A Comparative Syntactic Review of Null-Subject Parameter in English and Izon Languages

Scientific Essay, 2010

11 Pages



1.0 Introduction
1.1. Principles and Parameters

2.0. The Structure of the English language

3.0. Null-subject manifestation in Izọn language
3.1. Null-subject in interrogatives in Izọn language.

4.0. Implications for language acquisition

5.0. Conclusion



The theory of universal grammar relies heavily on the biolinguistic concept of natural endowment and innate knowledge of the general principles of language. It postulates that all humans are naturally endowed with the general rules and configurations of language and to this extent, all natural languages have similar structural features. The theory of universal grammar as hypothesised by Chomsky and propagated by other linguists however recognizes the existence of language-specific idiosyncratic features that constitute parametric variations among languages. These are the parameters of universal grammar. The most prominent parameters that create distinctions between languages are head directionality, pro-drop or null-subject and wh- parameters. This paper reviews the null-subject parameter in English and juxtaposes its occurrence or non-occurrence in Izon language and its implications for language acquisition.

Key words: Universal Grammar, principles and parameters, parametric variations, null-subject, English, Izọn

1.0 Introduction

Null-subject parameter is one of the most prominent parameters put forward in the related theories of universal grammar and principles and parameters grammar {PPT). Whereas Universal grammar postulates general principles of grammar shared by all natural languages which are considered to be innate to human beings (Baker 2002:279), principles and parameters hypothesizes the general principles or abstract rules of grammar common to all languages as well as specific parameters or choices made by individual languages. Principles, in other words, are the syntactic features that all natural language of the world possess, because, according to Chomsky (2002b:57), language is part of the mental biology (a natural endowment) of all humans. On the other hand, however, every language still possesses idiosyncratic peripheral features peculiar to itself. The idiosyncratic features are, actually, the parameters that give every language its identity. This indeed is the basis for comparative syntax or contrastive linguistics. For these reasons, according to Newmeyer (2004), the principles and parameters theory has remained relevant in mainstream generative syntax. Radford (2004a:471) summarises PPT as: a theory which claims that natural languages incorporate not only a set of innate universal principles which account for those aspects of grammar which are common to all languages, but also a set of parameters which account for those aspects of grammar which vary from one language to another Null-subject is one of the parameters of universal grammar. The concept of null-subject or pro-drop arises from the permissible dropping, in some languages, of subject pronoun of a sentence because of potential pragmatic recoverability from context. The content of null-subject is phonologically and morphologically covert but is recoverable in context by competent native speakers of the language. A null-subject is said to have grammatical and semantic properties but lacks overt phonetic form. Going by the parameter of null-subject, some languages are classified as null-subject or pro-drop languages while some are classified as non-null-subject or non-pro-drop languages. English, according to Chomsky (1995:36) is a non-pro-drop language, but Italian is a pro-drop language because null-subject is a permissible parameter in it.

Pro-drop parameter has implications for language acquisition. This paper is a comparative review of the null-subject parameter involving English and Izọn languages in order to elucidate how speakers of the two languages acquire their languages through different parameters in the binary arrangement. The paper is hinged principally on theoretical linguistics which will provide linguistic information about the null-subject status of the two languages which in addition could facilitate the learning of either the two languages as L2.

1.1. Principles and Parameters

The Null-subject or pro-drop parameter is a concept rooted in the principles and parameters theory of Universal Grammar (UG). This is a theory formulated by Noam Chomsky (1981) and propagated by other linguists such as Radford (1997, 2004a and b), Webelhuth (1995) and Lasnik (1995) among others. The Principles and Parameters Theory (PPT) seeks to explain the similarities and variations that exist among natural languages. It identifies general principles possessed by all natural languages. These similarities include the lexical categories of parts of speech, the structural categories of phrases and clauses, the presence of (phrasal) among others. Apart from lexical differences, languages also vary in word order or syntactic structure. Smith (2005:38), while explaining the diversity of languages in the proper perspective of Principles and Parameters Theory states that “although languages differ along various dimensions, the principles and parameters have been there from the beginning and children are born with the principles with some specifications of the range of variations in possible human languages”. Therefore, the child learning the grammar of any particular language has to find out the permissible values or parameters in his language. This is an affirmation of Chomsky’s postulation that; The grammar of a language can be regarded as particular values for the parameters available in UG while the overall system of rules, principles and parameters is UG which may be taken to be an element of human biological endowment, namely the ‘language faculty’ (Chomsky, 1982:7).

This means that a language is a system of specifications for usually binary parameters in an invariant system of principles of Universal Grammar. Therefore, as Ali ((2007) explains, linguistic diversity is determined by a variation in the setting of certain values. In other words, parametric variations are determined by the parameterized choices languages make in different dimensions. They include word order, head directionality parameter, Null-subject or pro-drop parameter and wh-parameter. Principles and Parameters Theory is a useful instrument for CA since it concerns choices made by languages, as it will be seen in this study. For this reason, PPT is adopted in this study.

2.0. The Structure of the English language

The English language, according to Chomsky (1995:36) is a non pro-drop language because the dropping of the subject in the sentence structure is not permissible. This is the syntactic parametric choice of the English language from a system of binary options. Consequently, a declarative sentence in English with a null-subject is considered by competent speakers of the language as ungrammatical, although, this is with the exception of imperative sentences which usually lack overt subjects. English is an SVO language; the canonical structure of a standard derivation in English is SVO consisting of the subject, verb and an object or adjunct as in the examples below.

1. He has bought a new car.

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2. She arrived yesterday.

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These are convergent derivations in English because the subject position which is the Spec(ifier) of Inflection is not covert but overtly and morphologically realized. In other words, the grammatical and semantic properties of the subject are given phonetic form. But if these derivations are presented with a null Specifier of Inflection, they would become ungrammatical and unacceptable to native speakers or other competent speakers of English as in [3] below.

3.* pro arrived yesterday.

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Although pro-drop is not permissible parameter English grammar, it is the parametric choice of Italian syntax. According to Radford (2004a:107), all finite clauses in Italian allow null-subject. Radford (ibid) describes pro as a null finite subject in Italian. Therefore, all competent native speakers of the Italian language have acquired this syntactic parameter of Universal Grammar so that native speakers and hearers are able to decipher the meaning of not only overt codes but also of the empty categories, that is, the null-subject.

Again, although English is not a null-subject language, it does permit pro-drop in imperative sentences and “truncated null subjects in colloquial spoken English” (Radford 2004a:106). Imperative sentences express commands, requests and prayers and are usually headed by a verb. It does not have an overt subject as in examples [4] and [5] below. Radford (2004:107) refers to this as “imperative null-subject”

4. Come here quickly (You, come here quickly)

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5. Write down the correct answer

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In an imperative null-subject, the phonetic features of the logical pronoun “you” are not spelled out since it is not phonologically and morphologically realized but Chomsky’s ideal native speakers and hearers possess the linguistic knowledge and competence based on the internalized syntactic rules of the language to recover, understand and interpret the unspecified meaning of the null-subject from context.


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A Comparative Syntactic Review of Null-Subject Parameter in English and Izon Languages
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Universal Grammar, principles and parameters, parametric variations, null-subject, English, Izọn
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Odingowei Kwokwo (Author), 2010, A Comparative Syntactic Review of Null-Subject Parameter in English and Izon Languages, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/314744


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