Russian with Regard to Null Subject Parameter

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical background
2.1. Chomsky’s universal grammar approach and the role of the Parameters
2.2. Null subject parameter and null subject languages

3. Data analysis
3.1. The realisation of the null subject parameter in Italian
3.2. Russian with regard to null subjects

4. Discussion

5. Conclusion

6. List of references

1. Introduction

“Ever since the ground-breaking observations of Perlmutter (1971), the contrasts between languages that allow subjects of tensed sentences to be null [...] and those that do not [...] has been a classic problem for any serious theory of linguistic typology.“ (Jaeggli, Safir 1989: 9). The null subject phenomena still catches more and more interest in linguistic researches owing to the observations of multiple correlations between the null subject property and other syntactic phenomena (ibid.).

Slavic languages received and still receive very little attention within the government and binding theory / universal grammar. From the perspective of the null subject parameter, Slavic languages should be very attention catching because of their diversion. Especially Russian represents an interesting case. Till this days, linguists all over the world can not decide whether ist is a null subject language or not, whether it is a partial null subject language or something different.

This seminar work examines the pro-drop parameter on the examples of Italian being the standard pro-drop language compared to Russian language. The emphasis is on the problem whether Russian is a null subject language or not and if it is one, is it a classical or a partial one.

The paper is organised as follows. The first section gives a brief overview of the theoretical background. The second section analysis the data, which is discussed in the following section. Finally, the conclusions are maid in the final chapter.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1. Chomsky’s universal grammar approach and the role of the Parameters

Chomsky believes that children will never require the knowledge to process an infinite number of sentences if the language acquisition mechanism was dependent on language input alone. The theory of Universal Grammar, usually referred as Government and Binding Theory, was proposed suggesting that all children are born with ability to acquire, develop and understand grammar regardless of where or how they are raised (noun/verb category). Universal Grammar holds the grammatical information needed in order to combine categories of language such as verb and nouns into phrases like the ones in the example (1) below.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

According to Handke (2016), Universal grammar was at first based on the fundamental structure of the languages spoken by the linguists developing the theory. There were mostly European languages involved. The linguists looked for the universal limiting factors of the bigger pieces of languages, for example the noun phrases and verb phrases. This led to discovery of the factors that would not fit the established scheme. Handke (ibid.) highlights that the idea of the universal grammar, which could be applied to all human languages was replaced by the theory of universal principles and parameters.

Parameters are defined by Jaeggli and Safir (1989: 2) as „a set of language (class) specific options expressed as postulates that interact with universal principles to form the grammars of particular languages“. Both of them support Chomskian Standard Parameter Theory, which suggests that not only a set of universal principles of grammar, but also a set of linguistic parameters are indispensable for children’s language acquisition (ibid.: 3). While the first ones are invariant across all the languages, the second ones are the cause of the linguistic variation because of the many possible settings of them (ibid.). Unlike earlier approaches, a key problem of which was becoming too descriptive, Standard parameter theory succeeds the achieving of the needed generalisation (ibid.: 3-7).

2.2. Null-subject parameter and null-subject languages

The “Null Subject Parameter” is one of the parameters of variations between languages. A null subject is basically the absence of a subject in a sentence. The Parameter differs between languages, where finite verbs and auxiliaries do or don’t license null subjects. These languages are called null subject languages (i.e. 2 (Radford, Atkinson, Britain, Clahsen, Spencer 1999: 319)).

2. Early Modern English

a. Hast any more of this? (Trinculo, The Tempest, II. ii)
b. Would you would bear your fortune like a man (Iago, Othello, IV. i)

The grammar of Early Modern English allows the subject of a finite verb or auxiliary to be null. In both of these sentences one could use thou instead of the null subject, which means that it occurs in a nominative position (ibid.). Later, in Contemporary Standard English, one would say these sentences in a different way (i.e. 3(ibid.: 320)).

3. Contemporary Standard English

a. Have you got any more of this?
b. I wish you would bear your fortunes like a man

This comparison shows that Contemporary Standard English is not a null subject language. The Null Subject Parameter is a binary one, because auxiliaries and finite verbs can not license and in some other examples not license null subjects (ibid.).

