Clefts and Existentials – a diachronic approach to framing and focussing constructions
Cleft sentences and ‘there-existentials’ are normally discussed separately in spite of their structural similarities and their shared function as focussing devices. Taking up a cognitive approach, this paper proposes that it- and what-clefts as well as there-existentials can be understood as constructions with a common constructional meaning that includes both a framing and a focussing effect, with the second component dominating at least the cleft sentences.
What makes this observation particularly interesting from a diachronic perspective is that the modern constructional meaning of ‘focussing’ emerged at different times from different ‘framing’ backgrounds, which could either be spatial, temporal or attitudinal.
Earlier studies have shown that the development of it-clefts started out from structures like in Old English Ðæt wæs on þyssum dæge [...] which were used to provide a temporal frame for the event described in the dependent clause that is still reflected in sentences like It was toward the end of the 19th century that the telephone was invented. By a bleaching of the meaning of the verb be and the replacement of the temporal element in the matrix clause by other participants of the sentence, it + BE + complement developed into a focussing construction, as in It was a faulty switch that caused the trouble. The construction with there + BE + NP emerged from Old English structures containing semantically filled deictic þær, which of course still exists as a place adverb in Modern English. In Early Modern English times first examples appear where the spatial meaning of there is bleached in favour of the framing function, as in There are twoo sorts of newe Wine. Later developments allowed the extension of this construction by adding participles (or finite clauses), as in There are some people waiting for you.
What-clefts seem to be a more recent phenomenon and are a little problematic due to their similarities with other dependent clauses, in particular subject clauses. The hypothesis pursued is that in the Modern English period, starting from such common dependent clauses, they were increasingly used to express attitudes (evaluations, preferences, intentions) and that their purpose was to frame and later focus the concept or event described in the second or main clause, as in What annoyed me was that he was so slow.