The Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics

, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 291–325 | Cite as

How impersonal does one get?

A study of man-pronouns in Germanic
  • Paula FengerEmail author
Original Paper


This paper focuses on overt impersonal pronouns such as English one and Dutch men in eight Germanic languages (English, Frisian, Icelandic, Danish, Dutch, German, Norwegian and Swedish). Cinque (Linguist Inq 19:521–581, 1988), Egerland (Work Pap Scand Syntax 71:75–102, 2003), a.o., argued that there are two types of impersonal pronouns: one type that can occur in multiple syntactic positions but can only have a generic reading and another type that can have generic and existential readings but can only occur as an external argument. I show, based on novel data from ECM constructions, passives and unaccusatives, that it is not the syntactic position which restricts the distribution of men-type pronouns, but that it is case. English-type pronouns can occur with multiple cases, but can only have a generic inclusive reading. All Dutch-type pronouns can only occur with nominative case and can have multiple impersonal readings. Moreover, I show that Dutch and Swedish allow an existential reading when the pronoun is a derived subject (contra Cinque 1988; Egerland 2003). I propose a direction for this correlation between the different readings and case by assuming different feature make-ups for the pronouns, following Egerland (2003), Hoekstra (J Comp Ger Linguist 13:31–59, 2010), Ackema and Neeleman (A grammar of person. Linguistic inquiry monographs, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2018): one has \(\phi \)-features and, therefore, always needs to be obligatorily inclusive; men lacks this functional layer and, therefore, has no restriction on its readings. Furthermore, I propose that since men lacks a phi-layer, it is too deficient to project a KP, and thus can only occur with unmarked nominative case.


Impersonal pronouns Case Deficiency Generic and existential readings Phi-features 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.



I would like to thank Suzanne Aalberse, Fenna Bergsma, Jonathan Bobaljik, Hagit Borer, Marijke De Belder, Jan Don, Jon Gajewski, Elly van Gelderen, Lily Kwok, Jason Merchant, Caitlin Meyer, Ad Neeleman, Andrew Nevins, Omer Preminger, Ian Roberts, Susi Wurmbrand, three anonymous reviewers, Jim Wood, and the audiences of LingLunch at UConn 2014, ACLC seminar June 2015, CGSW 30, GLAC 21 and the workshop on R-impersonals 2015 for useful comments and feedback. For data judgements, translations and suggestions I would like thank the following people. Afrikaans: Erin Pretorius. Danish: Katrine Rosendal Carstensen, Line Mikkelsen. Dutch: Hans Broekhuis, Riny Huybregts, Ad Neeleman, Fred Weerman. English: Laura Bailey, Vikki Janke, Ian Roberts. Flemish: Marijke De Belder. Frisian: Ger de Haan, Eric Hoekstra, Arjen Versloot, Willem Visser. German: Klaus Abels, Eva Csipak, Magda Kaufmann, Stefan Kaufmann, Sabine Laszakovitz, Roland Pfau, Philipp Weisser, Susi Wurmbrand. Icelandic: Gísli Rúnar Harðarson. Swedish: Mikael Berger, Anders Holmberg, Sanna Skärlund, Bjørn Lundquist. Norwegian: Kristine Bentzen, Ragnhild Eik, Terje Lohndahl, Maren Berg Grimstad, Brita Ramsevik Riskem.


