Across languages, we can distinguish two types of simple sentences differing in the nature of their subjects. One sort of simple sentence involves a nominal subject, a subject consisting of a noun, plus possibly some modifiers. The second sort of simple sentence involves a pronominal subject, where there is no nominal subject and where the subject is expressed at most by a morpheme or morphemes coding semantic or grammatical features of the subject, such as person, number, or gender. Thus, the English example in (1a) is a simple sentence with a nominal subject, while (1b) is a simple sentence with a pronominal subject.
The child was singing.
I was singing.
In the English example in (1b), the morpheme expressing the subject is a separate word, an independent pronoun. In many languages, the only morpheme expressing the subject in a sentence with a pronominal subject will be an affix on the verb coding features of the subject, as illustrated by the third person singular subject prefix a- in (2) from Hakha Lai (Tibeto-Burman; Myanmar); such morphemes can be called pronominal affixes.
(2) Hakha Lai (David Peterson, p.c.)
‘He has gone.’
For the purposes of this map, a simple sentence with a pronominal subject will be one in which the only expression of the subject is a pronominal morpheme, such as an independent pronoun or a pronominal affix on the verb. As discussed below, this also includes sentences, found in some languages, in which there is no overt morpheme at all expressing the subject, but where the sentence is interpreted in the same way as simple sentences in other languages with overt pronominal morphemes.
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|Pronominal subjects are expressed by pronouns in subject position that are normally if not obligatorily present||82|
|Pronominal subjects are expressed by affixes on verbs||437|
|Pronominal subjects are expressed by clitics with variable host||32|
|Pronominal subjects are expressed by subject pronouns that occur in a different syntactic position from full noun phrase subjects||67|
|Pronominal subjects are expressed only by pronouns in subject position, but these pronouns are often left out||61|
|More than one of the above types with none dominant||32|
This map shows a number of different types of languages based on the method they use for expressing pronominal subjects. The first value shown is languages in which simple sentences with pronominal subjects normally if not obligatorily contain a pronoun in subject position. For the purposes of this map, subject position is defined as the position in the sentence in which nominal subjects appear. English is an example of this first type: the pronoun I in (1b) occurs in the same syntactic position as the nominal subject the child in (1a), and the pronoun is obligatory; if one leaves out the pronoun in (1b), the result is ungrammatical (*was singing). Only declarative sentences with verbal predicates are considered; many languages that normally employ pronouns in subject position in declarative sentences do not do so in imperative sentences, for example English (e.g. Eat your dinner ). Note that a language in which it is grammatically possible to have simple sentences without anything in subject position, but in which this option is seldom taken in actual usage, is treated as a language of the first type. For the purposes of this map, if all sentences with pronominal subjects on a couple of pages of text in a language have a pronoun in subject position, the language is coded as being of the first type.
The second type, and the one that is by far the most common (outnumbering all other types combined), is languages in which the normal expression of pronominal subjects is by means of affixes on the verb. Hakha Lai is an example of such a language. The example in (2) above illustrates this: the sole expression of the pronominal subject is by means of the third singular subject prefix on the verb.
The third value shown on the map is for languages in which the normal expression of pronominal subjects is by means of pronominal clitics which have variable hosts, attaching to different elements in the clause. For example, in Chemehuevi (Uto-Aztecan; southwestern United States), pronominal subjects are expressed by enclitics which attach to the first word in the clause. Compare (3a), illustrating SOV word order with a nominal subject, with (3b), in which the first person singular subject clitic =n is attached to the first word in the sentence.
‘Ann saw two stones.’
‘I gave a cat.’
The fourth value shown on the map is for languages where the expression of pronominal subjects is by means of pronominal words that occur in a syntactic position distinct from that of nominal subjects. This includes both languages where the pronoun normally co-occurs with the noun and languages where it does not. An example is given in (4a) from Longgu (Oceanic; Solomon Islands), where there is a separate pronominal word e expressing the fact that the subject is third person singular. However, this pronominal word is not in subject position, as can be seen in (4b), where the same pronominal word e co-occurs with a separate nominal subject.
‘He/she is sitting.’
‘The girl is almost crying.’
The fact that the pronominal word e is obligatory, even when there is a separate nominal subject, means that it is in a distinct syntactic position from that of the subject. In fact, this word is somewhat analogous to the subject prefix in (2) from Hakha Lai, except that it is a separate phonological word. Such words are probably best viewed as being part of a verbal complex, which contains the subject pronominal word and the verb, plus various other grammatical words associated with the verb.
Also included as instances of the fourth type are languages which are like Longgu in having a word expressing pronominal features of the subject, but where these words also code tense/aspect/mood features of the clause. For example, in Gela, like Longgu an Oceanic language of the Solomon Islands, there are words preceding the verb that code both pronominal features of the subject and tense, as illustrated in (5).
