Pro drop in French

dihydrogen monoxide

Senior Member
Slovene, Serbo-Croat
Romance languages experience pro-drop features. I am puzzled by why doesn't French exhibit pro-drop features? I don't think I've heard a French say
a) Suis... , but rather always
b) Je suis...
Is it that the feature is never present or is it simply unnatural for French?
 
  • Zec

    Senior Member
    Croatian
    I know there are languages which aren't pro-drop even if they have person marking on verbs (German) and those which are pro-drop but have no person marking on verbs (Japanese), but it seems that in the exact case of French (and other Romance languages which have experienced loss of inflectional endings) pronouns became obligatory just as final consonants were being lost and inflectional endings merged. Consider this:

    chante /ʃɑ̃t/, chantes /ʃɑ̃t/, chante /ʃɑ̃t/, chantons /ʃɑ̃tɔ̃/, chantez /ʃɑ̃te/, chantent /ʃɑ̃t/

    Subject pronouns are obligatory and always occupy the same position with regards to the verb (with the exception of inversion, but spoken French seems to have alternative constructions in all cases where standard French has inversion....), so more than one linguist has suggested they might be analyzed as subject prefixes. In that case saying "Vient de Paris" in French would be as unnatural as saying "Dolaz iz Pariza".
     

    dihydrogen monoxide

    Senior Member
    Slovene, Serbo-Croat
    So, pro-drop feature in French is not present. Starting a sentence without a personal pronoun would be considered ungrammatical and unnatural. In the case you provided, regarding
    the conjugation of the verb, there seems to be a lot of homophones, so you have no distinctive endings which could tell you if something is 1st,2nd or 3rd pronoun in speech. My reasoning would be,
    since you have no different endings to distinguish a person, the other option available would be to use pronouns.
    Would there even be a natural case in French where you could drop a personal pronoun?

    Regarding inversion, what would be the example of the alternative construction in spoken French and Standard French.
     

    sumelic

    Senior Member
    English - California
    One hypothesis that I have seen is that languages with partial subject agreement on verbs may have a tendency to have obligatory subject pronouns (mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Pro-drop languages). However, I don't think that this is based on a very large sample size (the examples I know of are French, German and English). I would guess that there is an areal factor; French, English and German are all originally spoken in fairly nearby regions.
     

    symposium

    Senior Member
    Italian - Italy
    Well, I think the very obvious reason is that in French pronouns are mandatory in order to understand who the subject of a sentence is, since verb endings are usually not differenciated in pronunciation. Why should they change the rule for one single exception? It wouldn't make any sense not to say "je" before "suis" only because the subject of "suis" can only be "je". Not to mention the fact that "suis" is pronounced the same as "suit" and possibly other words, so why not avoiding any confusion If you can?
     

    Swatters

    Senior Member
    French - Belgium, some Wallo-Picard
    One small problem with that is that we can observe subject pronouns increasing in frequency throughout the Old French period, before personal suffixes started eroding away (this might be related to verb second syntax, since it looks in some cases like pronouns were put in the sentence as filler when no other obvious topic was available to be placed before the verb). So it appear that the suffixes were allowed to disappear without being repaired because there was a replacement in place for them already.

    Regarding inversion, what would be the example of the alternative construction in spoken French and Standard French.
    Yes-no questions that'd be marked solely through inversion in higher registers (i.e. "Matthias est-il là ?") are instead marked through intonation and often accompanied by right dislocation ("Il est là, Matthias ?"), or with an interrogative particle ("Est-ce qu'il est là, Matthias ?" or "Il est-tu là, Matthias" in Canada*) while direct questions just rely on their question words, sometimes with a change of form ("Qu'a-t-il fait ?" -> "Qu'est-ce qu'il a fait ?" / "Il a fait quoi ?")

