— this is a draft encyclopedia entry —
Pro-drop is an abbreviation of “pronoun dropping.” It describes a feature of some languages that do not require an overt argument, especially a subject, to be present in a clause. That is, whereas English is not a pro-drop language and thus requires a subject noun or pronoun in a finite verbal clause like He has spoken, in Italian the overt subject may be “dropped,” Ha parlato ‘(He) has spoken’.
Languages that allow pro-drop fall into three general categories (see Huang 1984; also Dryer 2008): those that allow pro-drop only in restricted environments (e.g., English, where a subject can be dropped only in non-tensed clauses, such John preferred __ seeing Mary vs. John preferred that he see Mary); those that allow pro-drop in most subject positions, but not the object position (e.g., Italian, Spanish); and languages that allow both subject and object pro-drop (e.g., Chinese, Japanese). Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew fall into the third category: they allow pro-drop in both subject and object positions. The biblical example in (1) and modern example in (2) illustrate null subjects in Hebrew.
(1) וַתִּקַּ֥ח מִפִּרְי֖וֹ וַתֹּאכַ֑ל וַתִּתֵּ֧ן גַּם־לְאִישָׁ֛הּ עִמָּ֖הּ וַיֹּאכַֽל
wat-tiqqaḥ mip-piryō wat-tōʾḵal wat-tittēn gam lǝʾīšå̄h ʿimmå̄h way-yōʾḵal
‘and pro (Eve) took from its fruit and pro (she) ate (it) and pro (she) gave (it) to her husband who was with her and pro (he) ate (it)’ (Gen 3.6)
(2) (אני) אכלתי את התפוח
(ʾani) ʾaxalti ʾet ha-tapuax̱
‘(I) pro ate the apple’ (Borer 1986:376).
As of yet, there has been no focused study on subject pro-drop in most stages of pre-modern Hebrew. The lone exception is Naudé’s work on null subjects in Qumran Hebrew (Naudé 1991, 1996, 2001). Naudé also compares the syntactic distribution of null subjects and overt subjects in Qumran Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic, and Mishnaic Hebrew, with a final discussion of some differences in Biblical Hebrew. Pro-drop in Modern Hebrew, in contrast, has been a focus of numerous studies (see, among others, Borer 1986, Shlonsky 1987, 2009, Doron 1988, Ritter 1995, Vainikka and Levy 1999, Gutman 1999, 2004).
Though a full scale study of pro-drop in any stage of pre-modern is lacking, it has long been observed that the subject pronoun is not obligatory and also that an overt pronoun signals ‘emphasis’ (i.e., Topic or Focus); see GKC:§135, Joüon and Muraoka 2006:§146; Heimerdinger 1999, Shimasaki 2002.
One feature that distinguishes Modern Hebrew is that the null subject may be used only with first and second-person past and future verbs; with third-person past and future verbs in main clauses and all present tense verbs the subject pronoun is obligatory (3).
(3) הוא אכל את התפוח vs. אכל את התפוח*
huʾ ʾaxal ʾet ha-tapuax̱ *ʾaxal ʾet ha-tapuax̱
‘he ate the apple’
For this reason, Modern Hebrew is sometimes called partial pro-drop (see, for example, Shlonsky 2009). Although pro-drop is most often used to refer to the phenomenon of a null subject, languages falling into the third category of pro-drop demonstrate that the null pronoun can also appear in the object position (Rizzi 1986). This is certainly so for Biblical (4) and Modern (5) Hebrew.
(4) וַתִּקַּ֥ח מִפִּרְי֖וֹ וַתֹּאכַ֑ל וַתִּתֵּ֧ן גַּם־לְאִישָׁ֛הּ עִמָּ֖הּ וַיֹּאכַֽל
wat-tiqqaḥ mip-piryō wat-tōʾḵal wat-tittēn gam lǝʾīšå̄h ʿimmå̄h way-yōʾḵal
‘and pro (Eve) took from its fruit and pro (she) ate pro (it) and pro (she) gave pro (it) to her husband who was with her and pro (he) ate pro (it)’ (Gen 3.6)
(5) תקנה את התפוח ותתן לי
tiqne ʾet ha-tapuax̱ vetiten li
‘buy the apple and give pro (it) to me’
Both examples in (4) and (5) illustrate that the null object is dropped only when the antecedent is accessible within the discourse (see Gutman 1999:126-254 (chp. 3)). In both (4) and (5) the antecedents of the null object pronouns (fruit and apple, respectively) are explicitly identified in the preceding clauses. (See Creason 1991 for the only study of null object anaphora in Biblical Hebrew.)