‘He/she ate taro.’
‘I will see the dog.’
The third and fourth types are like languages with pronominal subject affixes on verbs, in that there are pronominal morphemes somewhere in the clause, though in a position distinct from nominal subjects. The fifth type, in contrast, involves languages in which the only expression of pronominal subjects involves pronouns in subject position, but in which such pronouns are optional, so that if they are absent, there will be no expression of the subject at all. An example of such a language is Japanese, as in (6).
(6) Japanese (Hiroko Nakagawa, p.c.)
‘I/we/he/she/they read the letter.’
In languages where this is possible, the pronoun will typically only be left out if the reference is clear in the context. Such sentences will be considered here as instances of sentences with pronominal subjects, in the sense that they will always be assigned an interpretation that is the same as that of a sentence containing an overt pronoun – or, if the language does not allow independent pronouns in subject position, the same interpretation as a simple sentence in another language that does allow such pronouns. In describing such sentences here as having pronominal subjects, no commitment is intended as to the appropriate grammatical analysis of such sentences; in particular, this is not meant to imply that there is some level of grammatical structure which contains an element that might be described as pronominal. Rather, the classification is based entirely on the interpretation of sentences like (6) above.
The final value shown on the map is for languages which involve a mixture of the first five types. This includes languages in which certain types of simple clauses require a pronoun in subject position, while other types of simple clauses do not. For example, in Jakaltek (Mayan; Guatemala), third person pronouns (which code noun class) are normally obligatory, while first and second person pronouns are normally absent (Craig 1977). Kenga (Central Sudanic; Chad) and Finnish are similar to Jakaltek (Vandame 1968: 35; Sulkala and Karjalainen 1992: 120, 272). Dinka (Nilotic; Sudan) and Lamani (Indic) appear to be the opposite of these languages: third person pronouns can be left out, but first and second person pronouns are normally employed (Nebel 1948: 53; Trail 1970). In Nias (Austronesian; western Indonesia), obligatoriness depends on whether the clause is transitive and on mood. In intransitive realis clauses, independent pronouns are normally required in subject position unless the subject is third person inanimate; in transitive clauses and in all irrealis clauses, pronouns are not required (Brown 2001). This distribution is clearly related to the fact that the language has pronominal prefixes on the verb for transitive subjects in realis clauses and for all subjects in irrealis clauses.
This type also includes languages which involve a mixture of the second, third, and/or fourth types. For example, Chalcatongo Mixtec (Mexico; Macaulay 1996) has a combination of subject clitics and pronominal subject words that occur in a position distinct from subject position. Languages in which pronouns in subject position are obligatory or normal, but which also have pronominal morphemes of one of the second, third, or fourth types, are treated as being of the first type (rather than of the mixed type). English is an instance of this, since there is at least some coding of pronominal features of the subject on verbs (I walk vs. he walks, I am vs. you are ).
Languages in which pronominal subjects are expressed by pronominal affixes are widespread throughout the world. There are two areas where this type is absent or almost absent. One is an area in Southeast Asia stretching from Burma to Vietnam. The other is Australia outside of the north-central region, largely coinciding with Pama-Nyungan languages.
The remaining types are all considerably less frequent, but exhibit striking geographical patterns. Northern Europe and West Africa are two areas in which languages requiring or normally using pronouns in subject position are particularly common. Most of the languages shown with subject clitics are in North America or Australia. Most of the languages with pronominal words not in subject position are in sub-Saharan Africa or the western Pacific. Most of the languages that only have subject pronouns, but where it is common not to use them, are in East and Southeast Asia or in Australia.
The distinction between languages in which subject pronouns are required and those in which they are not is sometimes described in terms of a notion of “Pro Drop” (see, e.g., Chomsky 1981: 240ff.). Under some implementations of this idea, for at least some languages, it is claimed that there is underlyingly a pronoun in subject position that is deleted in sentences lacking a subject pronoun. However, given the fact that languages that require a pronoun in subject position are fairly infrequent, there is a danger of such an approach being Anglo-centric, analysing other languages as being underlyingly like English despite their superficial differences. An alternative view (e.g. Van Valin and LaPolla 1997: 331) that has been proposed for languages where pronominal affixes on verbs are the normal expression of pronominal subjects is that the affixes themselves are the real subjects of the clause, even in clauses in which there is a separate nominal subject; under this view the separate nominals are not really subjects, but noun phrases in apposition to the pronominal affix on the verb. Note that in characterizing languages like Hakha Lai here as not requiring a pronoun in subject position, we intend the notion ‘subject position’ to cover such independent nominals.