Frequency and the role of constructions in variable subject expression
2022-04-13, 14:30–15:00 (Europe/Vienna), Room 3

Despite remarkably similar probabilistic constraints on subject pronoun expression across Spanish varieties (cf., Carvalho et al. 2015: xiv-xv; Silva-Corvalán & Enrique-Arias 2017: 172-187) and across languages, suggesting some universal tendencies (Torres Cacoullos & Travis 2019), observations around the effect of lexical frequency have been inconsistent. For example, one study reported no independent effect for verb frequency, proposing that its impact is in interaction with other conditioning factors, whereby “higher frequency amplifies other constraints” (Erker & Guy 2012: 553). In contrast, another reported an independent effect (with higher frequency disfavoring pronouns) and that “constraint effects are generally stronger for non-frequent verb forms” (Bayley et al. 2013: 29).

This apparent contradiction can be resolved if frequency effects are assessed at the level of lexically particular constructions rather than individual verb type (cf., Bybee 2010: Ch 5; Torres Cacoullos & Walker 2009; Travis & Torres Cacoullos 2020). Lexically particular SUBJECT EXPRESSION CONSTRUCTIONS are identified as frequently occurring verb-person-tense-polarity combinations, which may diverge in both rate and linguistic conditioning from the general [(SUBJECT PRONOUN) + VERB] structure.

We focus here on three such constructions, (yo) creo ‘I think’ (N=215), (yo) no sé ‘I don’t know’ (N=315), and quotative decir-PRETERIT ‘said’ (N=478), drawn from two spontaneous speech corpora presenting some 8,000 tokens of variable 1st and 3rd person singular specific human subjects – the New Mexico Spanish-English Bilingual corpus and the Corpus of Conversational Colombian Spanish (cf., Torres Cacoullos & Travis 2018: Chs 2 & 3; Travis 2005: 9-25).

We demonstrate that subject pronoun rates in particular constructions may be idiosyncratically higher (e.g., yo creo) or lower (e.g., quotative dije/dijo) than overall rates. These rate differences vary across varieties; yo no sé, for example, favors subject pronouns in the data studied here, but disfavors in Puerto Rican Spanish (Cameron 1992: 102). We also show that idiosyncrasies of constructions can extend to linguistic conditioning, differentiating them from more general variation patterns. (Yo) creo, for instance, may be less susceptible to the widely-attested coreferentiality (accessibility) and previous realization (priming) constraints.

Because these constructions account for a large proportion of their respective verb types (creer ‘think’, saber ‘know’ and decir ‘say’) and of their corresponding semantic classes (cognition and speech verbs), effects reported for frequency, lexical (verb) types and semantic classes may reflect, or derive from, the patterning of the particular constructions (cf., Orozco 2015: 25, 2018; Posio 2015: 74).

Although the reports of frequency effects in subject expression appear to suggest that frequency plays no systematic role in constraining the variation, we propose that the apparent inconsistencies are attributable to skewing by the behavior of lexically particular constructions. This is as would be expected from a usage-based approach, according to which highly frequent, particular constructions may exhibit some independence from the more general construction with which they are associated. Alongside shared general conditioning of subject expression across language varieties, the current findings highlight a role for constructions as a prime locus of difference.


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Panel affiliation

Cross-language approaches to null subjects