Verbal Ellipsis in Slavic: Taming the System

Marjorie J. McShane, Princeton University

Although at first glance verbal ellipsis in Slavic may seem radically different from verbal ellipsis in English, the languages are remarkably similar with respect to four of five ellipsis licensing strategies. Using Russian and Polish as examples, I will show that the four types of verbal ellipsis delineated in Principles and Parameters Theory (Gapping, Sluicing, Stripping, and VP Ellipsis) work virtually the same way in Slavic as they do in English, with the exception of certain typologically based differences. For example, in Gapping sentences ('He wants to draw an airplane and his sister [e] -- a boat.'), Russian and English require the subject of the first clause to be overt, whereas Polish permits it to be pro-dropped; this can be explained by Polish's generally more prominent pro-drop. Similarly, as regards VP Ellipsis, all three languages license it by an overt verb or predicate word that selects a VP complement; however, cross-linguistic lexico-semantic differences lead to different lexical items being able to license the ellipsis. For example, in English (but not Slavic) 'is, has, would, etc.' can license VP ellipsis, whereas in Slavic (but not English) impersonal predicate words like 'nado' and 'trzeba' '(it is) necessary' can license VP ellipsis.

The striking differences between verbal ellipsis in English and Slavic can be reduced to one licensing strategy: licensing by a combination of overt categories in the ellipsis clause. For example, in Russian and Polish (but not in English), a Nominative subject plus a VP-internal category can license V or V-bar ellipsis: Russian--Mozhet on [e] nechajanno? 'Maybe he did it accidentally?'; Polish--Ja [e] nienaumys'lnie! 'I didn't mean it!/I did it unintentionally!' I delineate a number of subtypes of this licensing strategy, based both on licensing conditions and on recoverability conditions. The subtype whose licensing conditions include a Nominative subject is far more productive in Russian than in Polish because of Polish's overall reduced employment of syntactic subjects.

In this paper I will explain and illustrate the five major types of verbal ellipsis in Russian and Polish, and will show that properly categorizing examples based on licensing and recoverability conditions reveals that mastering the system (from the point of view of learning and teaching these languages) is not as daunting a task as it might first appear to be. In addition, I will show to what extent we can account for verbal ellipsis possibilities within the syntactic framework of Principles and Parameters Theory, and to what extent we need to incorporate discourse notions (like shared knowledge sets, pragmatically understood antecedents, etc.) in order to provide a full account of verbal ellipsis in Russian and Polish.


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