Questions with definite markers in (Old) Romance, with focus on Old Spanish

Olga Kellert


We will depart from the observation that Romance languages can be subdivided into two groups with respect to free relatives under question-embedding predicates (Kellert 2017). One group has grammaticalized the definite element (e.g. Pt.[1] o, Fl. i’ ‘the’) and que/che into one question pronoun (e.g. Pt. o que ‘what’ and Fl. icché ‘what’); the other group has not (e.g. Spanish and French). We will show that in one group free relatives that are embedded under question predicates resemble more complex nouns (as in Spanish and French), whereas in the other group they are clausal and have the structure of ordinary questions as in Portuguese and Florentine. We will look at the evolution of lo que sentences in Old Spanish and demonstrate that they were used as relative clauses under non-question predicates such as ser ‘be’ and factive predicates such as ‘know’ with much higher frequency than under genuine question predicates such as preguntar ‘to ask’. We will suggest that the interrogative interpretation of lo que- relative clauses has its source in the ambiguity of factive predicates. Factive predicates can select both DPs interpreted as definite descriptions and CPs interpreted as interrogatives. Lo que-relatives can thus be interpreted as definite descriptions and as interrogatives under factive predicates. As we will argue, this ambiguous interpretation was the precondition for the use of lo que-sentences to be used in non-ambiguous question contexts. However, the reanalysis of lo que-sentences as questions has not been fully accomplished in Modern Spanish in contrast to Modern Portuguese, as these sentences still show syntactic and semantic differences from ordinary questions.

[1]          Fl. stands for Florentine, Sp. for Spanish, Pt. for Portuguese, and Fr. for French. Mo. for Modern and O. for Old and Mi. for Middle languages.


(Old) Romance; free relatives; constituent questions; definite descriptions; grammaticalization; reanalysis; factive predicates; question-embedding predicates

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