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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics

Abstract

An off-line referent acceptability-rating experiment was conducted to investigate the factors influencing the interpretation of null subjects in Korean. Particularly, it tested (i) whether the subject preference for the referent of a null pronoun present in Romance languages would be present in Korean and (ii) whether subject-verb honorific agreement would influence null subject interpretation. The target sentences were two clause sentences, and a null subject was contained in a subordinate clause, which preceded the main clause. The subordinate verbs varied in two honorific conditions: (i) [YESVHON] condition in which the verb contained the honorific suffix -si- and (ii) [NOVHON] condition in which the verb lacked honorification. The main clause included a subject (+/- honored person, e.g., grandmother or granddaughter), object (+/- honored person), and transitive verb (e.g., hugs). Each item was presented with a target sentence followed by a question-answer pair that identified the null subject as referring to the main clause subject or object. Forty-eight native Korean speakers participated. Their task was to rate the acceptability of the given answer for the question on a 5-point scale. The results show that participants were overall more willing to interpret the main clause subject as the referent of the null subject than the object (subject preference). Participants also gave higher ratings for the given answer in trials where the honored person (e.g., grandmother) was in subject position than in trials where the honored person was in object position. I propose that this stems from a frequency bias that an honored-person is more likely to be realized in subject/agent position in Korean sentences. The findings suggest that the interpretation of null subjects in Korean is guided by two distinctive factors: grammatical properties of potential referents and their honor statuses. In addition to grammatical subjects being more discourse prominent, honored entities are suggested to be more discourse-prominent than non-honored entities and that they are more likely to be interpreted as the referent of a null argument.

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