"pro drop"

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Wed May 5 17:56:13 UTC 1999

I think Alan King should be commended for an excellent summary of the issues
involved in the discussion of pro-drop and verb second.

Also, I find myself in agreement with respect to all of the major substantive
points.  Just a few footnotes on some of the things Alan wrote:

> I have always felt that the concept, nay the very term, "pro-drop" betrays
> where most modern linguistic theoreticians have been coming from: the
> European world (linguistically speaking) in general and ENGLISH in
> particular.  The original implication was surely that some languages show
> the "surprising" property that ordinary clauses do not obligatorily contain
> an overt subject NP; whereas if the initial vantage point had been almost
> anywhere else in the world, the opposite observation would have been the
> surprising one: that there exist languages in which the overt presence of a
> subject NP is generally obligatory.  The term implies that, in most
> languages (undoubtedly), when the subject isn't mentioned it is because
> "something" has been "dropped", a notion which I think makes most sense if
> the linguist happens to speak English.  So it is always with misgivings
> that I go along with the current terminology and employ this annoying
> expression, "pro-drop".

Hooray.  I don't think the above can be emphasized too strongly.

But I'd like to add something here.  One possibility that needs to be entertained
is that among the "pro-drop" languages there is an important distinction between
those for which in a one-word sentence SANG meaning "He sang" there really is an
empty position, and those for which, in a similar sentence, there is no such
empty position.

> Classical HEBREW is pro-drop; finite verbs are indexed for the person,
> gender and number of the subject, and a subject NP need not be overtly
> present.  But post-classical Hebrew remodelled the tense system, developing
> in the modern language a present tense from a periphrastic source.   Unlike
> the modern past and future (inherited tenses which which still have full
> subject indexing), the modern present tense lacks person indexing, and with
> just this tense pro-drop is not allowed.  This of course responds to a very
> widespread (though not universal) tendency for "pro-drop" to be permitted
> just in cases where the argument in question is indexed.  So whether Modern
> Hebrew is pro-drop or not depends on which tenses are considered.

Like in most cases, the Hebrew facts are even more complex, thereby reinforcing
Alan's point even further.  In past and future, the availability of pro-drop
varies also with person, being less acceptable for 3rd person than for 1st and
2nd.  And in the present, pro-drop does actually occur, though much less often
than in past and future.

> So, in Hebrew and (even more notably) some other languages, the
> presence or absence of pro-drop depends on the type of clause examined.

Indeed, there was extensive discussion of this point on the lingtyp list sometime
last fall.

> 5) Tagalog?

As Alan suggested with the question mark, Tagalog is problematical.  Although
"pro-drop" in Tagalog is less common than in Malay, it does occur, colloquially.
Not only that, but it occurs in "predicate nominals", a construction type for
which it is relatively rare cross linguistically.

> Rather, the verb-second principle might
> (hypothetically) occur in the context of some other syntactic system which
> will then probably give rise to somewhat distinct final results.

Indeed, it has been argued (by Steve Anderson, and by myself) that there is a
phenomenological unity encompassing verb-second and also clitic-second (ie,
Wackernagel's position), in which case the phenomenon in question would clearly
be of world-wide distribution, eg. Tagalog, Warlpiri.

Hope this is of some interest.  (See: even English isn't that straightforward
with regard to "pro-drop".)


David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-9952310
Fax: 49-341-9952119
Email: gil at eva.mpg.de
Webpage:  http://monolith.eva.mpg.de/~gil/

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