25.4278, Review: Semantics; Syntax: Camacho (2013)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-25-4278. Tue Oct 28 2014. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 25.4278, Review: Semantics; Syntax: Camacho (2013)

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Date: Tue, 28 Oct 2014 14:05:05
From: John Foreman [johnoforeman at gmail.com]
Subject: Null Subjects

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-2542.html

AUTHOR: José A. Camacho
TITLE: Null Subjects
SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: John Foreman, University of Texas - Pan American

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


In the monograph ''Null Subjects'', Jorge A. Camacho synthesizes and builds on
the generative syntactic research concerning the licensing of null subjects
(NSs) and attempts a unified account for their distribution across a wide
range of languages, from ''prototypical'' null subject languages (NSLs) like
Italian to partial-NSLs like Hebrew to discourse NSLs like Japanese.  His main
conclusion is that null subjects (NSs) are not the result of a macro-parameter
as evidenced by typological data, language internal facts, and patterns of
acquisition.  Instead, NSs (and any secondary properties associated with them)
are the result of a conspiracy of micro-parameters.  In particular, he argues
that NS facts derive from twin requirements placed on the valuation of NSs:
valuation via both discourse antecedents and verbal inflectional morphology
(for which there are a range of language specific requirements ranging from no
inflectional identification to full identification with respect to person,
number, and gender).  These two requirements, he argues, account for the range
of variation in the licensing of NSs between and within languages, explain
contrasts between overt and null subjects, provide an account for differing
behaviors of overt preverbal subject, and align with attested patterns in
first and second language acquisition of NSLs.   


The book is organized into nine chapters as follows.  Chapter 1 provides an
introduction to the book, offering a brief overview of the hypothesized Null
Subject (macro-)Parameter and indicating that the book will take a
micro-parametric view.  Chapter 2 offers an overview of six syntactic features
that have been claimed to be defining properties of NSLs: null thematic
subjects, null expletive subjects, subject-verb/verb-subject (SV/VS) word
order alternation, null resumptive pronouns, no that-trace effects, and long
wh-extraction.  Camacho shows that overt/null thematic subjects and overt/null
expletive subjects are in fact independent of each other and provides
crosslinguistic data showing all four logical combinations: both overt, both
null, overt thematic subject/null expletives, and null thematic subjects/overt
expletives, a typologically rare but attested pattern in languages like
Finnish and Dominican Spanish. The chapter also provides a brief discussion of
some interpretative differences between null and overt subject and ends with a
typology of null subject languages.  Camacho identifies languages like Italian
and Spanish with robust morphology and robust NSs, languages like Japanese
with NSs and no morphological indication of the subject, and partial NS
languages having restricted distributions of NSs--for example, with only
certain persons, or tenses or with matrix/embedded clause asymmetries. 

Chapter 3 continues with an evaluation of some of the six syntactic features,
looking more at overt expletives in NSLs and also evaluating SV/VS word order,
null resumptive pronouns, and lack of that-trace effects.  Camacho claims that
none of these properties are consistently found in every language that, at
least sometimes, licenses NSs.

Chapter 4 evaluates the nature of NSs, whether NSs are theoretically distinct
'pro' entities, deleted pronouns, or the result of pronominal features
incorporated into the verb (the pronominal agreement hypothesis).  Camacho
argues that the empirical evidence supports the pro-type analysis. He then
goes on to consider evidence for null expletive pronouns and concludes there
is none.  This leads him to build on work from Rizzi and Shlonsky (2007),
recasting the EPP in terms of two potentially competing alignment constraints
(from p. 102):

1. Align DP with the edge of the Subj[ect] projection

2. Align XP with the edge of the Topic projection

These requirements may be ranked relative to one another, with
subject-prominent languages like English ranking the first constraint higher
while topic prominent languages rank the second constraint higher. 

Chapters 5 and 6 outline the heart of Camacho's proposal for how NSs are
licensed (or valued) in any particular clause.  He argues that NSs are valued
via two mechanisms: morphological identification and discourse antecedents. 
Typically, these two mechanisms are both required, though discourse NSLs like
Japanese rely only on the latter.  Languages using both mechanisms first try
valuing the NS via morphology and if that is insufficient draw on discourse
antecedents.  As Camacho notes in Chapter 5 following Cole (2009), languages
employing morphological identification, however, vary in the number and kinds
of inflectional features required to value the NS, what Camacho terms the
Minimum Morphological Threshold (MMT).  For some languages like Tarifit, a
Berber language, NSs can only be valued if the verb is uniquely inflected for
gender, person, and number. Other languages, like Spanish, require only person
and number, and still others such as Bengali require only person.  Finally,
some languages, like Finnish, only allow NS for particular persons (speech
participants).  Following these observations, Camacho adopts proposals by
Harley and Ritter (2002) and Béjar (2003) positing a hierarchy of inflectional
phi-features along roughly two dimensions (speech participant vs. non and
gender>number>person). This provides a continuum along which different
languages set their MMT.  Discourse NSLs like Japanese, of course, set their
MMT to zero, requiring no overt morphological identification of the NS.  

