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6.4: Subjects

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  • Let's return to our Grammies and their attempts to talk to each other about events and states. We saw that verbs go part of the way. They allow them to distinguish different kinds of states and events from one another, to say that an event belonging to a particular category such as eat has taken place or that a state belonging to a particular category such as be_hot is true. But, as we've also seen, verbs by themselves can't make it clear who the participants in the event or state are. For this the Grammies need to be able to produce and understand sentences consisting of verbs and NPs.

    Given a sentence, what should Hearers be able to figure out about it?

    1. They should be able to tell what category of event or state is being described; the verb (and in some cases a predicate noun or adjective) should make this clear.
    2. They should be able to tell who the relevant participants in the event or state are, at least those that the Speaker chooses to refer to. This should be derivable from the different NPs in the sentence, though I haven't said much about how they are interpreted by Hearers.
    3. They should be able to tell what the semantic roles of those participants are in the event or state.

    It is this third property of sentences that we'll focus on in this section and the next two sections. We'll look at some examples of how English solves this problem and how other languages may differ from English. We'll return to this issue again in Chapter 8.

    Talking About Be States

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    What does the word is seem to be doing in the following sentences? What does it mean?

    • This is a digital camera.
    • He is disgusted.
    • Holly is my sister.

    In this section we'll look only at events or states that have only one core participant, that is, happen events and the simplest be states. In English the most common pattern for be states with only one participant uses the verb be (which takes the different forms am, is, are, was, were, etc.) followed by a predicate NP or adjective. A few other verbs such as seem, taste, smell, look, sound, and feel are also possible. These verbs can be followed by adjectives or by like followed by an NP. Here are some examples.

    1. Clark is mad.
    2. The woman is a teacher.
    3. Your brother looks terrible.
    4. That stuff tastes like soap.

    Not All Languages Require a Verb in Sentences About Simple Be States

    Note how be (is, are, am, was, etc.) functions. It has very little content; it just marks this as a be state, leaving the nature of the state to be specified by the adjective or NP that follows. (It also has the possibility of marking the time of the state; this is the difference between is and was.) Spanish, Hindi, and Amharic are like English in this regard; each has a verb that functions like English be (in fact Spanish has two such verbs). Mandarin Chinese also has such a verb, but it is used only in sentences with predicate nouns like 2, not in sentences like 3 that have predicate adjectives in English.

    American Sign Language, Tzeltal, and Inuktitut have nothing like English be in either kind of sentence. Here is the Tzeltal sentence corresponding to sentence 2.

    5 jp'ijubteswanej te antz
    teacher the woman
    'The woman is a teacher.'

    Notice that in the English sentences the single participant, the theme, is referred to by an NP that appears right before the verb: Clark, the woman, your brother, that stuff. This position, or syntactic role, called the subject, is basic to English sentences. (To help keep syntactic roles distinct from semantic roles, I'll write them in lowercase.) The subject of an English sentence can usually be identified as the NP that directly precedes the verb. For most personal pronouns, the subject in English also has a special form that it does not take elsewhere in the sentence: I (rather than me), he (rather than him), she (rather than her), we (rather than us), they (rather than them). So we say I am alive, not me am alive (though in some dialects, her and me are alive is grammatical).

    In summary, English subjects are distinguished from other NPs in two ways:

    • by their position in the sentence
    • for personal pronouns only, by their form

    Other languages also have a syntactic role that we can call the subject. As in English, it is the role that refers to the themes of be sentences like those above. But as the most basic syntactic role in the sentence, the subject is also associated with one of the core participants in the other semantic schemas that were discussed inthe section on semantic roles. As we'll see later, languages tend to agree with one another in what semantic role the subject refers to for these other kinds of sentences, but the agreement will not be at all perfect.

    Languages Differ in Terms of How Hearers Identify the Subjects of Sentences

    We've seen that for English the subject is marked by its position within the sentence and (for a small number of cases) by its form. These two possibilities apply to other languages as well. In Spanish, as in English, the subject tends to appear before the verb. But in Spanish this is just a strong tendency; the subject can also appear after the verb, a position it can never be in in English. In Tzeltal, as you can see from sentence 5, the subject normally appears after the "verb" (there is really no verb in the sentence but the prediicate noun jp'ijubteswanej 'teacher' acts something like a verb). As in Spanish, though, this is just a tendency; the word order in Tzeltal is relatively free.

