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Pragmatic factors in pro-drop

In some languages (e.g. Italian and Chinese) pronominals in the subject position of tensed clauses do not need to be overtly realised, and this occurrence is referred to as ‘pro-drop’. (Baker, 2001). Null-subject languages (NSLs) are traditionally classified into two sub-categories: (1) canonical NSLs (i.e. the Italian type), which has rich inflectional morphology, or (2) radical NSLs (i.e. the Chinese type), with highly isolating morphology (Biberauer et al., 2009).
The phenomenon of pro-drop is typically seen from a purely syntactic perspective, particularly given its role as a hypothesised parameter within the Principles and Parameters (P&P) approach (Baker, 2001; Rizzi, 1982; Chomsky, 1981), yet only a few attempts have been made to incorporate pragmatics as part of a theoretical account for pro-drop. Yet, it is important to note that pragmatics often plays a vital role both in determining pronominal reference and in recovering the omitted pronominal subject. This paper hence argues for the incorporation of pragmatic factors into any comprehensive theory of pro-drop in order to close these gaps in the current literature.
Previous theories based entirely on syntax and recoverability (Rizzi, 1982) accounts well for pro-drop in Indo-European languages, and even for split ergative languages such as Pashto. However, these theories fail when it comes to radical NSLs like Chinese, and outliers such as Hawaiian.
Huang's (1989) General Control Theory addresses these issues and notably includes pragmatic factors in accounting for pro-drop in Chinese, though generally as a 'fall back option' where there is no viable syntactic explanation. More recent developments (see Neeleman and Szendrői, 2007) use spell-out rules to convincingly produce a theory of radical pro-drop which preserves the 'autonomy of syntax', and which is demonstrably applicable to a wide array of languages.
Despite various efforts mentioned above, we still do not have a holistic theory of pro- drop that is highly analogous cross-linguistically. Syntax-wise, there remains a strong split in explanations of canonical and radical pro-drop languages. However, a closer examination of the pragmatics of null subjects suggests that the nature of pro-drop is remarkably similar between the two sub-types. These include:
  • The deictic vs anaphoric function of 3rd person pronouns (Holmstedt, 2021) as opposed to 1st/2nd persons may result in differences in the frequency of pro-drop in Hebrew (Melnik, 2007).
  • Omission of pronominal subjects due to pronoun avoidance in Korean.
  • A potential link between pro-drop and T-V distinction across all five language families.
With these pragmatic observations, we further propose that accessibility of antecedents can also be partly defined in pragmatic terms, instead of purely syntactic (cf. Ariel 1990). We ultimately conclude that the phenomenon of pro-drop should not be considered only within the boundaries of narrow syntax, but should be positioned on a syntax-pragmatics interface, and that pragmatic factors should receive a more salient position than it currently does in well-formed accounts of pro-drop.

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