I have an idea for a language I am toying with where sentences have a fairly rigid structure, unfortunately I get the feeling that if I were to start with a precursor protolang (as part of me developing the language) with this structure, the leading pronoun would be worn away and eventually dropped by the time I figure out what the modern version of the language would look like.

I would end up with a Pro-drop language.

A pro-drop language (from "pronoun-dropping") is a language in which certain classes of pronouns may be omitted when they are pragmatically or grammatically inferable.

The sort of 'rigid structure', besides being SOV, I have been thinking of would be something like:

<subject-pronoun><pronoun-context-suffix> <first-object> <optional-second-object> <verb>...

The unique difficulty is, that I intentionally want all sentences to be of this form.

Whereas in english you might say "The dog barks, and that makes me happy", in this language it would be "I 'happy-mood-indicator' dog barks'. Or where you might say "Alex gave them a book" in this language you would say "I 'uncertainty-indicator' Alex them gave book" if you didn't know it definitely happened, or "I 'profession-indicator' Alex them gave book", if it's your job to make sure Alex give them the book, "I 'part-of-group-indicator' Alex them gave book" if you being part of a group is important to the context (in this way, we only have the singular subject pronoun) and so on for different contexts.

But as you might guess, if all sentences start with the subject pronoun, I can't see a reason why the word would naturally stay as part of the sentence structure.

How can I prevent it being dropped?

  • It sounds like you’re not just wanting the subject to be mandatory, but you want a first-person subject to be mandatory, even when the actual subject isn’t first-person (e.g., how would you distinguish ‘I think/know/etc. Alex gave them a book’ and ‘Alex gave them a book’ if a first-person subject and epistemic marker equivalent to ‘I think/know/etc.’ is mandatory?). Mandatory subjects are common, and mandatory epistemic markers not unheard of – but mandatory first-person subject pronouns is not something I’ve ever seen in a natural language. Dec 9 '21 at 0:32

I'm interpreting the question as how do I make obligatory subject pronouns at the beginning of a sentence diachronically stable under some perhaps-reasonable assumptions.

First, the idea you're describing with an obligatory clause-initial subject pronoun and some kind of clitic in Wackernagel's position (directly after the first constituent) might already be fairly stable.

There is natural language precedent for obligatory subject pronouns, for example, see Fijian. There's nothing directly equivalent to the context particles, but Fijian does have some TAM marking particles that appear before or after the verb, which appears directly after the subject pronoun.

Speculating a bit, I think you're onto something that subject pronouns are frequently pragmatically inferrable. Indeed, some languages regularly drop the subject pronoun even in cases where the verb lacks person marking.

In order to combat this, you might do something like fuse the subject pronoun and negative marker, yielding something similar to the negative subject prefixes in Swahili and other Bantu languages.

  • Your definitely into something here. I'll have a think. Woul making them or some of the clitics prefixes be plausible? Initial mutation? One last thing, does the distance of the clause-initial pronoun from the verb (which would normally get conjugated) help at all?
    – Pureferret
    Nov 2 '21 at 22:20
  • I'm not sure how to answer your follow-up question. There's some natural language precedent already for some of the features you describe individually (clause-initial pronouns, second-position clitics, mandatory subject pronouns even in the presence of a lexical subject). I don't think the exact combination of features you propose is attested, but that's sort of to be expected as you add consider more features together simultaneously. Nov 3 '21 at 23:14
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    The broad picture of what you're describing, an SOV language with a rigid structure but a lot of clause-initial grammatical morphemes is, I think, somewhat uncommon. I would recommend poking around WALS for examples of languages, for example SOV languages with clause-initial negation or maybe evidentials that are second-position enclitics. A language with the feature you want will sometimes have a reference grammar available if you search for it. Reference grammars are good sources of inspiration. Nov 3 '21 at 23:21
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    thats great, thanks very much. I'll brave WALS again
    – Pureferret
    Nov 4 '21 at 2:25
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    You can also combine features. This link combines, for example, the order of object and verb and coding of evidentiality wals.info/combinations/83A_78A#2/18.0/149.4 . Most languages have a feature value for order of object and verb and there aren't many options total so it's a good feature to combine with other things (order of adposition and noun also has lots of data). Nov 4 '21 at 2:29

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