Expletives and Clause Structure: Syntactic Change in Icelandic

  • Hannah Booth

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the historical development of the expletive það in Icelandic, from the earliest texts to the present day. This development is set against the backdrop of Icelandic clause structure, with particular attention to verb-second, information structure and the left periphery. The study combines corpus linguistic data and quantitative techniques with theoretical analysis, conducted within Lexical Functional Grammar. I show that Icelandic underwent three syntactic developments in the period 1750-present and argue that these all reflect one overall change: the establishment of það as a structural placeholder for the topic position (the clause-initial prefinite position). I claim that það functions as a topic position placeholder in the earliest attested stage of Icelandic (1150-1350), but is restricted to a specific context: topicless subjectless constructions with a clausal object, where það has cataphoric reference. The three changes in the period 1750-present represent the establishment of this topic position placeholder in new contexts: (1) það generalises to all types of topicless subjectless construction, beyond those with a clausal object; (2) það emerges in presentational constructions (which inherently lack a topic), out-competing the earlier expletive form þar; (3) in cataphoric contexts with a clausal subject, það begins to transition from subject to topic position placeholder. The majority of these contexts exhibit at least a short period in which það – or alternatively þar – behaves like a subject. Icelandic thus exhibits the emergence of a topic position placeholder expletive from an earlier subject-like element. This shift towards prefinite expletives, which sets Icelandic apart from e.g. Mainland Scandinavian, happens relatively late in the diachrony (1750-present). Moreover, the Icelandic development challenges the standard claim in the literature on Germanic expletives, which assumes that subject expletives emerge from prefinite expletives.
Date of Award31 Dec 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorKersti Borjars (Supervisor) & Tine Breban (Supervisor)


  • Expletives
  • Historical Corpora
  • Icelandic
  • Lexical Functional Grammar
  • Generative Syntax
  • Syntactic Change

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