What languages (if any) grammatically require subjects in commands?
July 26, 2022 6:19 PM   Subscribe

What languages (if any) grammatically require subjects in commands?

I have varying degrees of familiarity with four languages: English, Japanese, Spanish, and Korean. In all four languages, commands have no subjects:

Don't kill!
殺すな!
¡No mates!
죽이지 마!

The reasoning makes sense (since you're always giving a command to someone, "you" is understood). Also, I understand that you can add clarifiers when it's unclear (like, "Bob, don't go to the store!"). However, that's not really a subject in the same way as "Bob went to the store", it's more an appended clarifier.

Are there any languages in which, grammatically, a command requires a subject?
posted by Bugbread to Writing & Language (9 answers total)
 
Best answer: You might be interested in the wiki page on the imperative.

German does require a pronoun ("Bleiben Sie", "Stehen Sie", etc) for the formal imperative. Wiki says it's "not actually the imperative", but I don't enough about linguistics to judge that.
posted by hoyland at 6:27 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Do you mean just subject pronouns, or any subject marking? Because in Spanish, the grammatical subject of an imperative actually is explicit, not implicit-- via the verb inflection.
posted by dusty potato at 6:30 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: dusty potato: "Do you mean just subject pronouns, or any subject marking?"

Sorry, just subject pronouns (or subject nouns).
posted by Bugbread at 6:40 PM on July 26


Response by poster: hoyland: "You might be interested in the wiki page on the imperative."

Thanks, I don't know why it didn't even occur to me to check there. It also points out that in English commands can have subjects. I'd considered the possibility, and I couldn't think of any examples, so I (incorrectly) arrived at the conclusion that English commands never have subjects, but after reading the wikipedia article, I thought of the following conversation in which there's a clear subject in a command form:

Alice: "Shut up!"
Bob: "You shut up!"
Carlos: "Both of y'all shut up!"
posted by Bugbread at 6:45 PM on July 26


Bob, don't go to the store!"). However, that's not really a subject in the same way as "Bob went to the store", it's more an appended clarifier.

Side note, it's the vocative. Same as if you said, "Bob, I love your hat!"
posted by praemunire at 7:40 PM on July 26 [4 favorites]


Response by poster: Thank you!
posted by Bugbread at 7:55 PM on July 26


Best answer: > Wiki says it's "not actually the imperative"

Without getting into an argument with wikipedia, I'll just say that is an unusual opinion. This is possibly a vestigial usage of optative mood, which mostly went out of use in German about 500 years ago but has a few vestigial usages. However that usage would look more like "Sie stehen auf" meaning something like, "I desire/wish that you would stand up." It's sort of an ultra polite and indirect way of hinting at what you wish someone important, say a king or potentate, might like to do. "I hope you might consider the possibility of standing up, sire" type of thing.

Whereas present-day imperative usage would be "Stehen Sie auf" which is quite a different thing - the words are the same as optative mood, but the word order is different and in terms of grammar, that is an important thing.

Optative mood is related to (and basically collapsed with subjunctive mood, and thus the confusion.

Regardless, whatever you call it, normal everyday 2nd person formal imperative usage in German certainly does always include the subject ("Sie" in the examples above).

However, what I really came to say is that in the informal 2nd person imperative, German most often omits the subject - similarly to English - but it is actually quite common to include it. When you include it, it can make the imperative a little more urgent - say if you're talking to a child - or it can convey different nuances that are kind of hard to explain.

But for example:

Sei ruhig! (Keep quiet)
Sei du ruhig! (Less common - "du" is the subject)

Mach es! (Do it!)
Mach du es! (You do it!)

Here is a pretty good explanation of the imperative in German. Their explanation for the added subject is "the implication is that the speaker can't or won't perform the action" - thus there is an emphasis via the added subject that *YOU* need to do it, because *I* can't or won't.

I think we see this in English, too. Your example "YOU shut up" is somewhat close to this. But something like "You eat the broccoli" is closer. That might be part of an exchange like:

Eat your broccoli.
No, YOU eat the broccoli.

Drive the car down to the repair shop, please.
No, you drive it down. I'm busy.
posted by flug at 3:38 AM on July 27 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: I think, for the precision level I'm looking for, German qualifies then. Thanks, folks!
posted by Bugbread at 3:54 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


I imagine there are examples of natural languages that work this way as well, but the constructed language Lojban uses a special second-person pronoun for the imperative. So for example "do klama" means "You go / You are going," while "ko klama" means "Go." I only remember a little bit of Lojban from when I was kind of into it 20 years ago, but if I remember correctly, the pronoun "ko" is always required for the imperative, and is in fact the only thing that distinguishes a sentence from a non-imperative mood. If you want to go down a rabbit hole, you could probably look up the Lojban reference grammar and see if they reference which natural languages inspired this system, if any.
posted by biogeo at 2:24 PM on July 28


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