LINGUIST List 23.1191

Thu Mar 08 2012

Review: Syntax: Wratil & Gallman (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 08-Mar-2012
From: Egor Tsedryk <>
Subject: Null Pronouns
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EDITORS: Wratil, Melani; Gallman, PeterTITLE: Null PronounsSERIES TITLE: Studies in Generative Grammar [SGG] 106PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2011

Egor Tsedryk, Department of Modern Languages and Classics, Saint Mary’sUniversity, Halifax, Canada


The concept of null subject pronouns has been a hot topic in generativelinguistics since the emergence of the parametric approach to the study ofgrammar started taking its first steps in the late seventies. Whether or not alanguage allows dropping a referential pronominal subject in finite clauses(i.e. pro-drop) is, in fact, a classical example of a parameter; it has either apositive or a negative value, which is fixed during language acquisition. Thisvolume is one of the recent attempts to revisit the pro-drop parameter throughboth synchronic and diachronic perspectives, with fairly wide empiricalcoverage, including Germanic, Celtic, Romance, Finno-Ugric and Creole languages.

Though not explicitly stated by the editors, I infer from the footnotes thatthis book represents a collection of five papers that appear to be selected fromthe workshop “Nullpronomen” (University of Jena, September 2006). Theintroduction provides a brief historical background with regard to two majorissues. The first concerns the status of null pronouns in general and nullsubjects of finite clauses in particular. The basic question is whether they allbelong to the same empty category known as ‘pro’ in the framework of Principlesand Parameters. The second issue concerns the nature of the pro-drop parameter.Under standard assumptions, its binary setting should be inferred from anindependent linguistic property (e.g. richness of verbal inflection). However,according to the editors, the volume’s contributors seem to converge on the ideathat there is no general syntactic or morphological property directlyresponsible for pro-drop phenomena cross-linguistically.

The volume is organized as follows: The first three papers deal with nullsubject phenomena related to historical, as well as synchronic changes occurringwith verb placement, clitics and verbal agreement. Moreover, agreement-relatednull subjects are opposed to those that are discourse-related. The last twopapers shift the focus from null subjects of finite clauses to null possessorsof possessive constructions. I will first summarize each paper individually andthen evaluate the book as a whole.

In “Pro-drop in the history of German -- From Old High German to the moderndialects,” Katrin Axel and Helmut Weiß focus on the difference observed betweenOld High German and modern Continental West-Germanic dialects with regard topro-drop properties. In the former, pro is licensed predominantly in rootsentences with the verb in second position (V2), whereas, in the latter,pro-drop is limited to subordinate clauses featuring complementizer agreement.The authors argue that this difference is only superficial, and that theunderlying configuration for pro-drop sentences remained the same; ‘pro’ must bec-commanded by Agr (i.e. an agreement morpheme). The only restriction thatapplies in modern dialects is that Agr must be pronominal in order to license‘pro’. According to the authors, pronominal Agr originates from cliticconstructions; a subject clitic that immediately follows the inverted verb ( V2 contexts) gradually becomes an inflectional suffix. Then,complementizer-clitic constructions are reanalyzed in the same way by analogicalextension. This is reflected in double agreement systems, in which the choice ofverbal inflection depends on the syntactic position of the verb (i.e. first,second or clause-final). For example, in central Bavarian, the verbal inflectionin V2 sentences is not the same as those in verb-final and, most importantly, isidentical to complementizer agreement.

In “Historical pathways to null subjects: Implications for the theory ofpro-drop,” Eric Fuß describes two different pathways of pro-drop development:reanalysis of subject clitics as agreement markers, on one hand, and emergenceof discourse-oriented pro-drop in Creole languages, on the other. With regard tothese clitics, Fuß shows that, while enriching the verbal inflectional paradigm,their reanalysis creates gaps in their own paradigm. Such gaps triggerdeblocking of a universal zero spell-out rule (i.e. null realization of a cliticpronoun) at the point of post-syntactic vocabulary insertion (in terms ofDistributed Morphology). More precisely, if no overt clitic competes formorphosyntactic features, a null weak pronoun is inserted into a determiner headat the syntactic level (clitics are assumed to be neither minimal nor maximalprojections).

