A different question made me wonder what is the norm for Indo-European with regard to pro-drop? I know Italic languages generally do it, while Germanic languages generally don't. What about the rest of Indo-European languages? Do we suppose Proto-Indo-European did it?

Bonus question: are there any Indo-European languages that have developed a topic-prominent structure?

  • 2
    "Pro-drop" is not a description of a phenomenon. "Pro-drop" is a part of a particular theory, and depends on various presuppositions about the analyses of phenomena in other languages. Consequently different phenomena can be labelled as "pro-drop" by different descriptions of different languages. There are all kinds of deletions available, many of which apply to pronouns, and many many kinds of conditions for their application. That said, in Spanish personal pronouns are rarely subjects, but in French they regularly appear. In Malay, Zero can mean any pronoun, and is the most common anaphor.
    – jlawler
    Jun 28, 2014 at 22:18
  • Okay, let me clarify my question. My question most concerns subject-dropping, which in Indo-European languages is most often done because the verb itself implies the subject. Jun 29, 2014 at 0:11
  • But in both German and French, which mostly inflect the verb for person and number of the subject, subject pronouns are required in the standard written language. I suspect this restriction is relaxed in many social contexts, but I don't know. Sociolinguistics, anyone?
    – jlawler
    Jun 29, 2014 at 0:46
  • Indeed. In fact prior to making this thread I was wondering how it was that Germanic languages developed explicit subjects despite retaining subject agreement (and presumably French developed it by contact with English), but then it occurred to me that I didn't know for sure that pro-drop was the "normal" state of Indo-European languages. Hence this thread. Jun 29, 2014 at 0:56
  • Indeed, indeed. As I said, however, you can't tell the pro-drops without a program; you never know when something mighta been deleted without consulting either Big Pro or little pro. Sentences don't always stop at the pro shop.
    – jlawler
    Jun 29, 2014 at 0:58

3 Answers 3


Hittite, Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin all usually omit subject pronouns unless the subject is somehow emphasized (although I believe it's somewhat more complicated than this in Hittite, in that some intransitive verbs, but not all, always do appear with subject clitics.) Presumably PIE was similar. The fact that there are clear cognate sets for the first- and second-person pronouns but not for a third-person pronoun also points in this direction.

It stands to reason that Germanic languages, and other IE languages that require explicit subjects, developed this feature because of the loss or syncretism of personal endings on the verb. This is borne out by the fact that French requires subject pronouns (or proclitics) while Spanish and Italian don't, since in French, many verbs have a single form for four out of the six person-number combinations, while in those other languages the verb ending usually indicates the subject unambiguously.

As for the topic-prominent question: Ancient Greek is somewhat topic-prominent in the sense that its word order largely depends on information-structural/discourse-pragmatic categories rather than syntactic ones, so that clauses tend to be organized in a Topic-Focus order (rather than SVO, SOV or whatever). It also allows clause-external topic NPs preceding a clause with its own subject NP, just like e.g. Japanese sentences of the form "That palm tree (topic) leaves (subject) are big" (example from Wikipedia), though these aren't very frequent.

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    I would actually be hesitant to say that Sanskrit, Latin or Czech are pro-drop languages as it seems to be an awfully English-centric perspective. IMHO they are not pro-drop at all since they express the subject very clearly by the endings. Who are we to say that the ending is not pronominal in nature (semantically it certainly is!). It is not far-fetched to analyse French je,tu,... as conjugation affixes (they can only be separated from verb with other functional morphemes, nothing like English I,for one, welcome...) and if we do so, does it make French a pro-drop language?
    – Eleshar
    Nov 20, 2016 at 11:48
  • @Eleshar, I avoided the term "pro-drop" because it suggests there was a pronoun "there" which got "dropped". But it does make sense to distinguish between pronouns, as a class of words, and verb endings.
    – TKR
    Nov 20, 2016 at 20:14

Regarding the bonus question, contemporary variants of spoken French, for instance the dialect of French you would expect urban dwellers in their 20s or early 30s to speak, is arguably topic prominent, with the subjects and/or objects rarely sitting in their canonical position but rather in right or left dislocated positions. This preeminence of subjects in topic positions fits very awkwardly with the syntax of standard French, which rigidly requires a subject for any finite verb, so the usual result is that the subject is left-dislocated and a resumptive pronouns shows up right next to the finite verb, usually in a morphologically reduced form. It also features clause-external topic NPs, as in TKR's answer about Ancient Greek.

Written examples are by nature hard to find for these spoken constructions, but the official title of the number one hit of the summer 2006 is a good example.

Zidane y va marquer (to compare with the standard Zidane va marquer).

Gloss: Zidane TOPIC 3rd-person-singular Future score. Zidane is going to score

Here, Zidane sits in topic position and the canonical subject position required by French is filled with a morphologically reduced 3rd-person pronoun.

Here is an example from my own experience (from 2012).

Les gens de notre génération, c'est toujours les pères, kizont du mal à communiquer avec (to compare with the standard Les gens de notre génération ont toujours du mal à communiquer avec les pères).

Gloss: People of our generation TOPIC it is always the fathers FOCUS 3rd-plur-have difficulties to communicate with. People of our generation always have difficulties communicating with fathers.

Listening to any French radio marketed to youths or watching contemporary French movies will yield dozens of other examples.

  • Very interesting. How common is this in modern spoken French compared to the classical syntax? Occasionally you see this type of thing in English, though it's uncommon. Jun 29, 2014 at 16:53
  • It seems to me to be dominant in colloquial spoken language outside very educated (almost affected) utterances. The standard SVO construction in the form (Full DP) Verb (Full DP) is clearly less frequent than DP Top, Pronoun V DP for instance. Interestingly, this has consequences on the implicit syntax French youths attribute to English, with many sentences like "John, his (the) friend of Mary" popping out in junior high school tests (from "John, he is the friend of Mary" plus morphological reduction, literally from "John, il est l'ami de Marie" from standard "John est l'ami de Marie").
    – Olivier
    Jun 30, 2014 at 8:33
  • You're right Olivier. Même Sarkozy, y parle comme ça.
    – Joël
    Jun 30, 2014 at 13:32

I'm very skeptical about the very notion of pro-drop it is not a feature of syntax but rather of text. However, a typology of subject marking across IE languages is not a bad idea.

Slavonic languages generally have rich enough verbal morphology not to need explicit subject marking. Yet, they vary in the degree they mark subject external to the verb. In a language like Czech, using the pronoun is similar to raising in English, whereas in Russian it is pretty much obligatory.

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