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11.2.4.Narrative inversion

In colloquial speech, there are several narrative inversion constructions in which the clause-initial position remains empty. Two prototypical examples can be found in the following joke, taken from the internet.

a. Komt een man bij de dokter.
  comes a man at the doctor
  'Man goes to the doctor.'
b. Zegt de dokter: "Goh tijd niet gezien, ziek geweest?".
  says the doctor   gosh!  time  not seen  ill been
  'The doctor says: "Long time no see. Been ill?".'

The first sentence of the joke in (76a) is the prototypical onset of a joke, as is clear from the fact that it is used as the title of a television program with ultra-short sketches; cf. Bennis (2007) and nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komt_een_man_bij_de_dokter. Examples like these should be seen as expletive constructions, in which the expletive er'there' has been omitted. This is clear from a Google search (6/4/2014), which reveals that both versions in (77a) frequently occur in a jocular context: the example without the expletive er resulted in 60 hits while the one with the expletive resulted in 163 hits (in speech the construction without the expletive may in fact be the more frequent one but we have no data on this). Example (77b) shows that both constructions are similar in that they exhibit the definiteness restriction: the subject cannot be a definite noun phrase. From this we may conclude that we are dealing with a special kind of "topic drop" that affects the expletive er'there'.

a. (Er) komt een man bij de dokter. […]
  there  comes  a man  at the doctor
  'Man goes to the doctor. […]'
b. * (Er) komt de man bij de dokter. […]
  there  comes  the man  at the doctor

The continuation of the joke in (76b) provides another case of narrative inversion; cf. Den Besten (1983). Again, it does not seem impossible to consider cases like this as a shorter version of a more elaborate structure: it may involve omission of an adverbial phrase that functions as a connective between the two sentences: toen'then', meteen'immediately', vervolgens'next', daarna'after that'. etc. It often is not quite fitting to replace the inverted V1-structure by a non-inverted V2-structure, as illustrated in the (b)-sentence in (78), taken from Zwart (1997); the primed (b)-example would not be a felicitous continuation of (78a). Note in passing that the pronoun me in the (b)-examples is an ethical dative (and not a goal argument).

a. Afijn, ik naar die vent toe.
  so to that guy  prt.
  'So, I went over to that guy.'
b. Begint-ie me toch een verhaal op te hangen.
  starts-he  me  prt  a story  prt.  to hang
  'And he starts to tell me some (crazy) story (you wouldnʼt believe it).'
b'. Hij begint me toch een verhaal op te hangen.
  he  starts  me prt  a story  prt.  to hang

In this case, the V1-structure can again be analyzed as a case in which a sentence-initial element is deleted. Another, quite natural alternative for (78a&b) would be as follows: Afijn, ik naar die vent toe en daar begint-ie me toch een verhaal op te hangen. In this example, the sentence-initial position of the second conjunct is filled by the more or less semantically void topic element daar'there'. For completeness' sake, we need to point out that Zwart (1997:220) postulates that narrative inversion involves some empty operator, but we are not aware of any independently motivated arguments favoring this assumption over the omission analysis suggested above; we therefore leave this for future research. Regardless of the outcome of such research, it seems that we can already safely conclude that narrative V1-constructions with inversion do not seem to create insurmountable problems for the hypothesis that V1-orders are in fact concealed V2-orders: we are dealing with a superficial phonetic phenomenon.

  • Bennis, Hans2007Featuring the subject in Dutch imperativesWurff, Wim van der (ed.)Imperative clauses in generative grammar. Studies in honour of Frits BeukemaAmsterdam/PhiladelphiaJohn Benjamins113-134
  • Besten, Hans den1983On the interaction of root transformations and lexical deletive rulesAbraham, Werner (ed.)On the formal nature of the WestgermaniaAmsterdamBenjamins47--131
  • Zwart, Jan-Wouter1997Morphosyntax of verb movement. A minimalist approach to the syntax of DutchDordrechtKluwer Academic Publishers
  • Zwart, Jan-Wouter1997Morphosyntax of verb movement. A minimalist approach to the syntax of DutchDordrechtKluwer Academic Publishers
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