The impact of English on Italian clitics in multilingual settings

Alice Idone & Francesco Gardani | Universität Zürich

Different components of grammar are generally assumed to react differently to language contact. Generalizations about the differential permeability of grammar in contact situations have been rendered in terms of rankings, a.k.a. borrowability scales (cf. Gardani 2020; Matras 2009: 153-165; Wohlgemuth 2009: 11-17). Most borrowability scales, however, are construed in terms of parts-of-speech (nouns, verbs, etc.) and distinctive analytic units (phonemes, morphemes, etc.). As such, they are not capable of grasping interface phenomena such as clitics. However, for the very fact that they cut across several components of grammar (Spencer & Luís 2012), clitics constitute an important source of evidence for hypotheses concerning the borrowability of grammar (cf. Sorace & Filiaci’s 2006 Interface Hypothesis).

The present study is framed in a project that addresses the effects of language contact on clitics in different settings involving Romance languages. We investigated the use of Italian clitic structures in English-dominant native speakers. In particular, we aimed to test:

a) whether the lack of parallel structures in English (the contact and source language) may inhibit the occurrence of specific clitic constructions such as clitic climbing or affect the use of Italian clitic pronouns as concerns the phonological, morphological, syntactic and pragmatic (sub)components, and 

b) whether contact-induced change correlates with sociolinguistic variables, such as different migration settings and multilingual profiles. 

We targeted three population groups—bilinguals, heritage speakers, and L2 speakers—and tested the following parameters: 

  • correct placement of the clitic with finite, non-finite, complex and negative predicates;
  • correct selection of the clitic with respect to the morphosyntactic features required by the context;
  • nesting preferences in sequences allowing optional clitic climbing;
  • argument structure of clitic clusters. 

Preliminary results show signals of contact-induced change such as inhibition (cf. (a) above) and support a (sub)component-based approach combined with a fine-grained sociolinguistic parameterization. 


Gardani, Francesco. 2020. Borrowing matter and pattern in morphology. An overview. Morphology 30. 263–282. DOI: 10.1007/s11525-020-09371-5  

Matras, Yaron. 2009. Language contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sorace, Antonella & Francesca Filiaci. 2006. Anaphora resolution in near-native speakers of Italian.  Second Language Research 22(3). 339–368. DOI: 10.1191/0267658306sr271oa Spencer, Andrew & Ana