Regarding the example of Bavarian and Non-Standard French, Fuß shows that onlyless distinctive inflectional markers are replaced by more distinctivepronominal forms (if available), which usually gives rise to partial pro-drop.As an alternative pathway, languages can develop a full pro-drop system based onthe discursive identification of null subjects, as in Mauritian Creole andChabacano (i.e. Spanish-based Creoles spoken in the Philippines). According tothe author, these Creoles have been influenced by neighboring Austronesianlanguages (e.g. Malagasy, Tagalog and Cebuano), whose elaborate voice systemsallow dropping topic arguments of different kinds (including objects). As Fußpoints out, his analysis does not argue against agreement-related theories ofpro-drop, but suggests a more restrictive role of rich agreement in pro-dropphenomena.

In “Uncovered ‘pro’ -- On the development and identification of null subjects,”Melani Wratil proposes that, instead of a hard-wired parameter provided by theuniversal grammar, pro-drop properties should be considered as a competitionbetween optimization of perception and phonological minimization of pronouns andagreement markers. These two forces produce a grammaticalization cycle, goingback and forth from one antipode (i.e. full pro-drop) to another (i.e. fullnon-pro-drop), with an intermediate state of partial pro-drop. The authorillustrates this cycle, showing how erosion of agreement in Old French (fullpro-drop) produced a non-null subject language (modern Standard French), whilepassing through the stage of partial pro-drop in Middle French. At the sametime, subject clitics in present-day colloquial varieties of French aregradually reanalyzed as agreement markers becoming an integral part of verbalinflection. In other words, modern Non-Standard French started showing symptomsof a null subject language. In addition, the author points out that two types of‘pro’ can emerge during the partial pro-drop stage: anaphoric (i.e. locallybound by a verbal agreement marker) and non-anaphoric. Only the lattercorresponds with the classical definition of ‘pro’ as a definite pronoun,subject to Principle B of Binding Theory. Wratil shows how these types of ‘pro’are distributed in Irish, Welsh and Básuse Saramaccan (an Atlantic Creolelanguage). She also emphasizes that the relation between agreement and pro-dropis not always unidirectional. Thus, on the basis of modern Finnish, shedemonstrates that the loss of null subjects can precede and consequently induceimpoverishment of verbal agreement.

In the last section of her paper, Wratil uses examples from Nez Perce, MauritianCreole and Old Icelandic to argue that genuine (i.e. non-anaphoric) nullpronouns are recovered from discourse rather than from the immediate grammaticalenvironment, including agreement. For this purpose, she makes a cleardistinction between discourse-oriented pro-drop, on one hand, and topicdeletion, on the other. The latter is an instance of a variable bound by aleft-peripheral null operator, and therefore, has a more restrictive syntacticdistribution.

In “Silent resumptives in Zurich German possessor relativization,” MartinSalzmann examines relativization, resumption, null pronouns and the structure ofpossessive determiner phrases (DPs) in Zurich German. Salzmann argues thatresumptive relative clauses are derived through base-generation, whilegap-relative clauses are derived by movement. Island insensitivity is one of themain arguments in favor of a base-generation analysis. In fact, Salzmannconsiders resumption as a last resort strategy, when needed, either tocircumvent locality violations or to make an oblique case visible.Interestingly, possessor relativization is also not sensitive to islands, eventhough it does not seem to use any overt resumptive strategy:

Das deet isch de Schüeler, won i geschter [sin Vatter] käne gleert han.that there is the student, COMP I yesterday [his father] have‘Over there is the student whose father I met yesterday.’ (cf. (19b), p. 158)

Note that Salzmann does not take the possessive pronoun (‘sin’) inside thebracketed DP to be a resumptive pronoun. In fact, there are so-called ‘possessordoubling constructions,’ where an overt dative (DAT) possessor can be insertedin front of the possessive pronoun:

dem Schüeler sin Vatterthe.DAT student his father‘the father of this student / this student’s father’ (cf. (20b), p. 159)

Such constructions are found in non-standard varieties of German, but not inStandard German, and are restricted to 3rd person possessors. Salzmann assumesthat every time the possessor is not overtly expressed in German, it is realizedas a dative ‘pro’ (the only option available in Standard German). This ‘pro’ is,in fact, the silent resumptive pronoun, which allows possessor relative clausesto obviate locality constraints. It is bound by a null operator base-generatedas a specifier of the invariant complementizer (‘won’) introducing relativeclauses in Zurich German. The residual question, extensively discussed at theend of Salzmann’s paper, concerns the economy of derivation and competitionbetween base-generation and movement.

