Language evolution and the icëlani

Posted by Gustavo S. Pereira on 4:22 7/21/02

In reply to: Language evolution and the icëlani posted by Luca Mangiat on 22:12 7/9/02

Hello everyone!

Talking about morphemes, word order and so, I'd like to tell you about a particular feature of Portuguese grammar (I'm a native Portuguese speaker from Brazil): the mesoclisis (maybe we could call this phenomenon like this in English - Port. mesóclise). It happens only with the future simple tense, which is composed of a root and endings from another verb, haver (Iike all future simple tenses in Romance languages). For instance:

Lavar verb ("to wash")

Eu lavarei minhas mãos. ("I'll wash my hands")

But when that verb is reflexive, you must use the reflexive pronoun se.

Eles se lavarão. ("They'll wash themselves")

You can see that the se pronoun comes before the verb lavarão (root lav-, ending morphemes -a-r-ão. That occurs (according to the official grammar) because the subject pronoun eles (they) "attracts" the reflexive pronoun so that it stays before the verb. The pronoun is in proclisis when it's before the verb. But what happens if the same sentence is rewritten without the subject pronoun (as Portuguese verbs can show the subject only by their endings)? The reflexive pronoun cannot come alone in the begining of a sentence. But the grammar also doesn't allows it to come after the verb. So what can we do? That's simple: we put the pronoun inside the verb, among the endings. So:

Lavar-se-ão. ("They'll wash themselves"). This is the mesoclisis.

To the Brazilians, it sounds archaic and old-fashioned. Nobody would speak like that, it'd sound rather artificial. But in Portugal common people (mainly less educated people) speak it normally - so the grammar still preserves that feature of the language.

Why that happens? For historical reasons. The future simple is formed by the infinitive of the verb (in this case, lavar) plus the present simple forms of the verb haver:

lavar + (eu) hei = lavarei ("I'll wash")
lavar + (tu) hás = lavarás ("you'll wash")
lavar + (ele) há = lavará ("he'll wash")
lavar + (nós) hemos = lavaremos ("we'll wash")
lavar + (vós) heis = lavareis ("you'll wash" - plural)
lavar + (eles) hão = lavarão ("they'll wash")

So, the pronoun found that position (between those two elements) the most suitable to stay when the subject pronoun is not there. And it happens with all the object pronouns lhe, la, nos, vos, te, me.

cansar-me-ei (but eu me cansarei), "I'll get tired"
olhá-lo-ás (but tu o olharás), "you'll look at him"
ajudar-nos-ão (but eles nos ajudarão) "they'll help us"
ver-te-emos (but nós te daremos), "we'll see you"
...and so on.

Ad onlelán, âdhi êshtun ku lê,

Gustavo Pereira

Mark responds:

This seems like a truly bizarre phenomenon till you know the historical explanation. The development of the Romance future (and conditional) is a nice example of the development of new morphology, something people tend not to notice. (They're aware of the loss of morphology, and wonder if languages get simpler over time.)

Curiously, English has an idiom almost identical to the Latin one presumed to be the origin of the future tense; it's seen in "I have a job to do", "I have some papers to correct." Of course Latin was still SOV, so 'have' occurred after the infinitive: corrigere habeo.

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