Post-verbal subject in L2 Italian.

1 Introduction

This essay will discuss the L2 acquisition of the subject-verb inversion in L2 Italian. First, Sorace et al. (2007) study on near-native[1] speakers of Italian whose native language is English will illustrate the acquisition task. Second, the findings of this study will be compared with findings from Belletti et al. (2004), which investigate the same problem-the mastering of Italian subject inversion structures displaying the order VS- of L2 speakers of Italian with different L1s. Third, the findings of the two studies will be compared with findings from Tsimpli et al. (2003), which investigate the phenomenon of attrition[2] on Greek and Italian near-native speakers of L2 English. Finally, the results of the three studies will be compared with findings from Slabakova (2008), which investigate the aspectual constraints on the interpretation of Spanish imperfect and perfective preterite verbs by English native speakers, with reference to the Interface Hypothesis.

2 Sorace et al’s study

2.1. Experiment

Sorace et al.’s (2007) study analyses the production and the interpretation of post-verbal subjects by near-native (!) speakers of Italian whose native language is English. Two groups of speakers participated in the study: 17 native speakers of American and British English who had been resident in Italy for a mean of 8.35 years and had learned Italian as an L2 after puberty; a control group of 8 native speakers of Italian, all monolingual resident in Italy.

The experimental method included: VS Videos, Storytelling, Picture Verification and Headlines.

The VS Videos task aimed at testing the production of postverbal subjects interpreted as focus of new information, across different verb classes: transitive, unaccusative and unergative. The participants were shown 21 short videos. At the end of each video they were asked some questions about what they had just seen. Some examples of the questions asked in the videos are given in (1) and the expected answers are exemplified in (2):

  • Chi   ha   telefonato?

Who has phoned

  1. Chi   e’ partito?

Who is left

  1. Chi   ha bevuto il mio   caffe’?

Who has drunk   my     coffee

  1. Quante     ragazze ci sono       nella scena?

How many girls       there are   in the scene


  • Ha telefonato una ragazza

Has phoned   a     girl

  1. E’ partito Francesco

Is left       Francesco

  1. L’ha        bevuto una ragazza

It.CL-has drunk   a     girl

  1. Ci sono   tre ragazze There are three girls.

(The sotry telling task)

The Headlines task aimed at testing the production of preverbal and postverbal definite and indefinite lexical subjects in all-focus context. Participants saw a photograph representing some event (the ‘‘news’’), and a series of sentence fragments in random order below it. The verbs used were all eventive unaccusative verbs (e.g. crollare ‘collapse’, succedere ‘happen’, esplodere ‘explode’). They were asked to pretend that they were reporting the news to a friend who did not know about the event, using the fragments and starting by saying Hai sentito che…’have you heard that…’, e.g. Hai sentito che e’ crollato un palazzo? ‘Have you heard that a building collapsed?’

2.2 Results

One of the most striking results of the VS Videos task is that the production of postverbal subjects is significantly lower overall for the near-natives compared to the native speakers -29 % and 93 % VS structures respectively; 71 % and 7 % SV structures respectively). Moreover, it is worth noting that VS is systematically produced by near natives only in ‘‘ci-existential’’ structures and that, across the different verb classes postverbal subjects with transitive are more problematic. Moreover, when a transitive verb is used the near-natives tend to realize the direct object with a lexical noun phrase rather than a clitic[3] (71 % vs 26 %). However, the presence of the clitic does not favour the production of a VS structure (14 % clVS vs. 12 % SclV) suggesting that SV is preferred regardless of the presence and the nature of the object. Overall, the near-natives tend to prefer the ‘’focalization in situ’’ of the preverbal subject rather than the placement of the subject in postverbal position, as illustrated in the example (3) from the experimental data:

  • Chi e’ caduto per le scale?

Who fell down the stairs?

  1. Il ragazzo e’ caduto

The boy fell down.

