Coercion for the ages? A thousand years of parallel inchoative histories for the French passé simple and passé composé

Patrick Caudal


This paper investigates the diachronic evolution of so-called aspectual coercion (de Swart 1998, Bary & Egg 2012) in French, with respect to two major tenses, namely the simple past (passé simple) (PS) and compound past (passé composé) (PC); it will more specifically bear on cases of inchoative readings. Throughout a study spanning several diachronic stages and capitalizing on earlier work (Caudal 2015a, Caudal 2015b, Caudal, Burnertt & Troberg 2016), it will be shown that the PC and the PS exhibit striking differences in their acquisition of inchoative coercions, with the PC consistently lagging behind the PS in some respects. Initially, at the Old French period, the PC was totally deprived of any coercive power w.r.t. states, whereas the PS already had a broader and better established inchoative coercive capability. But across subsequent stages of the language, the PS gradually increased its inchoative potential at a steady pace – although it seems to retain some difficulties with certain types of stative utterances, especially those denoting individual-level states, and locative/posture structures. While the PC has often been claimed to have largely replaced the PS, I will here show that even in Modern French, the PC seems to still have a noticeably lesser "inchoativizing power" than the PS. In order words, in spite of nearly a thousand years of parallel evolution and semantic convergence, the initial semantic gap between the two forms still hasn't been bridged. I will suggest that these consistent differences should lead us to consider so-called inchoative coercion as a distinctly conventionalized type of meaning expansion mechanism – rather than a simple matter of overcoming the violation of some aspectual semantic restriction.


aspectual coercion; formal semantics; diachrony; language change; tense; aspect; French language; passé composé; passé simple; corpus study

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