There are two types of null subjects, thematic and expletive, and there are null subject languages with only one type as well as null subject languages licensing both of them (Camacho 2013: 14). Every language permitting null thematic subjects is also permitting null expletive subjects, but not the other way around (Jaeggli, Safir 1989: 2.3.3.).

Beside the languages that license null subjects and the ones that do not, there are also languages with partial licensing called partial null subject languages (Bizzarri 2015). Russian could is considered by some linguists as one of these languages (Bizzarri 2015: 338).

3. Data analysis

3.1. The realisation of the null subject parameter in Italian - canonical null subject language

“The adaptation of the structure [NP[T VP]] in languages other than English, and particulary the variability of the position of the subject in languages like Italian, has been at the heart of linguistic debates for many years[.]“ (Moro 2017: 129)

When comparing English, a Germanic language, to Italian, a Roman language, one can see that these languages differ when it comes to the null subject parameter. While Italian not only allows null subjects with definite pronominal interpretation (i.e. 4), the

4. a.parla. (Italian)

d. * speaks. (English)

grammar of these language even does not allow an overt non-referential pronoun (i.e. 5).

5. a. *Cio piove. (Italian)

d. It is raining. (English)

English does not allow a subject to occur in postverbal position leaving the preverbal subject position empty, while the grammar of Italian allows this (i.e. 6).

6. a.è stato dato un premio al presidente. (Italian)

d. * was given a prize to the president. (English)

It is also possible in Italian to have a deep subject in postverbal (VP-final) position (i.e. 7).

7. a.ha telefonato Ben. (Italian)

d. * telephoned Ben. (English)

Due to the grammar of languages like Italian it is allowed to have a Wh-extraction of an embedded subject across an overt complementizer (i.e. 8).

8. a. Chi credi che telefonera? (Italian)

d. *Who do you think that will telephone? (English)

A tensed verb in Italian is inflected for number, person, tense and even mood. Here is an example (i.e. 9) of the verbs dire (to say), an irregular verb in presente (simple present/presentprogressive) indicativo (realis mood), and mangiare (to eat), a regular verb of the first conjugation also in presente indicativo.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

As one can see, there is no ending used in more than one number-person combination, therefore any possibility of confusion is avoided, even when the subject remains null (Jaeggli, Safir 1989: 26-28). Although this is not always a case in Italian (i.e. 10), the null subject is still allowed (ibid.).

10. sapere - to know; congiuntivo (subjunctive) presente che io sappia

che tu sappia

che lui/lei sappia

che noi sappiamo

che voi sappiate

che loro sappiano

In the context of the Chomskian claim that null subject languages often share a number of other parameters separating them from other languages, several other linguists like Jespersen, Perlmutter and Taraldsen claimed such richness to be an indicator for the language allowing null subjects (LaFond 2001: 11).

Moreover classical null subject languages permit inversion in declarative sentences and apparent violations of that-trace (ibid.: 12) as one can see in the examples (i.e. 11, 12 (ibid.)) showing this phenomenon in Italian. LaFond (ibid.: 13) claims that Italian is also

11. Ha mangiato Giovanni.

have-3sg eat-part-pst John

John has eaten.

12. Chi credi che partira? who think-2sg-prs that leave-3sg-fut Who do you think (*that) will leave?

one of the null subject languages containing long wh-movement (i.e. 13) (ibid.) and empty resumptive pronouns (i.e. 14) (ibid.).

13. L’uomo che mi domando chi abbia visto.

the man that I wonder who has-3sg-pst see-part-pst The man (x) such that I wonder who x saw.

14. Ecco la ragazza che mi domando chi credi che farla. this is the girl that I wonder who think-3sg that did it This is the girl who I wonder who thinks that (she) did it.

There are also other characteristics of null subject languages fitting Italian, but not all languages fit them (ibid.). Still, Italian is seen as a classical null subject language among most linguists.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Russian with Regard to Null Subject Parameter
University of Cologne
Catalog Number
Comparative grammar, grammar, linguistics, Linguistik, Null Subject Parameter, linguistic parameter, russian, languages
Quote paper
Nama Menge (Author), 2019, Russian with Regard to Null Subject Parameter, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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