The Pragmatics of Direct Object Fronting in Historical English
Speyer (2008) finds an overall decline in the rate of topicalization in historical English, which we refer to pre-theoretically as direct object fronting. He attributes it to two separate phenomena: 1) the early loss of unaccented pronominal and demonstrative fronting, and 2) a gradient decline in the use of accented, contrastive fronting due to prosodic well-formedness conditions imposed by the loss of the V2 constraint. In this paper we present a prima facie problem with Speyer's account. While personal pronouns exhibit the expected behavior, the rate at which demonstrative pronouns front is more stable. We propose that, contrary to expectation, unaccented demonstratives in Old English behaved syntactically as if they were contrastive. The reason for this lies in a special information-structural function for demonstrative pronouns across Germanic, for which our corpus study provides independent evidence. Specifically, demonstratives in Germanic tend to refer anaphorically to elements whose meanings, like the meanings of contrastive elements, are not in every possible answer to the Question Under Discussion (see Roberts 1996, Buring 2003 and Schwarz to appear).