NULL in Morphology and Syntax (Panel at XXXVIII Romanistentag 2023, Leipzig)


Panel description:

Null elements are used by several theories in morphology and syntax as analytical tools, but the question of whether phonologically empty elements should be structurally present (=NULL) or not (=NOTHING) has been a controversial issue from the very beginning. In generative syntax, different types of so-called empty categories (Chomsky 1981, 1982) have been assumed, for instance, to occupy the structural subject position of different configurations, such as pro (see (1a)) in finite clauses. Other empty categories are the obligatorily empty PRO in control infinitives (see (1b)) and traces which are understood as phonologically empty feature bundles left behind by a movement operation (see (1c)). Examples from Spanish morphology can be found in (2): (2a) shows the case of a highly controversial null morpheme for TAM-[pres.ind.] and (2b-c) are cases of null allomorphs:

(1)   a. pro Come una manzana.                                                  (2)   a. com-e-ØTAM-mos

       b. Phileas Foggi cree [PROi llegar tarde a su cita].                      b. lunes-ØPL

       c. Pedroi parece [ti tener razón].                                                  c. razon-ØN->V-a-r

With respect to the existence of null elements, three main theoretical approaches have been developed: (i) theories which allow null elements ‘unrestrictedly’ (e.g. Item-and-Arrangement), (ii) theories that allow null elements only restrictedly (cf. Mel'čuk 2002 for some possible restrictions), and (iii) theories that do not allow null elements (e.g. Natural Morphology; Dressler et al. 1987). The use of NULL is thus strongly theory dependent (cf. Dahr & Fábregas 2018) and several alternative proposals to NULL have been proposed.

Regarding (1), the existence of different types of null elements has been motivated by means of properties of the morpho-syntactic context (e.g. finiteness) and the structural level of analysis (base-generation vs. derivation). However, also in this case there is no consensus about whether empty categories are structurally present and, if so, on which level of analysis they should be legitimated (see Borer 1989, Alexiadou & Anagnostopoulou 1998, Herbeck 2015 and references). In several standard approaches to null subject languages, pro is assumed to be projected in syntax, which needs licensing and identification (Rizzi 1986). While these requirements are fulfilled by strong agreement morphology in Romance languages like Catalan, Italian, and Spanish, null objects are licensed, but not identified by agreement, so that further assumptions and mechanisms are necessary. Empirical evidence for the existence of null subject pronouns in finite clauses is apparently provided by interpretative differences between pro and explicit pronouns (binding, animacy, co-reference, cg. Montalbetti 1984), but also here, NULL has been argued to be the result of a PF-deletion phenomenon (cf. Holmberg 2005) or as a phenomenon of the post-syntactic morphological component (Neeleman & Szendrői 2007). Furthermore, the functions of the empty category pro have been argued to be fulfilled by other elements in the configuration (such as pronominal agreement, a null topic, etc.) so that NULL would not be present in the structural subject position.

A similar situation can be observed with the examples from morphology: The plural form of Sp. lunes could be analyzed with a null allomorph, but it could also be assumed that lunes has a plural suffix which is eliminated because of phonological reasons (Dahl & Fábregas 2018, cf. (3a)). Another option is to postulate that some elements do not realize only one terminal element at a time but also spans of terminal nodes (cf. (3b); spanning, cumulative exponence, etc.). Yet another possibility is to assume that a morpho-syntactic feature (such as [plural]) is deleted before insertion of morpho-phonological material (cf. (3c); Impoverishment). In other words, NULL can be the result of a PF-operation of eliminating a phonological material, a post-syntactic morphological operation of deletion of a feature (Bonet 1991), or of a missing projection of features (cf. Dahl & Fábregas 2018; Trommer 2012). Thus, there are several possible alternative analyses to NULL, and a major task is to provide objective evidence for an evaluation of the empirically and theoretically most adequate one.  

(3)   a.  lunes-spl + deletion or readjustment rule

       b.  lunes <--> [[[√ ] WM] pl]

       c.  [[√ ] pl] --> [[√ ]]

It is far from easy to find empirical motivation for (or against) NULL since the absence of phonetic material allows only indirect but not direct evidence in many cases. Thus, which principles determine whether NULL is a licit descriptive tool or not (cf. Nida 1948; Mel'čuk 2002; among others)? With respect to this question, Pöll (in Pomino & Pöll 2022) mentions the necessity of avoiding NULL in morphology if there is an unequal behavior between a potential null element and a corresponding overt element. He observes that the type of suffix of derived verbs has an effect on suffix selection for a subsequent nominalization: while Spanish verbs with final -ec-e-r favor nominalizations with -miento (e.g. favorecimiento), verbs with final
-ific-a-r favor nominalizations with -ción (e.g. planificación). Those verbs that are derived with a null allomorph do not show this affinity, e.g. razon-Ø-a-r > razonamiento and limit-Ø-a-r > limitación. If null elements do not affect suffix selection, the possibility arises that they are not present at all. Or, are we dealing with two different types of null allomorphs – one corresponding to -ec- and the other one to -ific-?

