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  • Language-Internal Explanation: The Distribution of Russian Impersonals
  • David M. Perlmutter and John Moore

This article exemplifies language-internal explanation. It seeks to document and to explain the inability of Russian impersonal clauses to be infinitival. We argue that this gap is the consequence of two independent facts of Russian grammar: a case restriction on a silent expletive pronoun and the requirement that subjects of infinitival clauses be dative. These clash in infinitival contexts, which explains the gap. The explanation is language-internal in that it relies on no putatively universal principles. At the same time, each type of device posited is needed independently in the grammars of other languages. Our result bears on the issue of what language-particular properties expletives may have, on the issue of whether silent expletives exist, and on the more general theoretical issue of whether clauses are required to have subjects universally.*

1. Goals

A key goal of linguistics is to explain the data in natural languages. The basic question is

(1) Why do we find the data we find, rather than other conceivable data?

A dominant mode of explanation in recent linguistics has relied heavily on putatively universal principles that interact with language-particular parameters of variation and/or language-particular facts to explain data in individual languages.

Such reliance on putatively universal constructs has both positive and negative consequences for the field. On the positive side, it can enable us to see the role of certain basic principles or constraints in ostensibly unrelated phenomena. On the negative side, it easily leads to excessive universal claims and to underestimation of the role of language-particular phenomena in grammar. Further, to the extent that different universal constructs are proposed in different theoretical frameworks, and to the extent that they are embedded in different and incompatible sets of theoretical assumptions, researchers in different frameworks are led to pursue different types of explanations, which contributes to the splintering of the field.

While we do not dispute the importance of exploring the consequences of putatively universal constructs, the primary goal of this paper is to exemplify a different mode of explanation. We show here that it is possible to achieve language-internal explanation, explaining linguistic data by means of devices internal to the grammar of a [End Page 619] single language. The devices on which our explanation relies, while theoretical, are compatible with a variety of different theoretical frameworks.

On the descriptive level, we argue that a wide variety of constructions in Russian are impersonal and are all subject to what appears to be an arbitrary restriction on their distribution: impersonal constructions cannot be infinitival. On the explanatory level, we argue that it is possible to achieve a language-internal explanation of this restriction: impersonal constructions and infinitival clauses in Russian each have a property that excludes the other. In particular, we argue that impersonal clauses have a silent expletive subject whose nominative case clashes with a language-particular requirement that the subject of infinitival clauses be dative. This clash produces the gap in the distribution of impersonals. The explanation is language-internal because the key theoretical constructs it posits are internal to Russian grammar; it does not rely on universal principles.

2. The problem: A gap in the distribution of impersonal clauses

2.1. Infinitival clauses in Russian

Infinitival clauses have a relatively wide distribution in Russian.

(2) (Partial) distribution of infinitival clauses in Russian:

a. root clauses

b. questions

c. purpose clauses

d. temporal clauses

e. complements of raising predicates

f. obligatorily controlled complements

Unlike English, Russian has infinitival root clauses—both declarative and interrogative (e.g. 3b and 4b).1



As illustrated by the contrast between the (a) and (b) sentences above, surface subjects of finite clauses are nominative, while those of infinitival clauses are dative. The status of the dative nominal as surface subject is relatively uncontroversial and explicitly argued for in Moore & Perlmutter 2000.

The case contrast between subjects of finite clauses (nominative) and subjects of infinitival clauses (dative) is most perspicuous where finite and infinitival clauses contrast, [End Page 620] for example, in purpose clauses (5) and temporal clauses (6), as well as in root...


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