Expletive subjects: Literature and grammaticalisation

Nigel Vincent nigel.vincent at MANCHESTER.AC.UK
Wed Jan 10 16:52:08 UTC 2007

Dear Colleague,
I'd make a couple of points in connection with your posting. First, there are
plenty of accounts of expletive constructions which are worked out in formal
frameworks which do not postulate unnecessary and ultimately circular
constructs like the EPP. Here are  a couple that might be relevant to your
enquiry. The first uses Role and Reference Grammar and the second
Lexical-Functional Grammar.

Delia Bentley 2004. Definiteness effects: evidence from Sardinian. 
of the Philological Society 102/1:1-45.
Kersti Börjars & Nigel Vincent (2006) ‘Position vs function in Scandinavian
presentational constructions’.  In Miriam Butt & Tracy Holloway King (eds)
Proceedings of the LFG05 Conference, University of Bergen, Stanford, Ca: CSLI
Publications, pp. 54-72. http://csli-publications.stanford.edu/

Delia Bentley has also written more about Sardinian existentials and their
difference from locatives in a paper presented at the Existentials Workshop in
Stanford in 2006. I don't know about the other papers at that event, but there
might well be some of relevance yo your research. You can contact Delia for a
copy of her paper at: delia.bentley at manchester.ac.uk

Second I think there is a good argument that English is actually a 
language with
a dedicated expletive, namely 'there'. It's true that it is spelt the same as
the locative adverb but it shares no properties with it, either syntactic or
phonological. If English were an unwritten language, I'd hazard a guess that
fieldworkers would record two separate items for the locative and 
expletive and
record them with different transcriptions/orthographies.

Best wishes,
Nigel Vincent

Quoting p.k.eriksen at ILN.UIO.NO:

> 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

Professor Nigel Vincent, FBA
Associate Vice-President for Graduate Education

Mailing address:     School of Languages, Linguistics & Cultures
                     University of Manchester
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