Prodrop in Six Languages: Very similar and not influenced by English contact
2022-04-13, 12:00–12:30 (Europe/Vienna), Room 3

“Prodrop,” shorthand for variability between overt and null pronouns, is frequently cited as a context for language contact interference, because it is situated at the syntax-pragmatics interface (Paradis & Navarro, 2003). We examined subject-pronoun variation in 4 European (Faetar, Italian, Polish, Russian) and 2 Asian (Cantonese, Korean) languages to test the hypothesis that heritage speakers, in contact with English (Toronto’s majority language, which exhibits virtually no null subjects), would exhibit fewer null subjects than Homeland speakers, who have considerably less contact with English. We further hypothesized that first generation heritage speakers (adult immigrants) would show less English influence than second generation (born in Toronto) and, similarly, that speakers more oriented toward their heritage language would maintain more homeland-like usage patterns.

We culled subjects from spontaneous speech data from sociolinguistic interviews (Labov, 1984), with adults representing each generation in each language. For each, we coded linguistic factors shown to account for the distribution of null subjects in previous studies (primarily of Spanish): grammatical person/number/gender, clause type, same vs. switch referent, and verb type. We examined ~15,000 tokens from 140 speakers, representing Homeland and Heritage communities of the 6 languages, plus 8 native Toronto English speakers. Distributional and logistic regression analyses show how the tokens are distributed and which factors act as significant predictors of null~overt subject variation.

No significant differences emerged between heritage and homeland speakers, nor between first and later generation heritage speakers, nor between heritage speakers with strong vs. weak ethnic orientation. Rates of null subjects do not differ significantly between Homeland and Heritage speakers, except in two languages (Faetar, Russian) where differences reflect ongoing change that we have documented in the Homeland variety, see Figure 1.

Differences in constraint effects (only for clause type and some Φ-features) between the languages are surprisingly few, especially given that these languages range across consistent, radical and partial null-subject languages, per Roberts and Holmberg’s (2010) typology. Furthermore, inter-generational differences cannot be attributed to the effects of English -- the heritage languages don't show shifts toward English-like constraint effects (cf. Nagy et al. 2011). The lack of contact effects replicates findings reported from many variationist studies of Heritage Spanish in the US ( cf. Flores-Ferrán, 2004; Nagy, 2017), while countering findings from monovariate analyses (cf. Kim, 2000; Silva-Corvalán, 1994) and experimental studies (cf. Polinsky, 2011).


Chociej, J. (2011). Context over form: Factors affecting null subject use by Heritage Polish speakers in Toronto. University of Toronto ms.
Flores-Ferrán, N. (2004). Spanish subject personal pronoun use in New York City Puerto Ricans: Can we rest the case of English contact? Language Variation and Change, 16, 49–73.
Kim, Y.-J. (2000). Subject/object drop in the acquisition of Korean: A cross-linguistic comparison. Journal of East Asian Linguistics, 9(4), 325–351.
Labov, W. (1984). Field methods of the project on linguistic change and variation. In J. Baugh & J. Sherzer (Eds.), Language in Use (pp. 28–53). Prentice Hall.
Nagy, N., Aghdasi, N., Denis, D., & Motut, A. (2011). Null subjects in heritage languages: Contact effects in a cross-linguistic context. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, 17(2).
Nagy, N., Iannozzi, M., & Heap, D. (2018). Faetar null subjects: A variationist study of a heritage language in contact. Int’l Journal of the Sociology of Language, 249(31–47), 16.
Nagy, Naomi. (2017). Documenting variation in (endangered) heritage languages: How and why? Language Documentation and Conservation SP13, 13, 33–64.
Paradis, J., & Navarro, S. (2003). Subject realization and crosslinguistic interference in the bilingual acquisition of Spanish and English: What is the role of the input? Journal of Child Language, 30(2), 371–393.
Polinsky, M. (2011). Annotated bibliography of research in heritage languages. Oxford Bibliographies, Linguistics. Oxford University Press.
Pustovalova, E. (n.d.). Null subject variation in the Russian spoken language (based on the materials of the Russian National Corpus. National Research University – Higher School of Economics.
Silva-Corvalán, C. (1994). Language contact and change: Spanish in Los Angeles. Oxford University Press.

Panel affiliation

Cross-language approaches to null subjects

See also: Figure 1: Null subject rates by generation, in 6 languages

Naomi Nagy is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996, writing a dissertation about language contact and its effects on Faetar, a Francoprovençal dialect spoken in a village in southern Italy, supervised by Gillian Sankoff.

Her primary research project now analyzes variation and change in ten heritage languages spoken in Toronto (, including comparison to homeland varieties, examination of the effects of ethnic orientation, and pedagogical components to train researchers to conduct variationist analyses of less-codified varieties.

She has published in Heritage Language Journal, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Journal of Sociolinguistics, Language and Communication, Language Documentation and Conservation, Language Variation and Change, Lingua, and Linguistic Vanguard.

More about her projects and a full list of publications and upcoming presentations is at:

This speaker also appears in: