Prosodic cues to syntactic reanalysis. Experimentally tracking Jespersen's cycle in progress

Prosodische aanwijzingen voor syntactische reanalyse. Een experimentele studie van Jespersen's cyclus
Start - End 
2019 - 2023 (ongoing)
Research Focus 



This project explores how prosody interacts with syntactic structure at different stages of an ongoing syntactic change. Innovatively, it will do so using experimental methods, studying the interaction of syntax and prosody.

One cross-linguistically common syntactic change is the renewal of the expression of sentential negation (Jespersen's Cycle; JC), whereby an original negator (e.g. French 'ne') is first joined by a reinforcing expression (as in French 'ne...pas') and ultimately replaced by it (making the 'pas' element the only negator). The current project distinguishes itself from the large body of work on JC in zooming in on the transition of the new element from (emphatic) reinforcer to neutral negator.

Historical texts pose limitations to pinpointing the crucial moment of a reanalysis, as the exact meaning, pronunciation, or intonation of linguistic expressions are difficult to ascertain without additional information. However, Northern Italian dialects are currently in different stages of this transition, thus allowing us to experimentally study this change in progress in a laboratory setting. By means of a production and a perception study, the project will examine the intra- and inter-speaker variability in the prosodic encoding of the expression of negation, and in their sensitivity to prosody-syntax (mis)match, in three Veneto dialects (Venice, Padua, and Verona), to test the hypothesis that unclear prosodic encoding can advance syntactic reanalysis.

Besides contributing a new dimension to the modelling of language change by looking at the interaction between syntax and prosody, the project devises a new method for the experimental investigation of syntactic change, which may eventually be expanded to the study of other instances of ongoing change.




Phd Student(s)


Tamara Rathcke

University of Konstanz

Jacopo Garzonio

Department of Linguistic and Literary Studies - Università degli Studi di Padova