Kashmiri -n: A Null Element with Grammatical Functions*

Peter Edwin Hook and Omkar N. Koul
University of Michigan and Central Institute of Indian Languages

....One of the striking peculiarities of Kashmiri (besides being V-2 in its word order) is the existence in it of classes of expressions of natural forces and natural processes that use two-place predicates for the expression of events which, in most languages, are expressed with one-place predicates. In exx (1) and (2) kar 'do' and kaD 'draw' have predicate argument structures which normally are satisfied by two core NPs. (The dative NPs are optional adjuncts):

(1) vuzimali karyi-n (asmaan-as)
....strokes.fpl did.fpl-3sgErg sky-Dat
.... 'There was lightning (in the sky).'

(2) taarakh keDyi-n (nab-as) neny
.... stars.mpl drew.mpl-3sgErg sky-Dat clear.mpl
.... 'The stars came out bright (in the sky).'

The lexically two-place predicates in (1) and (2) alternate with one-place predicates:

(3) vuzimali geyi (asmaan-as)
.... strokes.fpl went.fpl sky-Dat
.... 'There was lightning (in the sky).'

(4) taarakh draayi (nab-as) neny
.... stars.mpl came.out.mpl sky-Dat clear.mpl
.... 'The stars came out bright (in the sky).'

We are unable to discover the semantic (or pragmatic) conditions which govern the choice between (1) and (3) or between (2) and (4).

....The presence of only one core NP in association with the lexically two-place predicates when they figure in expressions of natural forces and processes leaves an empty slot which (in preterite and perfect tenses) is filled with a dummy subject represented by the third person suffix -n. Notice that the suffix in exx (1) and (2) is singular while the overt core noun is plural. Furthermore, without the suffix -n (1) and (2) are not grammatical:

(5) *vuzimali karyi (asmaan-as) [compare (1)]
.... strokes.fpl did.fpl sky-Dat
.... 'There was lightning (in the sky).'

(6) *taarakh keDyi (nab-as) neny [compare (2)]
.... stars.mpl drew.mpl sky-Dat clear.mpl
.... 'The stars came out bright (in the sky).'

....Whether speakers use a two-place predicate as in exx (1) and (2) or the corresponding one-place predicate as in exx (3) and (4) there is only one core noun phrase that is referential. That is, in exx (1) and (2) the ergative third person singular pronominal suffix (which in general represents an agent-subject) has no referent, at least not in the modern language. It is tempting to suppose that at some time in the past it was possible to use an overt noun phrase referring to some supernatural being instead of the ergative suffix. However, speakers today do not accept such alternatives as part of the living language. That is, while (7) and (8) are grammatical, no-one would use them:

(7) vuzimali karyi (asmaan-as) khwadaay-an [compare (1)]
.... strokes.fpl did.fpl sky-Dat God-Erg
.... 'God made lightning (in the sky).'

(8) taarakh keDyi (nab-as) neny khwaday-an [compare (2)]
.... stars.mpl drew.mpl sky-Dat clear.mpl God-Erg
.... 'God brought the stars out bright (in the sky).'

....The question we address in this paper is this: What is the grammatical status of the null element in (1) and (2)? Is it a subject? Does it have a grammatical function? Can it get case? Or does it simply satisfy some morphological requirement of two-place predicates in the preterite or perfect?

....The answer to these questions is quite surprising: Careful syntactic analysis reveals that there are two classes of such predicates. In one class the third person singular marker is indeed a kind of morpho-logical filler with no syntactic status. Even though the predicates in this class are lexically two-place (or transitive), they behave in their syntax quite like one-place (intransitive) predicates. The null subject in the other class, however, has syntactic properties of a real noun phrase. It has a grammatical function and is able to control at least some of the syntactic processes that other overt subject noun phrases can control. Expressions belonging to the first class involve natural forces (thunder, lightning, earthquakes, floods; diseases; and unusual mental states) while those belonging to the second involve the more gradual change in state that we have dubbed natural process. (1) is an instance of a natural force expression; (2), of a natural process. We now examine three syntactic properties which distinguish the null elements in the first class from those in the second.

....I. Subject agreement. The finite verb in the preterite and perfect tenses agrees in gender and number with the subject of intransitives and with the object of transitives. But in other tenses agreement is always with the subject, be the verb intransitive or be it transitive. In the future the finite verb in natural force expressions shows concord not with the null element, but with the other core noun phrase. Thus, in (9) the future tense verb form karan is in the plural to show agreement with the noun phrase vuzimali 'strokes':

(9) vuzimali kar-an (obur-as)
.... strokes.fpl do-Fut.3pl cloud-Dat
.... 'There will be lightning (in the cloud).'

In the class of natural process expressions, however, it is the null element (and not the overt noun phrase) that controls subject concord. In (10) the future tense verb form kaDyi is in the singular, agreeing with the null element, not with the overt noun phrase taarakh 'stars':

(10) taarakh kaD-yi (nab-as) neny
.... stars.mpl draw-Fut.3sg sky-Dat clear.mpl
.... 'The stars will come out bright (in the sky).'

....II. In Kashmiri there is a person hierarchy such that, in non-ergative tenses (present and past duratives, future, counter-to-fact), a direct object that is [+human] and [+specific] is marked with the dative case if the subject is a third person. If the subject is first person then a [+human, +specific] object is marked with the nominative case and is cross-referenced on the verb with an object suffix. (fn 1)

(11) su sooz-yi-y tsye jom
.... he send-Fut.3sg-2sgDat you.Dat Jammu
.... 'He'll send you to Jammu.'

