The historical development of the 'it'-cleft

Catherine N Ball, University of Pennsylvania


While many studies have addressed the syntax, semantics and pragmatics of the 20th century (20cE) it-cleft, very little is known about the historical development of this construction. The most comprehensive diachronic treatment is two pages in Visser 1963 (s.v. The type 'It is father who did it.'). The present study attempts to fill this void by providing synchronic and diachronic analyses of the cleft at each major linguistic stage, with a focus on Old English (OE), Early Middle English (EME), and Late Middle English (LME). Relevant constructions and grammatical phenomena taken into consideration include pseudo-clefts, existentials, scHAPPEN-class impersonal constructions, copular sentences, relative clauses, negation, dislocation, preposing, extraposition, base word order, the verb-second phenomenon, and pronoun cliticization. The study is based on the analysis of corpora from each stage of English, including Early Modern English (EMnE) and Late Modern English (LMnE). Frequency analysis is used to elucidate the progress of the cleft from LME through LMnE in selected genres. Pragmatic analysis is applied to reveal functional change. The study shows that the form of the 20cE it-cleft was established by the end of the LME period, primarily as a result of broader linguistic changes. Three cleft and cleft-like constructions in OE are brought together by syntactic change in ME: copular sentences with hit/poet and a final relative clause (used to identify an entity or to predicate a property of it), NP-focus clefts without a dummy subject (used for specification, often contrast), and a scHAPPEN-class impersonal construction with adverbial adjuncts. A major functional change is the development of informative-presupposition it-clefts in LME, attributed in part to a blend between the NP-focus it-cleft and the impersonal. Although the OE cleft constructions with NPs are rare, the use of the NP-focus it-cleft is seen at modern levels in LME narrative; its relative frequency in other genres has risen significantly over time. The AdvP/PP-focus it-cleft (established in LME) begins its rise in EMnE, probably fed by changes in preposing and in correlative constructions.

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Recommended Citation

Ball, Catherine N, "The historical development of the 'it'-cleft" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9125587.