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  • The Lack of Zero Anaphora and Incipient Person Marking in Tagalog
  • Nikolaus P. Himmelmann

It has been widely assumed that Tagalog allows zero anaphora freely for both actors and undergoers in semantically transitive constructions. The data presented here strongly suggest that this assumption is wrong for actors in one of the two basic transitive construction types: undergoer-oriented constructions. In these constructions, the actor argument does not appear to be freely omissible in contexts in which zero anaphora would be pragmatically warranted. This finding has implications for the controversial issue of whether undergoer-oriented constructions in Tagalog are syntactically transitive. Furthermore, it suggests that the most common kind of overt actor expressions found in this construction, pronominal clitics, may be analyzed as an early stage in the grammaticization of person marking.

1. Introduction.1

One prominent but poorly understood feature of the so-called focus system in Philippine-type languages is the fact that, in many of these languages, the overt expression of core arguments (i.e., actor and undergoer in the case of transitive events) is not obligatory. The following segment from a Tagalog narrative contains two semantically transitive clauses, in the first one of which actor and undergoer are overtly expressed while in the second one the actor remains unexpressed. The segment is part of a direct speech by the king of the mosquitoes addressed to a married couple picking vines in his territory. The king asks them to treat his subjects (the mosquitoes) gently:2

(1) LAMOK 108f

ang mgá alagad kó ay huwag ninyong pàpatayín    {0.9}

ang mga alagád ko ay huwág ninyó -ng RED1-patáy-in


'My subjects, don't kill them!'

kung kayó aykinàkagát                                {0.2}

kung kayó ay in -RED1-kagát

if 2:PL PM REAL(UG)-RED1-bite

'Even if you are bitten (just slightly wipe them off!)'

In the first clause, the semantically transitive predicate is pàpatayín 'kill'. The actor argument is expressed by the pronoun ninyó 'you', and the undergoer by the nominal expression ang mga alagád ko 'my subjects'. In the second clause, only the undergoer of the semantically transitive predicate kinàkagát 'bite' is overtly expressed by the pronoun kayó 'you'. The actor of this predicate, namely, the ang mga alagád ko of the preceding clause, is unambiguously inferable but not overtly expressed.

Zero-options exist for both actors and undergoers in all kinds of semantically transitive constructions in Tagalog. The present investigation focuses on only one such option, the expression of actors with undergoer-oriented predicates (UOPs). The two predicates pàpatayín and kinàkagát in (1) above are examples of UOPs, which are also called object-focus verbs in much of the recent literature on Philippine languages.3 Section 2 provides a more detailed definition of UOPs and a brief [End Page 232] introduction to the terminological and analytic problems associated with the marking of voice and grammatical relations in Philippine-type languages.

Based on an in-depth analysis of the use of UOPs in a corpus of spontaneous Tagalog narratives, it is proposed that the zero-option for actors in this construction type does not involve zero anaphora-the omission of an overt expression for an argument that has specific reference and is unambiguously inferable from the context. As shown in section 3, UOPs are typically accompanied by overt actor expressions. Most importantly, overt actor expressions also occur in contexts that are highly conducive to zero anaphora.

However, it is not true that overt actor expressions are obligatory in this construction type. They may be omitted due to either of the following two factors, neither of which involves zero anaphora: (1) the identification of a specific actor is impossible or irrelevant for the event expressed by a UOP (4.1), or (2) the UOP is part of a complex predication; that is, it is semantically and formally dependent on a preceding predicate (4.2). It should be noted right from the outset...


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