  1. Ackema, Peter, and Ad Neeleman. 2013. Person features and syncretism. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 31 (4): 901–950.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ackema, Peter, and Ad Neeleman. 2018. A grammar of person. Linguistic inquiry monographs. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  3. Alonso-Ovalle, Luis. 2002. Arbitrary pronouns are not that indefinite. In Romance languages and linguistic theory: Selected papers from Going Romance, ed. Claire Beyssade, Reineke Bok-Bennema, Frank Drijkoningen, and Paola Monachesi, 1–14. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  4. Andrews, Avery. 1982. The representation of case in modern Icelandic. In The mental representation of grammatical relations, ed. Joan Bresnan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Barwise, Jon, and Robin Cooper. 1981. Generalized quantifiers and natural language. Linguistics and Philosophy 4 (2): 159–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Belletti, Adriana. 1988. The case of unaccusatives. Linguistic Inquiry 19 (1): 1–34.Google Scholar
  7. Benveniste, Émile. 1971. The nature of pronouns. In Problems in general linguistics, ed. Coral Gables, 217–222. Miami: University of Miami Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bittner, Maria, and Ken Hale. 1996. The structural determination of case and agreement. Linguistic Inquiry 27: 1–68.Google Scholar
  9. Borer, Hagit. 2005. The normal course of events: Structuring sense, vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cabredo Hofherr, Patricia. 2003. Arbitrary readings of third person plural pronominals. In Proceedings of the conference sinn und bedeutung 7, Vol. 114. Universität Konstanz, FB Linguistik: Arbeitspapiere des Fachbereichs Sprachwissenschaften.Google Scholar
  11. Cabredo Hofherr, Patricia. 2008. Les pronoms impersonnels humains – syntaxe et interprétation. Modéles linguistiques tome XXIX-1 57: 35–56.Google Scholar
  12. Cardinaletti, Anna, and Michal Starke. 1999. The typology of structural deficiency. In Clitics in the languages of Europe, ed. Henk van Riemsdijk. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  13. Chierchia, Gennaro. 1995. The variability of impersonal subjects. In Quantification in natural languages, ed. Emmon Bach, Eloise Jelinek, Angelika Kratzer, and Barbara H. Partee, 107–143. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  14. Chomsky, Noam. 2000. Minimalist inquiries: The framework. In Step by step: Essays on minimalist syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik, ed. David Michaels, Roger Martin, and Juan Uriagereka, 89–156. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  15. Chomsky, Noam. 2001. Derivation by phase. In Ken Hale: A life in language, ed. Michael Kenstowicz, 1–52. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  16. Cinque, Guglielmo. 1988. On si constructions and the theory of arb. Linguistic Inquiry 19: 521–581.Google Scholar
  17. Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Coveney, Aidan. 2000. Vestiges of nous and 1st person plural verbs in informal spoken French. Language Sciences 22: 447–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. D’Alessandro, Roberta. 2007. Impersonal si constructions. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  20. D’Alessandro, Roberta, and Artemis Alexiadou. 2003. Inclusive and exclusive impersonal pronouns: A feature-geometrical analysis. Rivista di Grammatica Generativa 27: 31–44.Google Scholar
  21. Déchaine, Rose-Marie, and Martina Wiltschko. 2002. Decomposing pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry 33 (3): 409–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Egerland, Verner. 2003. Impersonal pronouns in Scandinavian and Romance. Working Papers in Scandinavian Syntax 71: 75–102.Google Scholar
  23. Egerland, Verner. 2010. On Old Italian uomo and the classification of indefinite expressions. In Syntactic variation. The dialects of Italy, ed. Roberta D’Alessandro, Adam Ledgeway, and Ian Roberts, 71–85. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Elbourne, Paul D. 2005. Situations and individuals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  25. Engdahl, Elisabet. 1999. The choice between bli-passive and s-passive in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Gothenburg: Ms. Göteborg University.Google Scholar
  26. Giacalone Ramat, Anna, and Andrea Sansò. 2007. The spread and decline of indefinite man-constructions in European languages. An areal perspective. In Europe and the Mediterranean as linguistic areas. Convergences from a historical and typological perspective, ed. Paulo Ramat, and Elisa Roma, 95–131. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  27. Gruber, Bettina. 2013. The spatiotemporal dimensions of person. A morphosyntactic account of indexical pronouns. Utrecht: LOT.Google Scholar
  28. Hall, David. 2018. The impersonal gets personal: A new pronoun in Multicultural London English. London: Ms. Queen Mary University.Google Scholar
