Linguistics in Göttingen - A platform for empirical and theoretical linguistics

Svetlana Petrova (Wuppertal)

Bare and indefinite nominal predicates in the history of German

Like modern Dutch or some Romance languages (de Swart et al. 2007, Zamparelli 2008), modern German gives rise to the variation between bare (BNPs) and indefinite (INPs) nominal predicates shown in (1), see Geist (2014). It has been claimed that this variation results from incomplete grammaticalization of the indefinite article (Szczepaniak 2009: 85), but this hypothesis is contradicted by historical evidence showing that the equivalents of modern German role nouns take a determiner in the earlier stages (2)a-b (see also Behaghel 1923). A similar picture is found in some modern dialects displaying role nouns with a determiner (3) and (4), see Henn-Memmesheimer (1986), Glaser (1996), Kolmer (1999), inter alia.

Taking this as a starting point, the present paper studies the development in the distribution of BNPs and INPs with role nouns over the history of German, including Low German. The paper is organised in two parts. In the first part, some empirical observation will be presented. It will be shown that there is a basic split between nouns only occurring as BNPs and nouns varying regarding the use of the article. On the one hand, nouns denoting institutionalized functions, viz. the medieval court appointments, positions in the structure of the church, as well as in public administration and legal services, never display the determiner (5). This amounts to the conclusion that affiliation to social roles in terms of an institutionalized type of activity is a historically constant core triggering BNPs in German. On the other hand, nouns denoting crafts, occupations, professions, origins, etc., vary between BNP and INP, depending on at least two different conditions. First, there is a statistically significant correlation between the drop of the article and the fact that the predicate is represented by two or more conjoint or disjoint NPs, see (6). Second, with single NPs, there is a statistically significant correlation between the use of the determiner and the referential status of the subject expression. While the determiner is present if the subject denotes an individual referent present in the discourse (7), it is missing in those cases in which the subject is a non-referential expression, e.g. a (negative) quantifier, a free relative or a free variable, as in (8).

In the second part, these observations will be integrated into a unified account of the variation between INPs and BPNs, which is couched in Longobardi?s (1994) theory of N-movement to D in languages displaying a semantically licensed empty determiner [De]. The basic assumption is that diachronically, two types of BNPs must be distinguished, receiving two different structural interpretations. First, nouns in BNPs whose subject fails to refer are number deficient, licensing [De] in the surface, see (9) a. Role nouns, in contrast, are interpreted as proper names denoting activities/states as kinds (Geist 2014). As such, they undergo N-to-D-movement both historically as well as today, see (9)b. On this basis, two developments take place towards modern German. First, the inventory of activities and states conceptualized as kinds increases on socio-historical grounds, leading to increase in the structures of the type (9)b. Second, a loss of [De] in the dialects (predominantly in the South and South-West) enforces the use of the article in all cases, incl. mass and abstract nouns (Glaser 1996).


role nouns = affiliation to socially well-established groups of individuals (BNP)

professions (Lehrer 'teacher'), nationalities (Italiener/in 'Italian'), hobbies (Alpinist 'alpinist'), functions (Oberarzt 'senior physician'), convictions (Pazifist 'pacifist'), occupations (Student 'student'), religious denomination (Katholik 'catholic')

b. class nouns = classes of individuals or representatives of a class (INP)

sub-kinds of humans (Mann 'man'), properties (Riese 'giant'), epitheta (Held 'hero'), swear words (Idiot 'idiot'), etc.

Kain was ein acchermann
'Cain was a peasant' (Genesis 611, Bavarian, 12th century)

b. Der was ein Vranke
'This one was from Franconia' (Amis, Bavarian, 1200/1300)

I bin a nadaren gwes                                           [Bavarian]
I am a sewer been
'I was [= used to work as] a sewer' (Kolmer 1999: 67)

Sai grossfatta was
a ästaraicha                           [Bavarian]
his grandfather was an Austrian
'His grandpa was an Austrian' (Glaser 1996: 151)

Dancwart der was marschalc
'Dancwart, he was Master of the Horse' (NL 11, 1)

der altere wart
jagire und accherman
'the elder one became a hunter and a peasant' (Gen 1072)

ein arzât was
'Asclepius was a physician' (RvEBarl 10083)

dâ sol nieman
arzât wesen
'there, no one should be a physician' (SM:St 3: 2, 7)

a. [
DP [D e][NP [N N]]]

b. [DP [D Ni] [NP [N ti ]]]

Secondary literature

Behaghel, Otto. 1923. Deutsche Syntax. Eine geschichtliche Darstellung. Band I. Die Wortformen. A. Nomen. Pronomen. Heidelberg: Winter.

de Swart, Henriette, Yoad Winter and Joost Zwarts. 2007. Bare Nominals and Reference to Capacities. NLLT 25(1), 195-222.

Geist, Ljudmila. 2014. Bare predicate nominals in German. In Ludmila Veselovská & Markéta Janebová (eds.), Complex Visibles Out There. Proceedings of the Olomouc Linguistic Colloquium 2014: Language Use and Linguistic Structure, 83-106. Olomouc: Palacky University.

Glaser, Elvira. 1996. Morphologie und Funktion des unbestimmten Artikels im Bairischen. In Sprache an Donau, Inn und Enns. Vorträge des Symposions zu Sprache und Kultur des altbairischen Raumes 1994, eds. Eroms, Hans-Werner & Hermann Scheuringer, 149-169. Schriften zur Literatur und Sprache in Oberösterreich. Folge 5.

Henn-Memmesheimer, Beate. 1986. Nonstandardmuster. Ihre Beschreibung in der Syntax und das Problem ihrer Arealität. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Kolmer, Agnes. 1999. Zur MASS/COUNT-Distinktion im Bairischen: Artikel und Quantifizierung. MA. Universität zu Köln.

Longobardi, Giuseppe. 1994. Reference and Proper Names: A Theory of N-Movement in Syntax and Logical Form. Linguistic Inquiry 25(4), 609-665.

Szczepaniak, Renata. 2009. Grammatikalisierung. Tübingen: Narr.

Zamparelli, Roberto. 2008. Bare Predicate Nominals in Romance Languages. In Essays on Nominal Determination: From Morphology to Discourse Management, eds. Henrik H. Müller and Alex Klinge, 101-130. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.