English and German have vestiges of an imperative followed by a subject pronoun:

→ Be Thou My Vision (archaic)

→ Don't you talk back to me! (colloquial)

→ Bitte rufen Sie ihn. (polite 2nd person)

→ Fangen wir an. (cohortative)

These are consistent, as Draconis and fdb point out, but represent exceptional cases in view of the overall verbal system.

  • Which is more common cross-linguistically: for an imperative to include the subject pronoun, or to omit it, as is most often done in the languages I understand?

  • What do we know about the exceptional cases, as the above seem to be?

  • How can we characterize the verb-subject inversion in these cases?

  • 2
    It's not uncommon in colloquial English nowadays, at least in the negative: "don't you touch that!"
    – Draconis
    May 12 '18 at 2:25
  • 1
    In German this is not a vestige. "Sie" is mandatory in this construction.
    – fdb
    May 12 '18 at 16:19
  • Thanks; updated to incorporate those examples. I think the premise of this question is still valid. May 12 '18 at 16:37
  • 1
    @A.M.Bittlingmayer Could you clarify that point, possibly with an answer? I think it would be very interesting, but at first glance the connection between omitting subjects in unmarked clauses and in imperatives isn't obvious, particularly considering the special position of the subject (after the verb/auxiliary), at least in the English examples (as I don't speak German). May 13 '18 at 10:59
  • 1
    I want to suggest that the sentences you list are not really imperative. They are really some kind of irrealis mood; perhaps hortative. For obvious reasons, the meaning is identical to an imperative sentence. But this means the subject is no more or less mandatory than in a "regular" indicative sentence.
    – OmarL
    May 15 '18 at 9:25

The German case you cite is separate from the English one. In Germanic languages in general, there never was any third-person imperative. But when German borrowed the T-V distinction from neighboring languages, the second person plural (Ihr) took on a polite singular meaning. And later, when this stopped being polite enough, the third person plural (Sie) took over that role. But German had no third person imperative, so the subjunctive was used instead. Bitte rufen Sie ihn is syntactically a subjunctive, and thus the Sie isn't optional (since German isn't pro-drop), unlike in geh [Du] weg.

In English, however, and in informal German (using the original second-person pronouns Du and Ihr instead of Sie), the subject pronoun is usually implicit. This is by far the most common case cross-linguistically, at least in my experience.

By "implicit" I mean that the pronoun still there, but it doesn't appear on the surface. In a language like Ancient Greek, which marks person on the verb even in the imperative, this implicit pronoun still triggers second-person marking. And in English (and several other languages), the implicit pronoun still triggers reflexives: "go let yourself out", not *"go let you out". This would only be expected if there were an invisible subject pronoun there, C-commanding the reflexive.

(There are, in fact, certain constructions that look like imperatives but don't have this implicit subject! My introductory linguistics professor would use "bless you" as his only example of this, but "damn you" and many other expletives fit also. See McCawley's paper under the pseudonym "Quang Phúc Đông" for the details.)

The subject-verb inversion here is particular to Germanic, and doesn't quite match any other construction in the language. For example, English negative imperatives use "do"-support even when the verb is "be": "Don't [you] be late!" This doesn't happen in normal indicative sentences: *"He doesn't be late". So the best I can say for this is, it's a special construction used only for imperatives.

  • The German polite/intimate dichotomy is a bit more complicated than how you describe it. This is perhaps of interest: forum.wordreference.com/threads/er-anrede-18-jhd.2526030/…
    – fdb
    May 16 '18 at 9:35
  • @fdb Oh, definitely; I only intend to give a very brief explanation of how "Sie" took on a second-person meaning. What's relevant is that it was originally third-person and maintains that morphologically.
    – Draconis
    May 16 '18 at 17:41

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