In Chapter 6, Camacho shows how languages that have morphological licensing
requirements for NSs still rely on the availability of discourse antecedents
in identifying the subject.  This can explain why NSs are still possible even
when particular verb forms may have impoverished inflection.  For example, in
Bengali second and third person verb forms may not be distinct while in
Spanish in certain tenses/moods, first and third singular forms may not be
distinct.  NSs can still be licensed with such verbs provided there is a
salient discourse antecedent.  If none is present, overt subjects become
necessary.  Of course, languages without subject agreement rely exclusively on
discourse identification.  Camacho attempts to constrain the availability of
valuing NSs via discourse antecedents by restricting the probe to stopping at
the first matching element and by noting that certain languages, like English,
have barriers, like Infl(ection)P(hrase) that block any discourse valuation.

In Chapter 7, Camacho looks at the contrasts between overt subjects and NSs
with respect to distribution and interpretation.  He argues that the twin
requirements of morphological and discourse identification can explain various
contrasts between the two, such as the availability of NSs to be bound by a
quantified DP, and the existence of topic/discourse binding to explain
backward anaphora in temporal adjuncts and conditional clauses in Spanish and
Italian.  He also argues that these mechanisms explain why expletives take
default agreement and he revisits the issue of null expletives. 

In Chapter 8, he looks at the position of overt preverbal subjects in NSLs. He
argues, contra Alexiadou and Anagnostopoulou (1998), that preverbal subjects
in these languages are not always clitic left dislocated (CLLD).  He argues
instead that they have at least two positions available to them, both Spec,IP
and a dislocated position within (an expanded) CP with 'pro' occupying

Finally, in Chapter 9, Camacho reviews the first and second language
acquisition literature with respect to NSs. As he notes, the acquisition data
provides further evidence that NSs are independent of other properties like
SV/VS alternations that have been suggested to depend on NSs. He also notes
that the data show that children acquire NSs in an adult-like manner quite
quickly and in a manner fitting with his proposals of NSs valued by discourse
salience and inflectional morphology.  Finally, he also considers root subject
drop by English speaking children. Following Rizzi 2005, he suggests that this
follows truncation and diary drop observed also in the adult language and that
children employ NSs in English to ease processing loads.  


Camacho is successful in arguing that variation between and within languages
argues against a large scale macro-parameter determining whether languages are
NSL or not.  He is less successful, however, in explicating exactly how his
proposed micro-parameters account for the full range of data.  This is
partially due to failure to fully explicate the full workings of his theory
and partially due to issues of organization and presentation.

The book offers a wealth of typological data, particularly with respect to
partial NSLs, and provides a valuable guide to references on NSLs. It produces
an excellent snapshot of where generative syntacticians are in their current
understanding of NS phenomena and what issues remain.  It also implicitly
suggests some valuable points of departure for further research, for example,
whether or not the dual positioning of preverbal subjects is available in all
NSLs, including partial and discourse NSLs.  The proposals concerning how NSs
are valued in inflectionally agreeing languages appears rather compelling.  

Various questions linger, however, undermining the proposals to some extent. 
For example, Camacho doesn't directly address whether or not 'pro' co-occurs
with post-verbal subjects.  It seems to be assumed in some parts of the text
but is never specifically addressed one way or another.  

Another point that could have been addressed is exactly what is the difference
between a language like English, which is classified as not being an NSL, yet
informally has root subject drop (e.g. '(I) don't know' or 'seems good to
me'), and a language like Levantine Arabic, which is classified as a partial
NSL whose ''NSs are restricted to main clauses'' (p. 55). Camacho notes the
similarity in Chapter 9 but essentially restricts his comments about root
subject drop to child language and doesn't account for it in adult English.
This is problematic since the micro-parameterization characterization of NSs
and NSLs and the continuum of partial NSLs makes the classification of English
as a non-NSL language less clear than it was under the macro-parameter
treatment of NSLs.  This is not necessarily a disadvantage of this approach. 
It could capture the idea of why colloquial English allows NSs in root clauses
under certain contexts, a fact not easily captured under the macro-parameter
account. But this idea was not followed to its logical conclusion.  

