The Interpretation of Null Subjects in a Radical Pro-drop Language: Topic Chains and Discourse-semantic Requirements in Chinese

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Abstract

Based on original data collected through an online experiment, evidence is provided in this paper that the interpretation of null subjects in a radical pro-drop language like Chinese relies on the topic criterion proposed for consistent and partial pro-drop languages (Frascarelli 2007 and Frascarelli 2018), thereby supporting the theory that the null subject parameter implies an information-structural strategy for interpretation. Nevertheless, radical Chinese shows specificities that must be integrated in this theory for a comprehensive account. In particular, even though silent topic can start chains (consistent with the topic criterion), data show a significant preference for overt and local topics as antecedents. This locality requirement thus integrates phonological visibility in a general syntactic condition (minimal overt link condition), proposing an interesting parallel with the properties shown by partial pro-drop languages (Frascarelli and Jimenez-Fernandez in press). The present investigation also contributes to outline the structural differences existing between adverbial clauses in Chinese, supporting a distinction between central and peripheral adverbial clauses (Haegeman 2012). Specifically, while temporal and conditional clauses show the properties of nonrestrictive relative clauses, this is not the case for concessive clauses, which merged as subordinate clauses in either the C-domain or the high split-TP area. Differences between temporal and conditional clauses are attributed to the presence of an overt operator in the latter, and the pre-matrix position of adverbial clauses is explained in the light of their discourse role as frame-setters (Krifka 2007).

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