In “Anti-agreement with subjects and possessors from a typological perspective:A case for null pronouns or for economy?,” Albert Ortmann refutes the necessityof postulating null pronouns to explain so-called ‘anti-agreement’ or ‘pluralitysplits’ in Hungarian possessive constructions. The pattern can be summarized asfollows: the possessed noun does not agree with the plural possessor, unless thelatter is pronominal or null; in other words, lexical possessors do not triggerplural agreement on the noun head. This is shown below (3PL = 3rd person plural,3SG = 3rd person singular).

az ő ház-ukthe they house-3PL‘their house’ (cf. (2b), p. 226)

a ház-ukthe house-3PL‘their house’ (cf. (5c), p. 227)

a nagynéni-k ház-athe aunt-PL house-3SG‘the aunts’ house’ (cf. (2d), p. 226)

As Ortmann argues, through reference to the examples above, the fact that thefirst two pattern alike with regard to agreement does not necessarily mean thata null pronoun is present without an overt possessor. He proposes derivinganti-agreement from faithfulness and markedness constraints in the framework ofOptimality Theory. The ranking of relevant constraints is based on twoharmonically aligned scales: the Plurality Scale and the Definiteness Scale. Theformer simply gives higher ranking to morphologically more specific forms (e.g.plural marking), while the latter is motivated by different degrees ofdiscursive salience and is rooted in human cognition. Different rankings producedifferent results cross-linguistically. The author shows how his proposal couldbe applied to plurality splits observed in subject agreement in Welsh andpossessor agreement in Turkish, thus affirming his analysis as descriptively andexplanatorily more adequate than a purely syntactic approach postulating ‘pro.’


These readings are very enriching on both empirical and conceptual grounds. Eachpaper reports high-quality, thorough research that will interest specialistsworking on null subject properties through diachronic, synchronic andtypological perspectives. Collectively, they are not confined to a specificframework and present analyses from different theoretical and methodologicalperspectives, covering both synchronic and diachronic dimensions of the datapresented. This necessarily leads to opposing points-of-view creating thedynamics of a scientific debate. For example, Axel and Weiß emphasize theimportance of the complementizer agreement to license null subjects in Germanicdialects, whereas Fuß objects, stating that this is not a sufficient requirementalone, mentioning West Flemish as an example where an elaborate complementizeragreement exists but, nevertheless, does not exhibit any pro-drop properties(fn. 13, p. 64). At the same time, Fuß proposes that null subject properties inMauritian Creole have been influenced by Malagasy (pp. 82-84), which issubsequently contested by Wratil (p. 131). Finally, Salzmann assumes theexistence of ‘pro’ in German possessive DPs as explaining intricate propertiesof possessor relativization in Zurich German, whereas Ortmann argues against anull possessor in Hungarian, even though nominal Hungarian anti-agreement seemsto indicate the opposite. In fact, such points of disagreement make this volumeinteresting to read and represent one of its main strengths, along withempirical breadth and depth.