The presence of NULL is consequently not only strongly theory dependent, but empirical evidence for or against the postulation of null elements is often lacking. The goal of this workshop is to bring together linguists from various theoretical approaches and methodologies that argue for or against the postulation of null elements. We would like to discuss and provide new insights into the empirical and theoretic necessity of the controversial concept of NULL in morphology and syntax in different theories of grammar by focusing on Romance languages and varieties.

Abstract submissions to the workshop can focus on one of the following issues, among others:

  • What evidence do we find in favor or against null elements in linguistic theory?
  • What insights do Romance languages and varieties offer us into the theory of null elements?
  • What insights can offer a comparative and/or diachronic perspective on null elements?
  • How is NULL in morphology and/or syntax acquired by L1 and/or L2 speakers?
  • Are null elements in (a) morphology and syntax or (b) derivation and inflection similar or different types of null elements?
  • What are the alternative analyses to empty categories? How do different theoretical approaches deal with NULL?
  • How many types of null elements are there in morphology and/or syntax and by means of which criteria are they differentiated?

Empirical approaches to NULL from a Romance perspective that examine data of lesser studies varieties, as well as acquisition studies and corpus-based approaches are also particularly welcome.

Bibliography (selection):

  • Alexiadou, A. & Anagnostopoulou, E. (1998). Parameterizing AGR: word order, V-movement, and EPP-checking. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 16, 491-539.
  • Barbosa, P. (1995). Null subjects (Dissertationsschrift), Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Biberauer, T., A. Holmberg, I. Roberts & M. Sheehan (eds.) (2010). Parametric variation: null subjects in minimalist theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bonet, E. (1991). Morphology after Syntax: Pronominal Clitics in Romance (Ph.D. dissertation), MIT.
  • Borer, H. (1989). Anaphoric AGR. In O. Jaeggli & K. Safir (eds.), The null subject parameter (pp. 69-109). Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding – the Pisa lectures. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.
  • Chomsky, N. (1982). Some concepts and consequences of the theory of Government and Binding. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Dahl, E. & A. Fábregas (2018). Zero Morphemes. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics.
  • Dressler, W. U., Mayerthaler, W., Panagl, O., & Wurzel, W. U. (1987). Leitmotifs in natural morphology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Embick, D. (2000). Features, syntax, and categories in the Latin perfect. Linguistic Inquiry 31 (2): 185-230.
  • Fernández Soriano, O. (1989). Strong pronouns in null subject languages and the Avoid Pronoun Principle. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 11: 228-240.
  • Herbeck, P. (2015). Unifying Pro-Drop and Control – The Derivation of Spanish (Null) Subjects (Doktorarbeit), Universität Salzburg.
  • Holmberg, A. (2005). Is There a Little pro? Evidence from Finnish. Linguistic Inquiry 36(4), 533-564.
  • Holmberg, A. (2010). Null subject parameters. In T. Biberauer et al. (eds.): 88-124.
  • Jaeggli, O. & K. J. Safir (1989). The Null Subject Parameter. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  • Kato, M. A. & E. V. Negrão (2000). Brazilian Portuguese and the Null Subject Parameter. Frankfurt a. M.: Vervuert.
  • Landau, I. (2013). Control in generative grammar: a research companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mel’čuk, I. (2002). Towards a formal concept ‘zero linguistic sign.’ In S. Bendjaballah, W. U. Dressler, O. E. Pfeiffer, & M. D. Voeikova (Eds.), Morphology 2000 (pp. 241–258). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Montalbetti, M. (1984). After Binding (Dissertationsschrift), MIT.
  • Neeleman, A. & Szendrői, K. (2007). Radical pro-drop and the morphology of pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry 38 (4): 671-714.
  • Nida, E. (1948). The identification of morphemes. Language 24, 414–441.
  • Pomino, N. & Pöll, B. (2022). Morphologie des Spanischen. In R. Klabunde, W. Mihatsch & S. Dipper (Eds.), Linguistik im Sprachvergleich. Germanistik – Romanistik – Anglistik. Kapitel 15, 317-336.
  • Rigau, G. (1988). Strong pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry 19 (3), 503-511.
  • Rizzi, L. (1982). Issues in Italian syntax. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.
  • Rizzi, L. (1986). Null objects in Italian and the theory of pro. Linguistic Inquiry 17 (3), 501-557.
  • Trommer, J. (2012). Ø-exponence. In J. Trommer (ed.), The morphology and phonology of  exponence (pp. 326–355). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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