The results of the Headlines test show that near natives, overall have significantly stronger preference for preverbal subjects than the controls, consistently with the findings of the VS Video Task.

2.3 Discussion and conclusion

On the other hand the story telling and the picture verification task show that the near native speakers master the use of null subject, despite of the fact that their L1 is [- null subject]. Therefore, although the availability of null and postverbal subject is traditionally regarded as a direct consequence of the positive setting of the null subject parameter (vd Rizzi), this study shows that the near natives perform as the natives in regard to null subjects, but not to postverbal subjects. The explanation given by Belletti, Bennati and Sorace is that the licensing of a phonetically null (referential) pronominal element –pro- in a dedicated preverbal subject position of the clause is the necessary condition for the availability of structures with a postverbal subject, which display the order VS, but not a sufficient one. This means that, in order to be able to use a postverbal subject the speakers need to license the null subject, but the fact that they license the null subject does not imply/entail that they master the use of postverbal subjects, as shown by the study.

3 Belletti et al’s study

3.1 Experiment and results

The26 L2 learners of Italian involved in the experiment had different L1s, unlike the other study: 16 Germans, 3 French, 2 Polish, 1 Dutch, 1 Russian, 1 Greek, 1 Albanian, 1 Bosnian.

The method was the Videos task, as in the other study. The results show that most of the L2 subjects do not master the order VS. Their behaviour sharply contrasts with the behaviour of the control group (43 % VS for the L2 subjects; 98 % VS for the Control group). (923)

4 Comparison between the two studies and ‘cartographic approach’

Therefore, despite of Rizzi’s claim that these two properties belong to the cluster of the subject parameter, this is not totally true. According to Belletti, the mastery of null subjects is not sufficient for the mastery of postverbal subjects because the order VS is also constrained by discourse factors. Here we assume the general guidelines of the cartographic[4] projects and in particular we assume that the low part of the clause immediately above the VP contains discourse-related positions currently labelled Topic and Focus constituting a VP periphery. The postverbal subject is assumed to fill (the Spec of) one of these discourse-related projections and is thus associated with different interpretations/intonations accordingly.

In their study, Belletti and Leonini (2004) concentrate on the new information Focus interpretation of the postverbal subject illustrated in exchanges of the type in (4 a, b) (vs (4c)):

  • Chi     e’ partito?

Who is left

‘Who has left?’


  1. E’ partito Gianni

is left       Gianni

‘Has left Gianni.’


  1. #Gianni e’ partito

Gianni is left

‘Gianni has left’

The posteverbal location of the subject is mandatory in (4b) as witnessed by the oddness of (4c) in the same conversational exchange. In (4c), an otherwise perfectly grammatical sentence in Italian, the preverbal subject cannot be interpreted as focus of new information. We assume that the postverbal subject in (4b) fills the clause internal Focus position in the VP periphery, schematically represented as in (5) (S, the postverbal subject in Spec of FocP):

(5) ……………… [TopP Top [ Foc S Foc [ Top Top….VP]]]

According to this approach, availability of subject inversion mainly reduces to the ability of making use of the dedicated position in the VP periphery.

In conclusion, both studies show that although in L2 Italian speakers with different L1s do not seem to have particular problems in licensing a null subject ‘’pro’’ in the preverbal relevant subject position, they do have particular problems in activating the clause internal VP peripheral position, which should host the postverbal lexical subject.

Accoding to Belletti et al., this difficulty is due partly to the fact that while the possibility of licensing a pronominal null subject in tensed clauses is both overwhelmingly instantiated in the input data available to the L2ers and is also certainly taught in foreign language classes so that it acquires a semiconscious saliency, the same is not true for the availability of VS structures in the relevant discourse conditions.

In conclusion, the grammatical options which most directly involve conditions at the interface with other cognitive systems, such as those concerning the pragmatics of conversational exchanges yielding VS, seem to be, in a sense, the most ‘’fragile’’ ones.

