The spatial expressions containing French "travers" and Italian "traverse". A functional semantic description from a diachronic perspective

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis belongs to the research tradition of Romance historical semantics, and combines diachronic methods with cognitive hypotheses. Analysing complex adpositions in French and Italian, its originality resides in the fact that, both for literal and metaphorical uses, it applies a functional approach to a diachronic problematic, carrying out a corpus analysis.

The period covered consists of four hundred years (from the 16th until the end of the 19th Century). The constructions under analysis conform to the pattern [PREP1 (+ article) + travers(o) (+ PREP2)], viz. the French expressions à travers (de), au travers (de), en travers (de), de travers and their Italian formal equivalents a traverso/at(t)raverso (a, di, per), al traverso (di), in traverso (di) and di traverso (a) (traverso (a), without PREP1, is included too). These expressions, and especially their prepositional uses, are assumed to be intrinsically dynamic. However, they are no pure prepositions, in that all of them can be used in at least two different syntactic roles. More specifically, some are principally found as a preposition, and secondarily as an adverb; others behave mostly as an adverb, but also as an adjective; finally, certain expressions exhibit all three types of uses.

The results are structured around four axes. Firstly, a complete diachronic-semantic description of all uses is given of this set of hardly explored expressions, in order to contribute to a better comprehension of their semantic structure. The study bears on morphological, syntactic, but most of all semantic aspects of the evolutions observed. Secondly, functional concepts such as Guidance, proposed in synchronic research (in particular by Stosic (2002b; 2007; 2009)), and notions we elaborate on the basis of research on Modern French (cf. Somers 1988; and Plungian 2002), in particular Contrast and Deviation, are put to the test. By adopting a diachronic perspective, we assess to what extent these notions are able to describe the semantics conveyed in the past by the expressions under study. Thirdly, this thesis determines in what measure the expressions analysed were subjected to a grammaticalisation process, and why some of them (in particular à travers) became significantly more frequent from the 18th Century onwards. We provide elements that point to a more advanced grammaticalisation for certain expressions. Moreover, we determine to what extent the evolutionary trends observed corroborate or, on the contrary, disconfirm various mechanisms considered to be part of the process of grammaticalisation. Finally, a comparison between the evolutions in the two languages under study helps to distinguish between more general and language-specific mechanisms of semantic and grammatical evolution, given that every natural language has a specific way of organising its own modelling of space.

The results of this study enrich our knowledge of the phrases studied and their functioning in the past, but also in present-day French and Italian, providing diachronic observations regarding the functional notions put to the test. Further, it contributes to a better understanding of the grammaticalisation mechanisms of complex constructions. Finally, it shows that typologically related languages may evolve differently in their ways of representing space, and in particular in their semantic distribution of various functional concepts within a group of close constructions.

Date of Award2014
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDirk Vanden Berghe (Promotor) & Annick Englebert (Promotor)

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