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On the historical development of pronouns referring to situations

The rise of pre-finite ‘expletives’ in German


  • Eric Fuß Ruhr-Universität Bochum
  • Roland Hinterhölzl Università Ca' Foscari Venezia



CP expletives, verb second, Old High German, Middle High German, discourse anchoring, situation argument, generalized EPP


At least since Milsark (1974) expletives have been a major research topic in generative linguistics. However, since most relevant work has focused on the present-day languages, many aspects of the historical development of expletives are still unsettled. This applies in particular to the emergence of CP related pre-finite expletives in the history of the Germanic V2 languages. Focusing on German, this paper seeks to shed new light on the diachrony of CP expletive es ‘it’ by combining new empirical evidence gathered from a range of corpus studies with a novel theoretical perspective on the syntax and pragmatic functions of so-called ‘expletive’ elements. Paying special attention to the contexts in which pre-finite expletive es first appeared, we provide new data on linguistic and extralinguistic factors (such as text type and dialect area) that shaped its development. We show that es came to be used as a prefield filler earlier than previously thought, with the first clear cases dating to the 12th century. In addition, we will investigate the role of light frame adverbials such as thô/dô ‘then’ as potential precursors of expletive es and address the question of why the latter replaced the former in the history of German. The discussion of the historical data is embedded in a new proposal concerning the discourse function of CP-related expletives. In particular, we argue that ‘expletive’ es is not a semantically vacuous element, but rather a demonstrative element with a weak definite reading that is compatible with introducing a new situation (identified with an argument of Tense, cf. Hinterhölzl 2019) but also with continuing an established reference situation, explaining the success of es as a versatile element that anchors the utterance to the context.