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A subject-based approach to impersonal constructions

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Polish has a large number of constructions which have been referred to as impersonal, and which qualify as impersonal under Malchukov & Siewierska’s (forthcoming) broad definition characterising them as ‘constructions lacking a referential subject’:

(a) clauses with ‘weather verbs’ (e.g. Pada/Świta ‘rains/dawns’)

(b) ‘adversity impersonals’ (e.g. Odrzuciło go w bok ‘threw-off.3SG.NEUT him.ACC to side’)

(c) clauses expressing physical or psychological states (e.g. Mdli mnie ‘nauseates me.ACC’)

(d) predicative adverbial constructions (e.g. Miło cię spotkać ‘nicely you.ACC meet.INF’)

(e) nominativeless clauses with predicates requiring a genitive argument (e.g. Przybywa wody ‘becomes-more water.GEN’)

(f) the -no/-to impersonal (e.g. Bito Piotra ‘beat.IMPERS Peter.ACC’)

(g) the reflexive impersonal (e.g. Biło się Piotra ‘beat.3SG.NEUT REFL Peter.ACC’)

(h) clauses with inherently impersonal predicates (e.g. Słychać ją ‘hear.NON-PERS her.ACC’)

(i) impersonal passives of intransitives (e.g. Było sprzątane ‘was tidy-up.PART.SG.NEUT’)

On a communicative-functional view, all these constructions involve agent/instigator-defocusing, while on a structural view, they all lack a canonical subject (Siewierska 2008). I discuss lexical, syntactic and morphological properties of these constructions and argue that they can be classified into four distinct types: (a)-(c) have optionally unexpressed pronominal subjects with indefinite reference; (d)-(e) have overt non-agreeing subjects; (f)-(g) are morpholexically derived, with obligatorily unexpressed syntactic subjects; and (h)-(i) are genuinely subjectless, being formed with defective verbs and passivised intransitive predicates. Despite being functionally impersonal, constructions (a)-(g) do have non-canonical subjects which need to find appropriate analyses within syntactic frameworks.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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