457: The Higher Functional Field by Cecilia Poletto

by Gerard

457.1: Poletto, Cecilia. The Higher Functional Field: Evidence from Northern Italian Dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 175 pp. ISBN 0-19-513356-0.

Dewey Construction:

  • 400: Language
  • 450: Italian, Romanian, Rhaeto-Romanic languages
  • 457: Historical, geographic, and modern non-geographic variations of standard Italian
  • 457.1: Northwestern Italy

In my almost 27 years of recreational reading, I have never come across a book as tough to read this one. Now, to be fair, I will assume 95% of the blame for this. Books on syntactical analysis are inherent dry and I do not have the requisite background to understand the complex field of comparative linguistics. BUT—I have to read a book in this section. So, much to my chagrin, this is what I found.

Cecilia Poletto’s Higher Functional Field seeks to analyze and compare 100 different Italian dialects from Northwestern Italy in order to generalize them into a unified theory of syntactical formulae. The term “unified theory” is very apt here because the whole time I was reading this, it reminded me of quantum physics and how it tries to use very precise experiments to extrapolate a theory of the universe.

Poletto’s study is designed to rearrange elements of the language—clauses, verbs, subjects, etc.—and see if they pass for understandable sentences. In doing so, speakers of the language help her to understand which arrangements work and which are incomprehensible. As she tinkers which each sentence, she creates rules specific to the region and can be used as general guidelines for Italian language construction. She also integrates theories from other languages to show a connection between certain Italian dialects, Icelandic, Hebrews (apparently known as V2 languages). Also, apparently, there are functional fields and layers in languages that allow certain types of word-types and disallow others (hence the title). There are CP layers, FP layers, IP layers (don’t ask me the difference), agreement fields, interrogative fields, and so on and so forth.

The problem with the study is when you get passages like this:

Hulk (1993) hypothesizes that SCI occurs in AgrS°; the SCL moves from the SpecT position and incorporates into the inflected verb. This can take place only in main interrogative, in which I is endowed with strong [+wh] features, and not in embedded interrogatives, in which it is the C° position that contains the [+wh] feature.

That’s when my brain implodes.

There’s a scene in the 1988 movie Beetlejuice where, upon paging through the manual for dealing with one’s existence in the afterlife, Adam Maitland gives up, claiming that “it’s like reading stereo instructions.” I had several of those moments over the last few days.

Poletto is a much more brilliant person than me and wish her a lot of luck in decrypting Italian languages. Just don’t ask me to read any more of her books. Deal?