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Come On!

Jim Law explains how motion verbs become discourse markers.

Ever wondered why we say “come on” when we’re frustrated with someone or something? The words literally mean that we want someone to move toward us, but we’re expressing a completely different idea. Assistant Professor Jim Law (Historical Linguistics, French) explained this odd occurrence at the September 28, 2023, French lecture.

Law’s lecture covered how motion verbs such as “to go,” “to come,” and “to walk” acquire other functions in language, particularly to command, to react emotionally, or to organize conversation the way conjunctions do within a sentence. This process, called pragmaticalization, explains why the phrase “come on” can be an expression of frustration rather than a request to get closer. Law explained that words that have gone through pragmaticalization are called discourse markers.

Law noticed that modern French only has one discourse marker, allez, which comes from the verb aller, meaning “to go.” Other modern romance languages such as Spanish and Portuguese have several, including forms of “to go,” “to come,” and “to walk.” Law examined the differences between modern French, other modern romance languages, and medieval French to get a sense of how discourse markers develop over time.

a page of the dictionary blurred at the edges
Photo by Joshua Hoehne

Law tracked two characteristics of motion verbs in romance languages as they gained new functions. The first characteristic is increased morphosyntactic freedom, which means that a verb can appear in any part of the sentence, not just as a verb. For example, aller in verb form has to follow a noun (e.g., “Vous allez”), but as a discourse marker it appears in other locations in the sentence. For example, “Allez, quoi d’autre?” (roughly, “come on, what else?”). In Law’s words, “A discourse marker can go anywhere it wants, beginning of a sentence, end of a sentence, all by itself.”

The second characteristic that Law tracked is how discourse markers slowly get stuck in one conjugation, a process called fossilization of form. For example, in modern French, when allez is a discourse marker it always appears as allez, even when the rest of the sentence is conjugated for a different noun.

Law suggests that pragmaticalization of motion verbs exists on a spectrum. He said, “Over time, one word will take on more functions and it’ll push the others out of the way.” On one end of the spectrum, Medieval French displays many forms of the verbs “to come” and “to go.” In the middle, modern Spanish and Portuguese use a few forms of each word, with one discourse marker gaining broader functionality. On the other end, in modern French, allez has fully fossilized and replaced other discourse markers.

Law hopes that learning how words evolve can help us understand the cognitive processes behind this shift from motion to discourse marker, and the language patterns of the human mind.

The French lecture series occurs Thursdays at 10 a.m. JFSB 3132, view the schedule and topics.