Finally, if NSs derive from a conspiracy of micro-parameters, it is necessary
to provide an assessment of how all of the parameters interact to yield the
observed patterns in attested languages.  With macro-parametric variation, it
was clearer why third person singular present verb forms in English don't
(consistently) allow NS.  The answer to this question is much less clear now
with the recognition of micro-parameters and partial-NSLs (including those
like Shipibo which allow NSs in third person but not in first or second (p.
35).)  There are attempts here and there throughout the book to address such
questions, but never one place where Camacho addresses exactly how all of the
micro-parameters interact to provide the data in English (or Spanish or some
other language). For example, he hypothesizes that InflP somehow blocks
English from making use of discourse antecedents to license NSs. The details
are unclear, but again don't explain the lack of morphological valuation in
English.  He also notes that English is beholden to the alignment constraint
in 1 above, but it is unclear if 'pro' should meet this requirement or not. 
Also, there is no discussion of how this constraint should (or should not)
interact with, or be ranked, with respect to morphological valuation.  Does
this alignment constraint not hold for Spanish?  Is it irrelevant to the issue
of NSs altogether? How does English occasionally throw off its constraints
against NSs to have them in root subject drop contexts? The answers to these
questions aren't at all clear.  

My other criticisms of the book involve the organization and presentation of
the data and arguments.  Camacho often follows the history of the generative
theory of NSLs and overemphasizes the inadequacy of earlier approaches to the
detriment of advocating for his own analysis.  

As a result, discourse NSLs like Japanese and Chinese are largely excluded
from the discussion except for the end of Chapter 2 and parts of Chapter 6. 
This means the discussion of NSs often isn't about all NSs, but really about
NSs in ''prototypical'' NSLs like Spanish and Italian and (less frequently)
those in partial-NSLs.  For instance, discourse NSLs are not addressed in the
discussions in Chapter 2 and 3 of NSLs having null expletives, no that-trace
effects, SV/VS word order, etc.  Similarly, Chapter 8 and its discussion of
preverbal subjects in NSLs does not touch on preverbal subjects in discourse
NSLs.  The book would have benefited greatly if the typology given at the end
of Chapter 2 had been placed first in the chapter and subsequent discussion
situated in terms of where we were in that typology (for example, only
discussing patterns applying to ''prototypical'' NSLs).  In addition, the
typological data is quite complex and involved.  Summary charts would have
benefited the reader immensely. Also, some of the cross-linguistic data in the
early chapters had inconsistent glossing or copy/paste errors, which further
confused the discussion.  

Camacho's presentation of his analysis suffers from similar organizational
issues. After the typology, he should have outlined the details of his
proposal and then in the rest of the chapters presented the discussion and
data to support his analysis.  Instead, the analysis is never fully laid out
in one place and instead comes in dribs and drabs and backtracks.  For
example, he argues in Chapter 4 that there is no independent evidence for null
expletive subjects.  This seems a reasonable conclusion to draw, but later in
Chapter 7 null expletives are advocated for, and it becomes unclear what his
position is.  

Another example is provided by Chapter 8 and Camacho’s discussion of overt
preverbal subjects in NSLs. He spends the bulk of the chapter, 18 pages or so,
recounting previous work that has suggested that such subjects are CLLD
subjects and then arguing that this is not consistently true.  Only in the
last page of the chapter does he present his analysis that preverbal subjects
have both Spec,IP and a dislocated position available to them.  His analysis
would be much more convincing had the chapter been framed in support of his
analysis.  As presented, the analysis seems like an afterthought.  Similarly,
Chapter 9 discusses acquisition data concerning NSLs, but much of it is
recounted as a history of observations rather than in advancing his analysis.

Overall, the book is useful for anyone interested in further investigating the
topic of NSs and NSLs.  It provides a wealth of typological data for
''prototypical'' NSLs and, especially, partial NSLs (less so for discourse
NSLs) and provides a valuable summary of the current generative understanding
of NSLs and the problems with many earlier (or widespread and influential)
theories.  Organizational flaws, however, limit the impact of the proposed


Béjar, S. 2003. Phi-Syntax: A Theory of Agreement. Ph. D. thesis. University
of Toronto.

Cole, M. 2009. Null subjects: a reanalysis of the data. Linguistics 47,

Harley, H., Ritter, E. 2002. A feature-geometric analysis of person and
number. Language 78, 482-526.

Rizzi, L. 2005. Grammatically-based target-inconsistencies in child language,
in: Deen, K.U., Nomura, J., Schulz, B., Schwartz, B.D. (eds.), Proceedings of
the Inaugural Conference of GALANA. UCONN/MIT Working Papers in Linguistics,
Cambridge, MA, pp. 19-49.

Rizzi, L., Shlonsky, U. 2007. Strategies of subject extraction, in: Sauerland,
U., Gärtner, H.M. (eds.) Interfaces + Recursion = Language? Chomsky's
Minimalism and the View from Syntax-Semantics. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, pp.


John Foreman is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the
University of Texas-Pan American where he teaches grammar and linguistics. His
research interests include syntactic research into and the linguistic
description of Macuiltianguis Zapotec, a native language of Oaxaca, Mexico.
foremanjo at utpa.edu

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