In terms of weaknesses, this book could have been better framed in more recentcontributions focusing on null subjects of finite clauses (e.g. Fascarelli 2007,Cole 2009, Biberauer et al. 2010). Even though the introduction providessufficient background for each paper, it falls short in addressing the latestissues surrounding ‘pro’ and the pro-drop parameter. For example, the editorsraise the following question: “[D]o all phonologically empty subject pronounsthat occur in the finite clauses of full and partial languages belong to aspecial group of empty categories called ‘pro’ that combine the features[+pronominal], [--anaphoric] and [+definite]?” (p. 14). While they admit thatthis question is relevant in the context of “the early Principles and ParametersTheory” (p. 15), it does not seem to follow the current debate in light of morerecent attempts to redefine ‘pro.’ For Holmberg (2005), ‘pro’ is not a uniformcategory with a [+definite] feature. In fact, its apparent definiteness (inconsistent null subject languages) is a derived property, while its defaultinterpretation (surfacing in partial null-subject languages) is equivalent tothat of a generic, 3rd person indefinite pronoun (see Holmberg 2005: 555).

Moreover, ‘pro’ in partial null-subject languages, such as Hebrew, Finnish andBrazilian Portuguese, can be bound (or controlled) by a matrix clause argument,which undermines its classical definition in terms of being [--anaphoric]. Assuggested by Shlonsky (2009), this referential dependency could be attributed tothe lack of a person feature in ‘pro.’ Null subjects of embedded finite clausesare very briefly discussed by Fuß (pp. 82, 86); they are also mentioned inWratil’s paper (p. 130), but her discussion does not extend beyond a brieffootnote. Would ‘pro’ be [+anaphoric] in embedded finite clauses?

In the same spirit, the editors address the issue of the pro-drop parameter whenproposing the question, “Can we be sure that the innate mental abilities oflanguage learners provide a specific parameter, which is binary in its nature,and whose individual fixation during language acquisition determines whethersubject null arguments are allowed or forbidden in the target language?” (pp.14-15). Once again, there is an oversimplification here. As Holmberg (2010)notes, instead of a single parameter, there is more than one parameter involved,which he emphasizes by stating “The Null Subject Parameter (NSP) is often talkedabout in the singular, even though it is widely recognised that null subjectscan be derived in more than one way, and that, therefore, more than oneparameter is involved in determining whether subject pronouns can be null or notin a given language” (Holmberg 2010: 88). If more than one binary parameter ispresent, it is then not surprising that there is more than one morphological andsyntactic property that would be involved in licensing null subjects. This iswhat is corroborated by the papers collected in this volume anyway. On a sidenote, it is quite surprising that the volume “Parametric Variation: NullSubjects in Minimalist Theory” (Biberauer et al. 2010), listed in Eric Fuß’sreferences (under Roberts 2010), is not mentioned in the introduction.

Finally, from a purely editorial point-of-view, I have a comment about MartinSalzmann’s paper, which stands out by its length (almost one third of the wholevolume). For some reason, it is the only paper that is preceded by an abstract(written in italics), and has as much information in footnotes as in the maintext. At times, a short statement in the text is accompanied by threeconsecutive footnotes presenting several alternative analyses and secondaryarguments, which, in most cases, could be discarded for the sake of readability.

These general criticisms do not, by any means, undermine the quality ofindividual papers. This volume is a valuable contribution to current research onnull subjects and null pronouns in general.


Biberauer, Theresa, Anders Holmberg, Ian Roberts, & Michelle Sheehan (eds.).2010. Parametric variation: Null Subjects in Minimalist Theory. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Cole, Melvyn. 2009. “Null subjects: A reanalysis of data.” Linguistics 47:559-587.

Frascarelli, Mara. 2007. “Subjects, topics and the interpretation of referential‘pro’: an interface approach to the linking of (null) pronouns.” NaturalLanguage and Linguistic and Linguistic Theory 25: 691-734.

Holmberg, Anders. 2005. “Is there a little ‘pro’? Evidence from Finnish.”Linguistic Inquiry 2005:533-564.

Holmberg, Anders. 2010. “Null subject parameters.” In Biberauer et al. 2010.

Shlonsky, Ur. 2009. “Hebrew as partial-null subject language.” StudiaLinguistica 63:133-157.

Roberts, Ian. 2010. “A deletion analysis of null subjects.” In Biberauer et al.2010.


Egor Tsedryk is an Associate Professor of French and Linguistics at Saint Mary’s University (Halifax, Canada). His research interests include syntax and theoretical linguistics, and one of his current projects is focused on null subjects in embedded finite clauses.

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