ProDrop and ProDrop

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Sat May 15 11:43:31 UTC 1999

To my observation that:

> > I find it rather suprising that we are still trying to force languages
> > into black-and-white categories like "pro-drop" given the overwhelming
> > evidence to the effect that so much is actually gray:

Leon Stassen responds that:

> his comments on ProDrop could well be made about any typological parameter
> ever proposed, and that his 'relativism' - right though it is, of course -
> might end up destroying the gentle art of doing typology before it has even
> started. The fact is: languages clearly differ in the possibility of
> leaving their subject position unfilled.

Leon's concern is well-taken, and perhaps there was an unintentional (scopal?)
ambiguity in my original statement which could do with some clarification.  My
surprise is *not* with the attempt to deal with the "pro-drop" phenomenon per
se:  of course, languages vary with respect to it in interesting ways which
linguists can ill-afford to ignore.  My surprise is with specifically with the
"black-and-white" part; with the fact that so much of the discussion seems to
presuppose that a given language either "is" or "isn't" pro-drop.  Much good
recent work in linguistic typology has concerned itself with the ways in which
languages differ along specific hierarchies: the "gentle art" of typology is
under no threat of destruction from, say, work showing how split
accusative/ergative case-marking may be sensitive to the animacy hierarhcy --
quite the contrary!  Hence, I remain puzzled when people of any theoretical
persuasion continue to discuss the pro-drop issue in categorial yes-no terms.

I suppose what bothers me which much work in "typology" is the tendency to
compare things in different languages before the things in question have been
adequately described within each of the languages being compared.  The
"pro-drop" discussion provides a fine illustration of this.  At first people
thought that pro-drop correlates with richness of morphology; subsequently it
was noticed that many east Asian languages with little or no inflectional
morphology are also pro-drop.  A quandry for the typologist -- possibly
stemming from the fact that two quite different phenomena are being lumped
together under the single rubric of "pro-drop".  Different in what way?  Well,
this is where descriptions need to get just a little bit -- dare I say it --
deeper.  Maybe Spanish and Chinese have two different kinds of zeroes.  Or
maybe Spanish has a zero while Chinese has, well, nothing.  But we won't know
until we look more seriously at the structures of individual languages

Finally, Leon writes:

> I am of the opinion that it does not help our science to
> trivialize such questions and to shift them off to the pragmatic/stylistic
> waste-basket.

It seems to me that, if anything, forcing everything into a binary mold is
trivializing.  As for pragmatics and stylistics, well there are actually some
quite serious people doing good work in these areas; they're only
waste-baskets if you treat them as such.


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

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