Walter Bisang at LEL Research Seminar

Posted on March 4, 2016 by

This Tuesday’s Research Seminar in SG1 will feature Walter Bisang (Mainz) On the strength of morphological paradigms – a historical account of radical pro-drop. It’s at 4.15 as usual, and there will be drinks and dinner afterwards. Join us!

Here’s the abstract:

Inflectional morphology as it is organized in paradigms is generally discussed as an example of linguistic complexity (e.g. McWhorter 2001) and as a result of a diachronic process of maturation (Dahl 2004). The present paper will discuss the diachronic stability of morphological paradigms and their interaction with other levels of grammar (phonology, syntax) from the perspective of overt vs. hidden complexity (Bisang 2009) and radical pro-drop.

The presentation will start out from cross-linguistic observations on the presence or absence of radical pro-drop, i.e., the omission of subject arguments without the existence of concomitant agreement morphology (Neeleman & Szendrői 2007). A comparative analysis of highly analytic languages spoken in West Africa (e.g. Yoruba) and in East and mainland Southeast Asia (EMSEA, e.g. Chinese or Vietnamese) shows that the former languages do not have radical pro-drop (Creissels 2005), while the latter do. This fact correlates with the absence of inflectional morphological paradigms (person, number) in the ancestor families of EMSEA (Sinitic, Tai-Kadai, Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Mien) and the recurrence of such paradigms in Niger-Congo languages over several millennia (Hyman 2010). It will be argued that the expression of person and number features was passed on to syntax (use of obligatory pronouns) in West African languages that had lost their morphological paradigms. In contrast, EMSEA languages are radical pro-drop because their ancestor languages did not have morphological paradigms. The strength of morphological paradigms even after their diachronic erosion is also reflected in the radical pro-drop properties of creole languages. This will be discussed on the basis of my own data and on the basis of the The Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures Online (APiCS) (Haspelmath et al. 2013).
If my analysis is correct, radical pro-drop as it is found extensively in EMSEA languages today is the result of a specific historical situation in an area in which different languages from different families had reduced morphology since the very beginning of their contact history. Several factors (semantic, phonological, sociolinguistic) contributed to the stability of that situation and produced a type of language in which existing grammatical categories lack obligatoriness if their content can be inferred from context—a type that is characterized by its high degree of hidden complexity.

From a more general perspective, my paper will discuss different concepts of explanation in different linguistic approaches and potential fields of cooperation.


  • Bisang, W. 2009. On the evolution of complexity—sometimes less is more in East and mainland Southeast Asia. In: G. Sampson, D. Gil & P. Trudgill (eds.), Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable, 34-49. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Creissels, D. 2005. A typology of subject marker and object marker systems in African languages. In: E. F. K. Voeltz, (ed.), Studies in African Linguistic Typology, 445-459. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Dahl, Ö. 2004. The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
  • Haspelmath, M. and the APiCS Consortium. 2013. Expression of pronominal subjects. In: Michaelis, S. M.; Maurer, P.; Haspelmath, M. & Huber, M. (eds.), Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (, Accessed on 2014-07-15.)
  • Hyman, L. M. 2010. The Macro-Sudan Belt and Niger-Congo reconstruction. September 04, 2011:
  • McWhorter, J. H. 2001. The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. Linguistic Typology 5: 125–166.
  • Neeleman, A. Szendrői, K. 2007. Radical pro drop and the morphology of pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry 38, 671–714.