(12) bi sooz-a-th tsi jom
.... I send-Fut.1sg-2sgObj you.Nom Jammu
.... 'I'll send you to Jammu.'

In a preterite (or perfect) tense the object must be in the nominative (= absolutive) case and, if it is a second person, it must be cross-referenced with a nominative suffix on the finite verb:

(13) temy suuzu-kh tsi jom
.... he.Erg sent-2sgNom you.Nom Jammu
.... 'He sent you to Jammu.'

Thus, in Kashmiri there is a very specific and constrained pattern of case alternations for the objects of transitive verbs. And for transitive predicates to have objects that show these alternations, they must also have subjects, because the choice of the case and the choice of the suffix for the object depends on the person of the subject.

....This kind of alternation is not found with natural force expressions. But if we examine a natural process expression we discover that the overt core noun phrase associated with it receives the cases and suffixes which one would expect it to receive if one assumes the null element to be a third person subject and the overt noun phrase to be an object. In the future tense if the overt core noun phrase of a natural process expression is second person, it gets the dative case:

(14) vakhit-i brOOTh buDir-aav-yi-y tsye
.... time-Abl before age-Tr-Fut.3sg-2sg.Dat you.Dat
.... 'You will age before your time!'

And in the preterite tense the overt core noun phrase of natural process expressions gets the nominative (=absolutive) case:

(15) vakhit-i brOOh buDir-oovu-n-akh tsi
.... time-Abl before age-Tr.Pst-3sg.Erg-2sg.Nom you.Nom
.... 'You aged before your time!' [compare (14)]

....III. Further evidence for the distinction of natural force and natural process expressions is to be observed in their behavior in coordinate conjunctions. Weather expressions, which are syntactically intransi-tive, allow the conjunction of forms having dummy agents with ordinary monovalent forms. Although vuzimali 'lightning strokes' in (16) is lexically the patient of the verb kar 'do, make', it is syntactically the subject of its clause and as such can be interpreted as the sub-ject of a following clause ( ti pati geyas kam 'and then became less').

(16) gwaDi karyi-n-as syeThaa vuzimali ti pati gey-as kam
.... first did-3sE-3sD many strokes and then went-3sD less
.... 'At first there was a lot of lightning and then less.'

....In contrast, bivalent natural process verbs allow conjunction only with other bivalent natural process verbs. In (17) and (18) the noun phrase taarakh 'stars' is also lexically the patient of its verb geeb kar 'make disappear', but in (18) since it is syntactically the direct object (not the subject) of its clause it cannot be interpreted as the subject of the following clause ( ti pati draayas byeyi neny 'and then came out bright again').

(17) gwaDi keryi-n-as taarakh geeb ti pati keDyi-n-as byeyi neny
.... first did-3sE-3sD stars hidden and then drew-3sE-3sD again clear
.... 'First the stars disappeared and then came out bright again.'

(18) *gwaDi keryi-n-as taarakh geeb ti pati draay-as byeyi neny
.... first did-3sE-3sD stars hidden and then emerged-3sD again clear
.... 'First the stars disappeared and then came out bright again.'

In order to make a coordinate conjunction with an intransitive clause as second member, one must select the intransitive counterpart of the natural process expression:

(19) gwaDi gey-as taarakh geeb ti pati draay-as byeyi neny
.... first went-3sD stars hidden and then emerged-3sD again clear
.... 'First the stars disappeared and then came out bright again.'

....Conclusion. In this paper we have presented three kinds of evidence for imputing the grammatical function of subject to the null element in one class of impersonal expressions in Kashmiri. While similar kinds of evidence might be presented for imputing subjecthood to dummy elements like it in English, il in French, and es in German, it is also true that those elements are not phonetically null; whereas the Kashmiri null subject is known only through the presence of the cross-referencing pronominal suffix -n that appears in preterite and perfect enses and through its syntactic behavior.


*. In the transcription system used for Kashmiri in this paper reduplicating a symbol denotes (contrastive) length. The letter i represents a high (allophonically front or central) vowel, while e represents a high (either front or central) vowel. Palatalization is uniformly indicated with the letter y ( j, ch, c and sh are inherently palatalized). The digraph ts is a dental affricate.

1. For a general overview of the pronominal suffixing systems of Kashmiri, see Grierson 1973, and Hook and Koul 1984. In this paper what are termed "nominative" (=N) pronominal suffixes correspond to what we have termed "absolutive" suffixes in our earlier papers and what we here call "ergative" (=E) correspond to "anti-absolutive" there. While there are important conceptual differences informing these terminological ones, they are not relevant to the present discussion.


Grierson, Sir George A. 1973. Standard Manual of the Kashmiri Language. 2 vols. Rohatak: Light and Life Publishers. (Reprint of the 1911 Oxford University Press edition)

Hook, P.E., and O.N. Koul. 1984. Pronominal suffixes and split ergativity in Kashmiri. In Koul and Hook. 1984. Pp. 123-135.

Koul, O. N., and P. E. Hook, Eds. 1984. Aspects of Kashmiri Linguistics. New Delhi: Bahari Publications.