Be I no gat: Constraints on null subjects in Bislama

Miriam Meyerhoff, University of Pennsylvania


Referential transparency of subject-verb agreement is the primary constraint on the distribution of phonetically null subjects in conversational Bislama (Vanuatu, SW Pacific). Third person subjects strongly favor null subjects. First or second person subjects favor pronouns. It is argued this pattern developed because the third singular and third plural agreement morphemes derive transparently from the third singular pronoun in the creole's lexifier language (English) and the synchronic plural determiner. It is argued that the null subjects obligatory with serial verb constructions occur with default subject-verb agreement but no aspect or mood marking because the lower clause is non-finite. Non-finite clauses are defined as those which are semantically defective, lacking a specification for the point of reference (R). This work uses a substantial corpus of discourse (30,000 words, 41 speakers, village and urban) to examine syntactic variation--a new approach in the description of Bislama. A range of syntactic, discourse, and social factors (shown through ethnographic work to be salient to these communities) are examined for their interaction with finite clause null subjects. Multivariate analysis shows that, aside from the morphological constraint, discourse structure is also a significant constraint on the linguistic variable. The subject of a finite clause is more likely to be null when a coreferential subject in the prior clause was also phonetically null. Thus, alongside deep structural constraints, superficial priming effects interact with the variable. Social or demographic factors did not interact significantly with the variation. Chapter 1 typologizes linguistic variables, distinguishing between inherent and derived variables. It is suggested that inherent, and obligatorily derived variables cannot be socially stratified. Only variables that are optionally derived acquire social meaning. A comparison of null subjects in the speech of three generations of an extended family suggests Bislama is moving towards complete grammaticization of null subjects with third person. As grammaticization nears completion, it is hypothesized that third person subject-verb agreement is analyzed underlyingly as the head of Agr. Thus, grammaticization entails the loss of optionality, and the lack of social stratification for null subjects is predicted.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

Meyerhoff, Miriam, "Be I no gat: Constraints on null subjects in Bislama" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9800901.