Direct–inverse language

Direct–inverse language
Linguistic typology
Split ergative
Marked nominative
Inverse marking
Syntactic pivot
Theta role
Word Order
VO languages
OV languages
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A direct–inverse language is a language in which clauses with transitive verbs can be expressed either using a direct or an inverse construction. The direct construction is used when the subject of the transitive clause outranks the object in saliency or animacy but the inverse is used when the "notional object" outranks the "notional subject".

This means that in an inverse language morphosyntactic markers vary according to compliance or non-compliance with normal rules governing the neutral order of verb arguments with respect to the position of each on a hierarchy. For that, reason direct–inverse languages are sometimes said to have hierarchical alignment.

The direct form is used when the subject has higher obviation status (topicality) or animacy, including person hierarchy (example: 1st > 2nd > 3rd), than the object, while the inverse form is used when the reverse is true. A more 'unusual' semantic occurrence not matching the expected syntactic role of the arguments as given by their rank on the hierarchy is marked on the verb, giving flexibility to what can act as an agent on a higher-ranking patient.

Klaiman (1989, 1992, 1993) has suggested four common properties of inverse languages:

  1. Core participants of transitive predicates are ranked on a hierarchy of salience, topicality or animacy.
  2. Only transitive predicates can participate in the direct–inverse alternation.
  3. A morphosyntactic device should be used to signal whether the most salient participant is notional subject or notional object.
  4. Direct–inverse alternation does not entail detransitivization.

Some languages complying with Klaiman's definition of an inverse language are Maasai, Carib, Wastek, Chukchee, the Algonquian languages and some Athapaskan languages like Koyukon and Navajo, Mapudungun and Movima (language isolates), rGyalrong (Sino-Tibetan) and some Mixe–Zoquean languages. Roberto Zavala describes an inverse system in the Mixe–Zoquean language Oluta Popoluca, which does not conform to these rules, because also certain intransitive verbs and passives of bitransitives can take inverse morphology.

Inverse Morphology in Ojibwe

For example, in Ojibwe, an Algonquian language of North America, the person hierarchy is second person > first person > proximate (the third person considered more important or basic in a discussion) > obviative (the third person considered less important or basic in a discussion). Ojibwe has no case distinctions, so in a transitive verb with two participants, the only way to distinguish subject from object is through direct–inverse suffixes. A direct suffix indicates that the action is performed by someone higher on the person hierarchy on someone lower on the person hierarchy (such as by the addressee on the speaker or a proximate third person on an obviative):

o- bizindaw -aa -n
"He listens to the other one"

An inverse suffix indicates that the action is performed by someone lower on the person hierarchy on someone higher on the person hierarchy (such as by the speaker on the addressee or an obviative third person on a proximate):

o- bizindaw -igoo -n
"The other one listens to him"

As can be seen, the only difference between these two verbs is the direct–inverse opposition, rather than case markers, morpheme order, or word order (when separate nominals are used).

In such languages, an inverse verb is not necessarily passive, and many direct–inverse language have separate passivity markers, distinct from the direct–inverse markers:

bizindaw -aa -PASSIVE
"He is listened to"

Direct–inverse systems on verbs coexist with the various morphosyntactic alignments in nouns.


  • Bickel, B. 1995. In the vestibule of meaning: transitivity inversion as a morphological phenomenon. Studies in Language 19, 73 – 127.
  • Comrie, Bernhard (1980) Inverse verb forms in Siberia: evidence from Chukchee, Koryak, and Kamchadal, Folia Linguistica Historica, Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 61–74
  • Gildea, Spike (1994) Semantic and pragmatic inverse - "inverse alignment" and "inverse voice" - in Carib of Surinam. In Voice and Inversion, ed. by T. Givón, 187-230. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. ISBN 978-1-55619-420-7
  • Jacques, Guillaume (2010) The Inverse in Japhug Rgyalrong, Language and Linguistics, 11.1:127-157.
  • Haude, Katharina (2006) "A grammar of Movima". Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen.
  • Hockett Charles F. (1996) "What Algonquian Is Really like", International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 59-73
  • Klaiman, M.H. (1989) Inverse voice and head-marking in Tanoan languages. Chicago Linguistics Society. 25:258-71
  • Klaiman, M.H. (1992) Inverse Languages, Lingua 88:227-61
  • Klaiman, M.H. (1993) The relationship of inverse voice and head-marking in Arizona Tewa and other Tanoan languages. Studies in Language. 17:343-70
  • Mithun, Marianne (1999) The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7
  • Valentine, J. Randolph (2001) Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-8389-0
  • Zavala, Roberto (2002) Verb classes, semantic roles and inverse in Olutec. In Del Cora al Maya Yucateco, ed. by Paulette Levy. UNAM, Mexico.
  • Zúñiga, Fernando (2006) Deixis and Alignment. Inverse systems in indigenous languages of the Americas. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. ISBN 978-90-272-2982-3

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