Thuilier 2012a; Thuilier et al. 2014). Using a sentence recall task, we examined whether animacy has an impact on linear ordering or on grammatical function assignment. While we do find evidence for a role of animacy in the choice between active and passive voice, we do not find a preference to place animate arguments first with ditransitive verbs nor with nominal coordinations. While these findings tend to support the indirect hypothesis (McDonald et al. 1993; Kempen & Harbusch 2004), we also find what may look like an anti-animacy effect: inanimate direct objects tend to precede animate indirect objects. We propose that canonical mappings between syntactic function and semantic role play a role in putting (inanimate theme) direct objects before (animate recipient) indirect objects, thus overriding the animacy first tendency in French.