Thursday, 11 September 2008

'Subjects' (and cheese?!) subject to disappearing

Countdown to Italy: 20 days!!

Did you know that a large number of languages, including Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Japanese, don't require the explicit use of subjects like "I, you, he, she, we, they and it"? The concept may seem foreign, especially to Canadians who speak English as a first language, and have only dabbled in high school French, but in many languages, subjects are quite redundant. You may be asking - Just how does one figure out who is expressing the sentiment in the sentence if the subject isn't present? - but surprisingly, misunderstandings very rarely occur thanks to the vital information about the subject provided by context.

For instance, in the sentence "(She) ate cheese. And then (she) ate some bread," the subject 'she' appears twice. The first 'she' is necessary because without it, it would be difficult to know whether it was she, a mouse, or the greedy guest who ultimately devoured the cheese. However, the second 'she' is quite redundant in this case since it can be assumed from the context that she who ate the cheese was hungry, and probably followed it up with a piece of bread as well.

Conversely, if there was another hungry being in the house and it so happened that he/she took the bread in a completely seperate incident, it would in fact be necessary to state the second subject. For if you did not, she who ate the cheese would be landed with a double accusation!

So what have we learned? In non-subject languages, the subject can be deleted when we can assume from the context what the subject is, and it cannot be deleted when we cannot!

But what I find most interesting is that in spoken English, we often tend to delete the subject without noticing that we do so. I could say the following sentences and sound like a perfectly fluent English speaker:

"Just popping out for a moment!"
"Bumped into Peter this morning"
"Went to the Superstore today?"

Perhaps some would call this subject droppage incorrect grammar or laziness. Maybe others would call it language change. But no matter what you call it, it just goes to show that, overall, we English speakers are probably wasting a lot of breath pointing out exactly who did what, when we should be able to simply guess!

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