LINGUIST List 4.118

Sun 21 Feb 1993

Disc: Pro-drop, Rarity, Null-subject

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  1. Avery Andrews, Semi-pro-drop Languages
  2. Matthew Dryer, The Rarity of Non-Null-Subject Languages
  3. Yehuda N. Falk, Null Subj Languages

Message 1: Semi-pro-drop Languages

Date: Thu, 18 Feb 93 06:49:00 ESSemi-pro-drop Languages
From: Avery Andrews <>
Subject: Semi-pro-drop Languages

 (Maria Vilkuna, Linguist 4-112):

 >So, "is" Finnish a null-subject language? (Speaking a language like
 >this, I have always felt a reluctance to see pro-drop as a "deep"
 >property with far-reaching repercussions.) And a more serious
 >question: are there many languages that show similar variation?

Halldor Sigurdsson's thesis (1989, University of Lund, _Verbal Syntax
and Case in Icelandic, in a Comparative GB Approach_, available from
them, I believe) has a discussion of the semi-pro-drop(pi?)-ness of
Icelandic, referring to earlier work by Thora Hjartardottir (the latter
in Icelandic, unfortunately for non-readers of that language).
He refers to them as `the untouchables', on the basis that `for
some unclear reasons, various sorts of data in non-NS languages and
`semi-pro-drop' languages do not count or `qualify' in the ongoing
international discussion of null-NPs' (pg. 139).
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Message 2: The Rarity of Non-Null-Subject Languages

Date: 21 Feb 1993 01:44:55 -0500The Rarity of Non-Null-Subject Languages
From: Matthew Dryer <LINDRYERUBVMS.bitnet>
Subject: The Rarity of Non-Null-Subject Languages

Mike Maxwell asks how common null subject languages are. Gary Gilligan
completed a USC dissertation on the topic in 1987 ("A Cross-Linguistic
Approach to the Pro-Drop Parameter"), based on a sample of 100 languages.
Of these 100 languages, only 7 do not allow null subjects in finite
clauses, and these 7 include one Indo-European language and 2
Indo-European-based Creoles. (The other four include two Niger-Congo
languages, one Austronesian language, and one Chibchan language.) Among
the 93 languages allowing null subjects in finite clauses, Gilligan further
distinguished three subtypes: 13 are languages like Mandarin Chinese where
null subjects are possible but verbs do not inflect for person and number
of subject; 3 are languages in which null pronouns can occur "with or
without agreement"; and the remaining 77 languages are ones in which null
subjects are possible and where the verb inflects for the person and number
of the subject.

In short, Mike Maxwell's impression that languages that are NOT null
subject languages constitute a small minority of the world's languages is
strongly supported.

Matthew Dryer
SUNY Buffalo
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Message 3: Null Subj Languages

Date: Sun, 21 Feb 1993 12:02 ISTNull Subj Languages
From: Yehuda N. Falk <>
Subject: Null Subj Languages

Concerning the question of what "is" a null subject language and whether
there are any non-subject languages outside of Europe (and in particular
concerning Maria Vilkuna's comment about Finnish): Hebrew also presents
a somewhat mixed picture. In the present tense, where agreement is more
limited (only number and gender but no person) pro-drop is impossible
except in sentences with generic ("arbitrary") subjects, where the (masculine)
plural is used with no overt subject. In past and future, on the other hand,
null subjects are possible in first and second persons but not in third person.
So Hebrew, apparently like Finnish, displays a very mixed set of properties.
The question, of course, is whether there is really any such thing as a "null
subject language" or whether null (pro) subjects are allowed in principle
subject to constraints on identification or whatever. By the way, there is
always the problem of the non-overt subject of imperatives, even in English,
which is the paradigm case of a non-null-subject language.
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