    * I know that est-ce que and -tu look like they involved inverted subject pronouns, and that's how they initially arose, but they don't behave syntactically like a verb phrase or a subject pronoun

    Adverbs that'd trigger inversion when in front of a verb like peut-être, aussi or encore are augmented by que, which allows the non-inverted form of the verb to be used since the adverb and the verb stand in different clauses ("Peut-être serai-je en retard" -> "Peut-être que je serai en retard"). A few speakers also just plain front the adverb without inversion (Peut-être je serai en retard), but that's much rarer and more stigmatised.

    Parenthetical clauses and dialogue tags are just plain left uninverted and sometimes introduced by que ("Il serait en retard, paraît-il" -> "Il serait en retard, (qu')il paraît")

    Exclamative sentences obligatorily use an introductor element and are left uninverted ("Suis-je bête !" -> "Que/Qu'est-ce que/Comment je suis bête, moi !")

    Concessive clauses are also uninverted through the use of que ("le français, si sacralisé soit-il, a quand même changé" -> "le français, aussi sacralisé qu'il soit, il a quand même changé") or the use of a conjunction that wouldn't be used in formal language ("Y eut-il pensé que ça n'aurait rien changé" -> même si il y avait pensé que ça n'aurait rien changé") or plain used without inversion ("Il y aurait pensé que ça n'aurait rien changé").

    There's still some inversions left in sayings or frozen collocations, but it's been quite thoroughly purged from the everyday language.
     
    One hypothesis that I have seen is that languages with partial subject agreement on verbs may have a tendency to have obligatory subject pronouns (mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Pro-drop languages).
    How pro-drop are Chinese, Korean and Japanese (or any other language without subject agreement on verbs)? Because I don't know if it's fair to compare them to European Portugese, Spanish, Catalan or Italian. In those cases it's not that you can drop subject pronouns, you must do so in most cases because it's the default option unless you want to specifically contrast it with another subject. Failure to drop the pronoun is highly non-idiomatic and a common mistake made by non-native speakers.

    So it appear that the suffixes were allowed to disappear without being repaired because there was a replacement in place for them already.
    That's interesting, but does that "allowed" mean that the dropping of verb endings is due to grammar rather than phonology? I think either way (pro-drop or not) final verbal endings eroded simply because of French historical sound changes, which get rid of post-tonic syllables.
     

    Swatters

    Senior Member
    French - Belgium, some Wallo-Picard
    That's interesting, but does that "allowed" mean that the dropping of verb endings is due to grammar rather than phonology? I think either way (pro-drop or not) final verbal endings eroded simply because of French historical sound changes, which get rid of post-tonic syllables.
    Well, speakers have the option of employing repair strategies when a sound change threatens an important grammatical function, like borrowing the suffixes of irregular verbs, developing new distinctions based on tone or length to replace the lost suffix, or just plain resisting the sound change (cf., just in French, the restoration of final consonants in many monosyllabic words and several infinitive suffixes, or the resistance to the merger of le and la, which regular sound change would have predicted).

    In fact, if you start looking at Oïl varieties , you do some of those repair strategies at work: many of them have generalised the -ont of sont as the 3rd person plural to every verb; several have vowel quality or quantity distinctions that replace a lost -s (usually quality) or a lost -ə (usually quantity -I do have that in my French between -ait/ait and -aie/-aient for example), and Walloon retains second person singular /s/ in questions, in which case the pronoun is absent. Picard and Walloon also have innovated new 3P suffixes, like /t/, /tə/, /nø/ or /ny/.

    What's interesting is that most of those involve the 3rd person plural, since it's one area where the clitic pronouns are lacking: the 3P masculine pronoun is syncretic with the 3S one, both being originally /il/. What French did instead is extending a plural suffix to the 3P pronoun, which allows the distinction to be marked some of the time (the same can also happen, colloquially, with the relative subject pronoun qui, that can be argued to be a member of the clitic cluster). Continuing this trend of shifting personal inflexion to the clitic cluster, French eventually got rid of one of its consistent person markers by replacing its 1P conjugation with the clitic pronoun on.

    Now I'm not saying that the loss of the personal endings would for sure have been avoided if the pronoun weren't already regularly present, just that their frequency significantly increased the likelihood that this loss wouldn't be repaired in some other way.
     
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