Overt nonspecific Ellos in Spanish in New York
In general Spanish, references to nonspecific third-person plurals are usually made by means of a verb occurring with the null form of the subject pronoun, as in llamaron del banco, rather than by means of a verb occurring with the overt form of the subject pronoun. In contrast to the position in this discussion, the literature presents null pronouns in these nonspecific 3pl contexts as resulting from a categorical syntactic rule, when in fact we consider that they are the result of a strong pragmatic constraint: overt ellos for nonspecific references are rare, not ungrammatical. That is, one occasionally does find in the Spanish of Latin America nonspecific 3pl NPs with overt subject pronouns, as in the disfavored but grammatical ellos llamaron del banco. This study, based on a large corpus of sociolinguistic interviews from the CUNY Project on the Spanish of New York, reveals that, among bilinguals in New York City whose exposure to English is intensive, such nonspecific ellos are even more frequent.
Three degrees of nonspecificity are recognized in the literature on 3pl nonspecific NPs. Among both contact and non-contact speakers, the use of overt nonspecific ellos increases as nonspecificity decreases, though the absolute numbers are much larger in New York. In this way, the contact dialect is a quantitatively enhanced copy of the qualitatively identical pre-contact variety. Since, as the evidence presented here shows, examples of overt nonspecific ellos are found in Spanish in Latin America, their appearance in Spanish in New York does not represent a radical change in the syntax of contact Spanish; instead, these usages are an example of the familiar situation where contact varieties expand usages that were already incipient in the pre-contact community. Thus, the study would appear to indicate that the use of overt nonspecific ellos in New York represents a quantitative change in the strength of a pragmatic constraint that guides the use of subject pronouns, not a qualitative change in a syntactic rule that governs their use.