  29. Halle, Morris, and Alec Marantz. 1993. Distributed morphology and the pieces of inflection. In The view from Building 20, ed. Ken Hale, and Samuel Jay Keyser, 111–176. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  30. Harbour, Daniel. 2011a. Descriptive and explanatory markedness. Morphology 21: 223–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Harbour, Daniel. 2011b. Valence and atomic number. Linguistic Inquiry 42: 561–594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Harley, Heidi, and Elizabeth Ritter. 2002. Person and number in pronouns: A feature-geometric analysis. Language 78: 482–526.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Heltoft, Lars, and Lisbeth Falster Jakobsen. 1996. Danish passives and subject positions as a mood system. In Content, expression and structure: Studies in Danish functional grammar, ed. Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen, Michael Fortescue, Peter Harder, Lars Heltoft, and Lisbeth Falster Jakobsen, 199–234. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hoekstra, Jarich. 2010. On the impersonal pronoun men in modern West Frisian. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 13: 31–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Holmberg, Anders. 2000. Expletives and agreement in Scandinavian passives. Working Papers in Scandinavian Syntax 65: 35–64.Google Scholar
  36. Holmberg, Anders. 2005. Is there little pro? Evidence from Finnish. Linguistic Inquiry 36: 533–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Holmberg, Anders. 2010. The null generic subject pronoun in Finnish: A case of incorporation in t. In Parametric variation: Null subjects in minimalist theory, ed. Theresa Biberauer, Anders Holmberg, Ian Roberts, and Michelle Sheehan, 200–230. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Holmberg, Anders, and On-Usa Phimsawat. 2015. Generic pronouns and phi-features: Evidence from Thai. In Newcastle and Northumbria working papers in linguistics (second Asian and European linguistics conference proceedings), Vol. 21.Google Scholar
  39. Holmberg, Anders, and On-Usa Phimsawat. 2016. Minimal pronouns. Ms. Newcastle University/University of Cambridge, Barupha University. Accessed 10 May 2016.
  40. Jaeggli, Osvaldo A. 1986. Arbitrary plural pronominals. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 4: 43–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Jakobson, Roman. ed. 1936. Beitrag zur algemeinen kasuslehre. In Selected writings, Vol. 2, 23–71. Berlin: Mouton.Google Scholar
  42. Jensen, Torben Juel. 2009. Generic variation? Developments in use of generic pronouns in late 20th century spoken Danish. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia 41: 83–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Jónsson, Jóhannes Gísli. 1992. The pronoun maður in Icelandic. Amherst: Ms. University of Massachusetts.Google Scholar
  44. Keenan, Edward L. 2003. The definiteness effect: Semantics or pragmatics? Natural Language Semantics 11 (2): 187–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Koenig, Jean-Pierre, and Gail Mauner. 1999. A-definites and the discourse status of implicit arguments. Journal of Semantics 16: 207–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kornfilt, Jaklin, and Omer Preminger. 2015. Nominative as no case at all: An argument from raising-to-accusative in Sakha. In Proceedings of the 9th workshop on Altaic formal linguistics (WAFL 9), eds. Andrew Joseph and Esra Predolac. Vol. 76 of MIT working papers in linguistics, 109–120. Cambridge, MA: MITWPL.Google Scholar
  47. Kratzer, Angelika. 1997. German impersonal pronouns and logophoricity. Berlin: Handout, Sinn und bedeutung.Google Scholar
  48. Kratzer, Angelika. 2009. Making a pronoun: Fake indexicals as window into the properties of pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry 40: 187–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Krifka, Manfred, Francis Pelletier, Gregory N. Carlson, Alice ter Meulen, Gennaro Chierchia, and Godehard Link. 1995. Genericity: An introduction. In The generic book, 1-24 ed, ed. Gregory N. Carlson, and Francis Pelletier. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  50. Landau, Idan. 2010. The explicit syntax of implicit arguments. Linguistic Inquiry 41 (3): 357–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Levin, Theodore, and Omer Preminger. 2015. Case in Sakha: Are two modalities really necessary? Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 33: 231–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Longobardi, Guiseppe. 2008. Reference to individuals, person, and the variety of mapping parameters. In Essays on nominal determination: From morphology to discourse management, ed. Henrik Hoeg Müller, and Alex Klinge, 189–211. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Malamud, Sophia. 2012. Impersonal indexicals: one, you, man, and du. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 15: 1–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Marantz, Alec. 1984. On the nature of grammatical relations, vol. 10, Linguistic inquiry monographs. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  55. Marantz, Alec. 1991. Case and licensing. In Proceedings of ESCOL ’91, eds. Germán F. Westphal, Benjamin Ao, and Hee-Rahk Chae, 234–253. Ohio State University Department of Linguistics.Google Scholar
