Trying To Understand The Subjectless Tagalog Sentence Umuulan (Rains)

Looking at the semantics for a 1-place predicate such as the English laughs (an “intransitive” verb, i.e., a verb with a transitivity of 1, having only an agent parameter into which arguments can be plugged naming the agent) suggests a way to understand at least one subjectless, 0-place predicate Tagalog verb:  umuulan.

The semantics for laughs can be described as a function from an agent to a truth value.  For the sake of simplicity, I will restrict the members of the set of entities who can laugh to just 10 — this is our pretend universe of people who are able to laugh.

[[ laughs ]] = { Kan → F, Chris → T, Kha → T, Guile → T, Juan → T, Corliss → T, Ralph → T, John → T, Robert → F, Ken → F }

A truth value T or F is assigned to each member of the set according to whether the person laughs now or not.

Imagine now a machine on whose screen one sees “_ laughs.”  The machine takes as input an argument for the agent parameter.  The argument is a string representing a particular person who can laugh.  Suppose we enter the string “Chris,” and hit ENTER.   The machine produces two outputs.  One output is the string “Chris laughs,” which is the syntactic effect of the operation.

The other output is the truth value T, which is its semantic effect.  Calling the function with the argument string “Chris” selects the entity Chris denoted by the argument and returns the associated truth value T.   (See  This truth value might be represented, say, by the string “T” appearing on the screen, or, less prosaically, by a shaft of light coming down from the heavens accompanied by the sublime choir of Caravaggio-esque angels.

How would one construct a similar machine for the Tagalog predicate umuulan, which has no agent parameter accepting an argument….in fact, has no parameters at all?    Unlike the English speaker, who has to plug in a phony agent to produce the sentence “It is raining” (there has to be SOMETHING that is raining, a close friend of mine said, apparently basing his intuitions on his first language Vietnamese and his second language English), the Tagalog speaker simply says umuulan — rains.

(Let me write umuulan when I am talking about the complex of the string “umuulan” and the semantic machine, and “umuulan,” as I have just done twice, when I am talking about just the string, stripped from its context in the semantic machine.)

Let’s construct the function this way:

[[umuulan]] = { Locality around Jamby at time t0 → T, Locality around Juan at time t1 → F, Locality around Jamby at time t1 → T … }

The assignment of the truth values T or F to each locality is determined by whether drops of water can be felt dropping in that locality.  How ‘locality’ is to be defined — how many miles or fraction of a mile around Jamby etc. is enough to count as a locality, is a sorites issue which I will ignore for the moment (though of course it cannot be ignored forever).

Jamby logs into the semantic machine using the string “Jamby.”  The machine captures the time of his logon with a timestamp, which happens to be t0.  The semantic machine calls the function using the string “Jamby” and the timestamp,  selects the locality determined by those two values, and returns, on the syntactic level, the string “umuulan,” and on the semantic level, the truth value T (represented however which way).

Construed this way, umuulan would function as a kind of indexical.  The indexical character of the predicate enables one to show how the semantic machine can select a  particular member of the set of localities and return its associated truth value without the aid of an argument plugged into an agent parameter.  Without an agent parameter — without any parameter — the predicate lacks a subject. It is a subjectless sentence.  It is a sentence nonetheless — actually, a proposition — because even in its naked agent-parameter-less subjectless state it is either true or false.

If anything could be a well-formed sentence without a subject, umuulan would be it.  Rain has a pervasive quality — in all the grayness, mist, and clouds, it is difficult to point to any specific thing that is the agent of the the raining, that is doing the raining.  The case is different in the unusual and maybe somewhat comical situation in which a single dark cloud above one’s head is raining on one, because that cloud is identifiable.  At least in the less rational parts of one’s mind, the cloud is an agent doing something, initiating an action, even as one’s rational mind discounts this.

(In any attempt to deal with the vagueness of the term ‘locality,’ I would want to work with the notion ‘point at which nothing gets identified as the agent of the raining.’ )

So this is my account of one Tagalog subjectless sentence, umuulan.  No subject is required for the hypothetical semantic machine to do its work in the case of umuulan.  But what about the other subjectless Tagalog sentences, a category which according to Paz Buenaventura Naylor, Paul Schachter, and others, includes all Tagalog sentences?  What sort of account can be given for all of these sentences?  Can a way be found to construe the workings of these sentences as not needing a subject, in which case the notion of a subject is not a linguistic universal after all, or will we be forced to re-introduce the notion of a subject in order to understand them?  Can a way be found to make the subjectless character of these sentences (if in fact they are subjectless) intuitive, as (maybe — my friend may dispute this) was done with umuulan?

The attempt to answer these questions is what is motivating these posts on Tagalog.


About Cliff Wirt

I am a banking DBA with various and sundry interests, including art, poetry, philosophy, music, languages, relational algebra, database administration, and blueberries. Don't forget the blueberries. Some of these interests tie in in surprising though usually tangential ways with database theory. Even the blueberries. I have published one article in a Philosophy Journal, and I have one painting in a corporate collection (housed in what used to be the Amoco building in Chicago). According to 12andMe, my paternal haplogroup is I2, my maternal H5. The Neanderthal percentage of my ancestry is 3%. My most famous ancestor is William Wirt (from whom I get my last name, though possibly not my Y chromosome), who defended the rights of the Cherokees before the Supreme Court, and ran for President in 1832, carrying one state. My homepage is at My FaceBook page is at My LinkedIn page is at View all posts by Cliff Wirt

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