How lexical merger can drive grammaticalization

Third person pronouns from Latin to Old French


  • Lieven Danckaert
  • Liliane Haegeman
  • Sophie Prévost



Latin, Old French, pronouns


The aim of this paper is to elucidate the genesis of Romance third person personal pronouns deriving from Latin ILLE and IPSE, with special reference to the history of French. Drawing a parallel with the taxonomy of phonological mergers from Labov (1994), we argue that the Late Latin competition between ILLE and IPSE was resolved through a series of lexical mergers (i.e. the opposite of better known lexical splits). Concretely, we propose that strong personal pronouns (such as French lui) arose through merger of ILLE and IPSE, to the effect that the union of the feature sets of the latter two elements was transferred to the newly formed category. In contrast, weak pronouns (like French il) only retain the intersection of the feature sets of ILLE and IPSE. By creating new functional categories, lexical merger thus acts as a driving force behind grammaticalization.