The semantic import of the French preposition à 'at/to' in verbal argument alternations
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This study examines the semantic import of the French preposition à 'at/to' in argument alternations. In French, some verbs can be followed by a direct object or by an indirect object introduced by the preposition à 'at/to' (e.g., parer/parer à 'to ward off/to guard against', satisfaire/satisfaire à 'to satisfy', toucher/toucher à 'to touch', etc.). Although the preposition à 'at/to' has been characterized in the literature as a meaningless grammatical element, and more specifically so in cases of argument alternations, this study shows that à 'at/to' is meaningful and that it contributes to the semantics of the indirect transitive constructions of the verbs under scrutiny. Couched in the Cognitive Grammar theoretical framework (Langacker 1987b, 1991), this study is based on the assumption that grammar is meaningful and that the meaning of grammatical items is more abstract than the meaning of lexical items. Consequently, two abstract meanings characterizing à 'at/to' are proposed to account for the semantic differences between the direct and indirect transitive constructions of the verbs analyzed in this study: the expression of an abstract goal and the expression of an abstract localization. For some verbs, the indirect transitive construction entails a notion of goal that is not expressed in the direct transitive construction. For other verbs, à 'at/to' expresses an abstract relation (i.e., an abstract localization) between the lexical semantics of the verb and the indirect object, which results in meaning differences between the direct and indirect transitive constructions based on the notion of affectedness. Following Langacker (1987a), I view transitivity as a transfer of energy and propose that the various levels of energy involved in an event correlate with the various levels of affectedness of the object. I argue that à 'at/to' signals a disruption of energy leading to a lower affectedness of the indirect object than that of the direct object (see also Beavers 2011). Finally, I show that, for the verb toucher 'to touch', the semantic import of à 'at/to' varies in relation to the various senses of the indirect transitive construction of the verb.