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Finiteness in Romance: traditional definitions and challenges

  • Kim Groothuis (University of Cambridge)
Thursday 17 January 2019
Van Wijkplaats
Van Wijkplaats 4
2311 BX Leiden


Finiteness has traditionally been defined as a binary morphological property of verbs: within paradigms we can distinguish finite (inflected) and non-finite (non-inflected) forms. However, a purely morphological view is untenable from a cross-linguistic point of view, given the presence of languages with no morphological inflection on verbs, but which nonetheless do show a finite vs non-finite asymmetry, such as Danish, Afrikaans (cf. Vincent 1998). Second, there are many mismatches between (non-)finite morphology and syntactic properties linked with finiteness, such as agreement, nominative subject licensing etc. For instance, many Romance languages boast a series of verb forms that cannot be readily classified as finite or non-finite, such as the inflected and personal infinitives (cf. Raposo 1987; Vincent 1998; Ledgeway 2000; 2009; Mensching 2000 a.o.):


  1. Menjar            ara      nosaltres         no        seria                mala idea.

Eat.inf            now     we.nom          not       be.cond          bad idea

‘It would not be a bad idea for us to eat now.’

(Cat., Wheeler, Yates & Dols 1999: 399)

  1. Será                difícil               eles                  aprovarem                  a proposta.

It.is.fut          difficult          they.nom        approve.inf.3.pl         the proposal

            ‘It will be difficult for them to accept the proposal’ 

                        (EP, Raposo 1987: 86)


They license nominative subject, a syntactic trait typically associated with finite forms. They share with non-finite forms the absence of morphological tense marking, the fact that they are introduced by complementisers of the type de/ad, and that they typically appear in embedded contexts.

Another ‘mismatch’ is given by the subjunctive found in Romanian, Salentino and Southern Calabrese (henceforth ‘Balkan(-style) subjunctive’, cf. Calabrese 1993; Dobrovie-Sorin 1994; Ledgeway 1998 a.o.): these verbs are morphologically finite, bearing TAM and agreement marking; however, on a syntactic level, they pattern with non-finite clauses, in that they do not have deictic (or absolute) tense. Instead, like infinitives, the tense of the Balkan subjunctive has to be simultaneous in certain cases (3a) or irrealis/future in others, as in (3b) (Stowell 1982; Bošković 1997; Landau 2000):


  1. a.         Ana     a început         să lucreze        (*mâine)

Ana     has started      sa works.sbjv (tomorrow)

‘Ana has started to work.’

  1.       Ieri                  am decis          să lucrez (mâine).

Yesterday       I.have decided sa I.work tomorrow

‘I have decided to work tomorrow.’


  1.             Rinai    si=mentìu        PROi/*proj/*’Ntoniu m’i=lava

Rina    refl=put.3.sg PROi/proj/ Antonio   mu=them=washes

‘Rina began to wash them.’

(SCal., Ledgeway 2007: n. 20)


Furthermore, the subject of a Balkan-style subjunctive can be controlled by an argument in the matrix clause (4) on a par with the null subjects of infinitival clauses in other Romance languages. Thus, the morphologically finite form of the Balkan-style subjunctive shows some syntactic characterises that are typically associated with non-finite forms.

This talk will discuss the problematic cases in Romance, arguing for a scalar view of finiteness. It will be proposed that finiteness has to be linked to the (in)direct anchoring of the clause to the speech act, for both person and tense (cf. Ritter & Wiltschko 2014).

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