  56. Moltmann, Friederike. 2006. Generic one, arbitrary PRO, and the first person. Natural Language Semantics 14: 257–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Neeleman, Ad, and Fred Weerman. 1999. Flexible syntax. A theory of case and arguments. Utrecht: Utrecht Institute of Linguistics, OTS.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Nevins, Andrew. 2007. The representation of third person and its consequences for the person-case constraint. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 25: 273–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Parrot, Jeffrey Keith. 2015. Distinct post syntactic mechanisms of pronominal default case in English and Danish versus Swedish. Olomouc: Ms. Palacký University in Olomouc.Google Scholar
  60. Phimsawat, On-Usa. 2011. The syntax of pro-drop in Thai. Ph.D. dissertation, Newcastle University.Google Scholar
  61. Preminger, Omer. 2014. Agreement and its failures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Radkevich, Nina. 2010. On location: The structure of case and adpositions. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Connecticut.Google Scholar
  63. Ragnarsdóttir, Hrafnhildur, and Sven Strömqvist. 2005. The development of generic maður/ man for the construction of discourse stance in Icelandic and Swedish. Journal of Pragmatics 37: 143–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Roberts, Ian. 2018. Parameter hierarchies and universal grammar. Ms. Cambridge University, to be published with Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Schütze, Carson. 1997. Infl in child and adult language: Agreement, case and licensing. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT.Google Scholar
  66. Siewierska, Anna. 2004. Person. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Siewierska, Anna. 2011. Overlap and complementarity in reference impersonals: man-constructions vs. third person plural-impersonals in the languages of Europe. In Impersonal constructions. A cross-linguistic perspective, ed. Andrej Malchukov, and Anna Siewierska, 57–90. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Sigurðsson, Halldòr Ármann. 2006. The nom/acc alternation in Germanic. In Comparative studies in Germanic syntax, ed. Jutta Hartmann, and Laszlo Molnarfi, 13–50. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Sigurðsson, Halldòr Ármann, and Verner Egerland. 2009. Impersonal null-subjects in Icelandic and elsewhere. Studia Linguistica 63: 158–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Smith, Pete, Beata Moskal, Jungmin Kang, Ting Xu, and Jonathan David Bobaljik. 2015. Pronominal suppletion: Case and number. In Proceedings of the 45th annual meeting of the North East Linguistic Society, eds. Thuy Bui and Deniz Özyildiz, Vol. 3, 69–78.Google Scholar
  71. Tenny, Carol L. 1987. Grammaticalizing aspect and affectedness. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT.Google Scholar
  72. van Gelderen, Elly. 1997. Verbal agreement and the grammar behind its breakdown. Minimalist feature checking. Tübingen: Niemeyer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Van Olmen, Daniël, Adru Breed, and Ben Verhoeven. 2015. The “human” impersonal pronoun in Afrikaans vs European West Germanic. Presented at a Germanic Sandwich 2015.Google Scholar
  74. Weerman, Fred. 2006. It’s the economy, stupid. een vergelijkende blik op men en man. In Nederlands tussen Engels en Duits. handelingen van de workshop op 30–9 en 1-10-2005 aan de Freie Universität Berlin, eds. Matthias Hüning, Ulrike Vogel, Ton van der Wouden, and Arie Verhagen, 19–46. Leiden: SNL.Google Scholar
  75. Wurmbrand, Susi. 2001. Infinitives: Restructuring and clause structure. Studies in generative grammar. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  76. Wurmbrand, Susi. 2014. Tense and aspect in English infinitives. Linguistic Inquiry 45 (3): 403–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wurmbrand, Susi. 2015. Restructuring cross-linguistically. In Proceedings of the North Eastern Linguistics Society annual meeting, Vol. 45, eds. Thuy Bui and Deniz Özyildiz, 227–240. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, GLSA.Google Scholar
  78. Zifonun, Gisela. 2001. ‘man lebt nur einmal’. Morphosyntax und semantik des pronomens man. Deutsche Sprache 28: 232–253.Google Scholar
  79. Zobel, Sarah. 2017. On the (in)definiteness of impersonal pronouns. Linguistica 56: 363–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of ConnecticutStorssUSA

Personalised recommendations