    Spanish, like English, has a set of special forms for some of the personal pronouns when they are used as subjects; for example, yo 'I' is used only as a subject. Note that we can now add to our discussion of the dimensions along which personal pronouns vary that we began in the section on meaning differences between languages. Remember that we isolated a small number of dimensions, including person, number, and gender, that distinguish personal pronouns in many languages. Just as I and you are distinguished by person, and he and she are distinguished by gender, we need a further dimension to characterize the difference between I and me. This dimension is called case. The case of an NP, including a personal pronoun (which is just a very simple kind of NP), specifies its syntactic role in the sentence.

    English Personal Pronouns Have Two Different Cases, Nominative and Objective

    The case for the subject in English and most (but not all) other languages is called the nominative case (abbreviated nom). In English, nominative case is marked explicitly only for personal pronouns. I, he, and we are nominative personal pronouns; me, him, and us are not. The pronouns that are not normally used as subjects, me, him, her, us, and them, are called objective.

    Remember from our discussion of the dimensions that distinguish personal pronouns that languages differ in terms of which dimensions are relevant for a given set of words. Just as gender is relevant for English, Spanish, Japanese and Amharic pronouns but not relevant for Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Lingala, Tzeltal, Inuktitut, or American Sign Language pronouns, case is relevant for English, Hindi, Spanish, and Inuktitut pronouns but not for Lingala, American Sign Language, or Japanese pronouns. Lingala, ASL, and Japanese use the same forms for personal pronoun subjects and non-subjects.

    Talking About Happen Events

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    What does the verb get seem to mean in the following sentences?

    • Jill got sick.
    • My shoes got wet.
    • This lecture is getting boring.

    Like the be states discussed above, happen events have a single core participant, the patient. Most languages use the subject for this role too.

    Many types of happen events have particular English verbs associated with them, for example, fall, boil, and die. Here are some examples.

    1. The milk boiled.
    2. My goldfish died.

    Note that there a clear relationship between some be states and some happen events. For each type of state, there is an event that results in that state. There are two ways this relationship is reflected in English sentences. One possibility is for a particular verb to be used with the happen event and an adjective that is related to that verb to be used in the be state. Here are some examples of this possibility. For each, the sentence describing the event appears first, then the sentence describing the state.

    1. Rex died. Rex is dead.
    2. The water froze. The water is frozen.
    3. Lois woke up. Lois is awake.

    States and Changes of State May Not Be Clearly Distinguished in Some Languages

    In some languages, such as Amharic and Japanese, the relationship between the state and the event is made even more explicit. The event and the state use the same verb; in fact the two may be indistinguishable from one another. Here are two Amharic examples; only the context can make it clear whether the change of state or the resulting state is intended.

    11 Rex motwal
    Rex has:died
    'Rex has died' or 'Rex is dead'
    12 Lois nεk'twal
    Lois has:woken:up
    'Lois has woken up' or 'Lois is awake'

    Another possibility in English (and many other languages have a similar possibility) is for an adjective or NP to be used in both the state and event sentence, with the verb be for the state and the verb become or get for the event. Here are two examples, again with the event first.

    1. Clark got sick. Clark is sick.
    2. Jimmy became a journalist. Jimmy is a journalist.

    Notice how the relationship between these two sentence patterns in each case simplifies matters for the language learner. Instead of learning a separate word for each type of state and a change into that type of state, the learner is only responsible for one word (an adjective such as sick or a noun such as journalist). In order to produce both kinds of sentences, the learner only has to learn the general rules that relate the two kinds of sentence patterns. Here is an informal way to state those rules.

    be adjective (state) ↔ get adjective (change of state)

    be a noun (state) ↔ become a noun (change of state)

    This is yet another example of productivity, the property of language that permits speakers to make new expressions using a general rule. In this case, the rule is based on a generalization that is made in English and many other languages: for every type of state, there is a corresponding change of state that results in that state.

    In this section we've seen some of the ways that languages describe events or states with only one core participant. The focus has been on the syntactic role used for that participant, the subject. There will be lots more to learn about subjects, but that will have to wait until we've looked at how other participants are handled within sentences. That's the topic of the next two sections.