Expletive subjects: Literature and grammaticalisation

p.k.eriksen at ILN.UIO.NO p.k.eriksen at ILN.UIO.NO
Wed Jan 10 15:28:29 UTC 2007

Dear colleagues.

    I have two questions concerning expletive subjects. The first one is
quite simple: I am looking for literature and/or theories on expletive
subjects within functional typology. That is, I am specifically
interested in a functional approach, as opposed to the standard formal
analysis of expletive subjects, in which these items are licensed
merely in order to satisfy a subject requirement, like the Extended
Projection Principle in Chomskyan grammar.

   I am aware that Chomsky and other generativists recently have come to
distinguish between expletives in weather-sentences and extraposition
constructions on one hand and expletives in existential sentences on the
other (i.e. English "It"-expletives vs. "There"-expletives). The former
are referred to as quasi-arguments, and consequently granted a certain
degree of semantic function, while the latter remain the only purely
formal subjects within this view. However, I am interested in whether
there exists a functional analysis of expletives which also includes
expletives in existential sentences. However, any work on expletive
subjects within functional typology would be of interest.

   The second question is whether any of you are aware of languages in
which expletive subjects have been grammaticalised into a morpheme which
can only function as an expletive subject, without any secondary
pronominal or adverbial usage.

   The only such case I am aware of, is the expletive subject "dar" found
in my own native dialect of Norwegian, which I will here refer to as
Lyngdal Norwegian. Whereas all other Germanic expletives are either
identical to a 3rd person neuter pronoun ("it") or to a distal spatial
adverb ("there"), the expletive "dar" in Lyngdal Norwegian is distinct
from both (as shown in the examples below), and has no other uses but the
expletive subject function:

   1) Dar   bu          mange rare         folk     der.
       EXPL live.PRES many  strange.PL people there
       "There are many strange people living there."

   2) De e          så koseli at   dar   snø!
       it  be.PRES so nice   that EXPL snow.PRES
       "It's so nice that it is snowing!"

   One can assume that "dar" must be cognate to the distal spatial adverb
"der" ("there"), but they are clearly distinct morphemes in the current
dialect, and there are no synchronic phonological processes which could
explain "dar" as being a prosodically licensed allomorph of "der".

   It is also interesting to note that while "there"-expletives in other
Germanic languages (like English and Danish) cannot be used as
expletives in weather sentences ( *"There is snowing"), this is not so in
Lyngdal Norwegian, as shown in (2) above. However, "dar" is not used as an
expletive in extraposition constructions, as also shown in (2) and in (3)
below. The 3rd person neuter pronoun "de" is used instead:

   3) De e          sunt           å  drikke vin.
       it  be.PRES healthy.NEU to drink  wine
       "It's healthy to drink wine."

   Are you aware of any other languages in which a similar specialised
expletive-morpheme is found? If you do, I would be very happy if you could
also give information on its distribution across the sentence types
involved (i.e. existential sentences, weather sentences and
extraposition constructions).

   Best wishes,

   Pål Kr. Eriksen

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