A Plural-to-Singular Reanalysis Cycle

  • Jonah Bates University of Kansas
  • Andrew McKenzie University of Kansas
Keywords: Features, person marking, pronoun structure, presupposition, reanalysis, plurality


The reanalysis of plural first and second person pronouns to singular reference constitutes a diachronic cycle involving both semantic and pragmatic processes. First comes semantic reanalysis through feature drop. Speakers change the underlying semantic content from plural to number-neutral reference by dropping plural presuppositions (carried by plural features) that they cease to accommodate. The number-neutral form then pushes out other forms, destroying the paradigmatic number contrast there. In many languages, a newly innovated plural then emerges, and pragmatic competition triggers the restriction of that previously number-neutral pro-noun to singular contexts. The generative basis for this cycle appears to be a synchronic relationship of asymmetric entailment between plurals and singulars. The semantic content of number φ-features, where plural pronouns are marked for sums while singulars are unmarked for number, means that the restriction of the unmarked member of the pair to singular contexts of use is due to pragmatic competition in plural contexts with the more presupposition-rich plural. These facts underlie the directionality of both the reanalysis and restriction stages of the cycle.