5 Tsimpli et al’s study

Indeed a study conducted by Tsimpli et al. on first language attrition and syntactic subjects which involved Greek and Italian near native speakers of English shows attrition in both experimental groups in aspects of the distribution and interpretation of subjects that are due only to syntactic/pragmatic or interpretable features, but not to uninterpretable features. (508)

6 Optionality

The placement of focused subjects in pre-verbal position is considered by Sorace to be an example of end-state residual optionality[5]. Pretheoretically, optionality can be defined as the existence of two or more variants of a given construction that are identical in meaning and have a clear correspondence in form (Sorace (Muller, 1999))

It has been argued (see Pinto 1997) that so called ‘’subject-verb inversion’’ in wide focus clauses in Italian depends on the possibility of interpreting the verb as denoting a deictic[6] event (with reference to the speaker). Such a deictic feature may be lexical (as in 6a), implicit (as in 6b), or explicit in the context (as in 6c); when the deictic interpretation is not possible, post-verbal subjects are ungrammatical (as shown in 6d-f):

  • Che cosa e’ successo? ‘What happened?’
  1. E’ entrato Paolo   (interpreted as ‘here’ –where the speaker is).

Is come in Paolo   here

  1. Ha telefonato Mario (interpreted as meaning that the telephone call came here)

Has telephoned Mario

  1. In questa casa ha vissuto un poeta famoso (deictic reference explicit)

In this house has lived a poet famous

  1. *E’ impallidito Fabio (no deictic reference possible)

Is gone pale Fabio

  1. *Ha vissuto un poeta famoso (no deictic reference present)

Has lived a poet famous

  1. *Ha starnutito Gianni (no deictic reference possible)

Has sneezed Gianni

The prediction is that these interpretative constraints on post-verbal indefinite subjects are not completely acquired in the near-native grammar. Because of the protracted influence of English, in which subjects obligatory occupy the pre-verbal position regardless of the nature of the verb, there are asymmetric optionality effects in the grammar of near-native speakers of Italian: specifically, pre-verbal subjects will occasionally be overgeneralized in wide-focus contexts, regardless of whether the verb has a hidden or overt deictic component. (301)

7 The Interface Hypothesis

According to the interface hypothesis (IH), the syntax-discourse interface categories may never be completely acquired by L2 learners.

Both studies give support to the IH since they both show that the reason why the L2 Italian speakers fail to invert the subject is due to syntax-discourse interface.

There is another study, conducted by Slabakova (2008), which investigated the syntax-semantics interface. This study focuses on Spanish and English aspectual tenses, which encode different meanings. In that study the main difficulty for English native speakers learning Spanish was to realize that it is the imperfect morphology that encodes habituality in Spanish, and not the perfective preterite morphology.

The results show that two intermediate learner groups tested on the correlation between knowledge of morphology and knowledge of semantics with the three types of predicate (accomplishments, achievements and states) scored 1 or 2 for no morphology- yes semantics VS 21 ca for the other combinations.

This shows that knowledge of morphology necessarily precedes knowledge of semantics in this aspectual domain. (171)


Belletti A. & Bennati E. & Sorace A. 2007 ‘’Theoretical and developmental issues in the syntax of subjects: Evidence from near-native Italian

Belletti A. & Leonini C. 2004. ‘’Subject inversion in L2 Italian’’


Platzack, 1999

Rizzi L. 1982 ‘’Issues in Italian Syntax’’

Slabakova R. 2008 Meaning in the second language Berlin:

Sorace A. 2008 ‘’Near-Nativeness’’

Sorace 2004 Selective optionality

Tsimpli, I., Sorace, A., Heycock, C. and Filiaci F. 2003. ‘’First language attrition and syntactic subjects: A study of Greek and Italian near-native speakers of English’’. Ms. University of Edinburgh.


[1] Near nativeness:

[2] Attrition:

[3] clitic:

[4] Cartographic project:

[5] optionality

[6] Deictic



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