The Theory and Historical Development of Expletives
(and non-referential arguments)

Ruhr-Universität Bochum, 9th-10th June 2022


The Artefact


Consider the German sentence above. Three knights are riding to the gate and beyond. But why is the first argument 'es' a 3sg pronoun that contributes no or little semantic content to the sentence and does not denote any participant in the event? We can classify it as an expletive pronoun. But who or what exactly is es? What is the function of es? What kind of position does es occupy and how does it get there?

The Workshop

This workshop looks to bring together a group of synchronic and diachronic syntacticians, who may not necessarily otherwise be in regular contact, in order to investigate a range of so-called expletive elements and constellations in syntax. It is intended that this workshop will provide groundwork for an improved understanding of such expletive(-like) elements and constellations from both a historical and synchronic theoretical perspective.

Speakers & Participants

Theresa Biberauer - Cambridge
Hannah Booth - Ghent
Nicholas Catasso - Wuppertal
Jutta Hartmann - Bielefeld
Fabian Heck - Leipzig
Roland Hinterhölzl - Venice
Ans van Kemenade - Radboud
Svetlana Petrova - Wuppertal
Florian Schäfer - HU Berlin
Alessandra Tomaselli - Verona
Ermenegildo Bidese - Trento
Sten Vikner - Aarhus

Host Researchers:
Eric Fuß - RUB
Benjamin L. Sluckin - RUB

Motivation and research questions:

Across Germanic (and a few Romance languages) we find a class of syntactic placeholders called ‘expletive’, ‘dummy’ or ‘pleonastic’ elements, which seem to carry out a primarily syntactic function (marking a position that must be obligatorily filled) and are traditionally taken to not contribute much to the meaning of the clause. These elements come in two guises, namely as subject expletives (English there, French il) and as CP-related ‘prefield’ expletives, the latter occupying the clause-initial position in V2 languages (German es, Icelandic það, cf. e.g. Vikner 1995). Both options are found in Mainland Scandinavian, where a single element (e.g. Swedish det) is used both as a subject and a CP-related expletive. While expletives have been (and continue to be) a major topic in theoretical linguistics at least since Chomsky (1981), many aspects of their historical development are still under-researched (previous work includes Brugmann 1917, Haiman 1974, Lenerz 1985, Breivik 1989, Axel 2009, and Light 2015). This assessment applies in particular to the emergence of CP-related expletives in the history of the Germanic V2 languages. Moreover, it appears that theoretical insights and developments have not had a significant impact on historical work. Likewise, diachronic findings usually play only a minor role in the theoretical discussion, although it seems that both sides could benefit from an exchange of ideas and insights. For example, it seems likely that a better understanding of the historical relation between quasi-arguments and expletives has the potential to provide new answers for the question of whether expletives are base-generated in their surface position or in the vP/VP (similar to quasi-arguments). The workshop therefore seeks to bring together researchers from both camps to discuss collaboratively a set of issues pertaining to the theory and diachrony of expletives (and non-referential arguments more generally). Specific questions include, but are not limited to, the following issues:

  1. Are expletives semantically vacuous elements, or are they systematically linked to certain interpretations or discourse-functions (cf. Biberauer & van der Wal 2014, Biberauer 2016, Hinterhölzl 2019)?
  2. Where are expletives inserted into the derivation? While it is traditionally assumed that expletives are base-generated in their surface position as a kind of Last Resort strategy, more recent approaches have put forward the idea that dummy elements are inserted into a lower position and undergo movement (cf. e.g. Stroik 1996 on CP expletives/correlates; Sabel 2000 on expletive-associate chains; Deal 2009 for the idea that expletives are merged in a specifier of v before they move to their surface position).
  3. What is the featural content of expletives (concerning e.g. Case, phi- and categorial features)?
  4. Is the notion of ‘expletive’ useful in other aspects of clausal or argument structure (cf. Schäfer 2008, Alexiadou et al. 2015 on the idea of expletive Voice)?
  5. How can we account for related agreement phenomena and the link to the associate DP?
  6. What is the link between expletives and EPP-/Edge-features related to TP and CP? Note that this question also bears on the nature of the EPP and the question of whether there are null expletives (cf. e.g. Alexiadou & Anagnostopoulou1998, Biberauer 2016).
  7. Issues pertaining to recent developments in minimalist syntax (e.g., expletives as probes, Chomsky 2000, 2004, or the relation between expletives and labelling, cf. e.g. Miyagawa, Wu & Koizumi 2018).
  8. Typological aspects: In which languages do expletives occur? Is there a link to other grammatical properties of the languages in question (cf. e.g. Gilligan 1988, Biberauer & van der Wal 2014)?
  1. To what extent do annotated electronic corpora provide new qualitative and quantitative evidence bearing on the historical development of expletives, concerning e.g. the syntactic contexts, genres/text types, and discourse functions in which expletives first occur? (cf. e.g. Booth 2018 on Icelandic)
  2. What is the diachronic connection between quasi-argumental/cataphoric pronouns and expletives (cf. e.g. Brugmann 1917, Axel 2009)?
  3. What is the diachronic connection between CP-related expletives and subject expletives (cf. e.g. Haiman 1974 and Lenerz 1985 who propose that subject expletives develop from CP-expletives)?
  4. Is the emergence of CP-related expletives a cause or an effect of the development of generalized V2? (basically the same question concerns the diachronic relation between subject expletives and the presence of an EPP feature on T)
  5. Can expletives be borrowed? Relevant cases of language contact potentially include: Old/Middle English and Old Norse/Old French, Middle High German and Old French, Middle High German and Slavic varieties (cf. e.g. Brugmann 1917).
  6. Is there a connection between the rise of overt subject expletives and changes affecting the inflectional morphology of a language (cf. e.g. Haeberli 1999, 2000)?
  7. Which elements qualify as sources for the grammaticalization of expletives (e.g. locatives and 3sg pronouns)?
  8. Is the rise of expletives linked to the grammaticalization or fossilization of a certain discourse function/strategy?