Within generative theory, the “dropped” pronoun has been identified as a type of empty or null category — a phonologically empty but syntactically real pronoun — and is referred to as pro (read as “little pro”). Early on in the generative approach to pro-drop, the phenomenon was associated with the nature of verbal inflection, since in many pro-drop languages the finite verb is inflected with morphologically rich affixes (i.e., the verbal affixes are portmanteau morphs, carrying a bundle of person, number, and gender features). While the agreement affixes in these languages (such as Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew) may aid in the identification of the null subject pro, morphological agreement between the verb and subject is clearly not a prerequisite for pro-drop, since Chinese and Japanese, for example, are pro-drop languages without verbal agreement features.
Borer, Hagit. 1986. “I-Subjects.” Linguistic Inquiry 17 (3):375-416.
Creason, Stuart. 1991. “Discourse Constraints on Null Complements in Biblical Hebrew.” University of Chicago Working Papers in Linguistics 7:18-47.
Doron, Edit. 1988. “On the Complementarity of Subject and Subject-verb Agreement.” Agreement in Natural Language: Approaches, Theories, Descriptions, ed. M. Marlow and C. Ferguson, 202-18. Stanford: CSLT.
Dryer, Matthew S. 2008. “Expression of Pronominal Subjects.” The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, ed. Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil, and Bernard Comrie, chp. 101. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library. http://wals.info/feature/101. (Accessed on 2010-05-28.)
Gutman, Eynat. 1999. Null Subjects: A Theory of Syntactic and Discourse-Identification, Linguistics, University of Delaware.
———. 2004. “Third Person Null Subjects in Hebrew, Finnish and Rumanian: An Accessibility-Theoretic Account.” Journal of Linguistics 40:463-90.
Huang, James C.-T. 1984. “On the Distribution and Reference of Empty Pronouns.” Linguistic Inquiry 15 (4):531-74.
Heimerdinger, Jean-Marc. 1999. Topic, Focus and Foreground in Ancient Hebrew Narratives. JSOTSupp 295. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Joüon, Paul, and Takamitsu Muraoka. 2006. A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Rev. ed. Subsidia Biblica 27. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute.
[GKC] Kautzsch, Emil. 1910. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. Trans. A. E. Cowley. Second English ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Naudé, Jacobus A. 1991. “Qumran Hebrew as a Null Subject Language.” South African Journal of Linguistics 9 (4):119-25.
———. 1993. “On Subject Pronoun and Subject Noun Asymmetry: A Preliminary Survey of Northwest Semitic.” South African Journal of Linguistics 11 (1):17-28.
———. 1996. Independent Personal Pronouns in Qumran Hebrew Syntax. Ph.D. thesis, University of the Free State, South Africa.
———. 2001. “The Distribution of Independent Personal Pronouns in Qumran Hebrew.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 27 (2):91-112.
Ritter, Elizabeth. 1995. “On the Syntactic Category of Pronouns and Agreement.” Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 13 (3):405-43.
Rizzi, Luigi. 1986. “Null Objects in Italian and the Theory of pro.” Linguistic Inquiry 17:501-57.
Shimasaki, Katsuomi. 2002. Focus Structure in Biblical Hebrew: A Study of Word Order and Information Structure. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.
Shlonsky, Ur. 1987. Null and Displaced Subjects. Ph.D. thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
———. 2009. “Hebrew as a Partial Null-Subject Language.” Studia Linguistica 63 (1):133-57.
Vainikka, Anne, and Yonata Levy. 1999. “Empty Subjects in Finnish and Hebrew.” Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 17:613-71.