Ergative-absolutive language

Ergative-absolutive language

An ergative-absolutive language (or simply ergative language) is a language that treats the argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb like the object of a transitive verb but distinctly from the agent ("subject") of a transitive verb.

Ergative vs. accusative languages

The distinguishing feature of an ergative language is that it maintains an equivalence between the object of a transitive verb and the single core argument of an intransitive verb, while treating the agent of a transitive verb differently. This contrasts with "nominative-accusative" languages (such as English), where the agent of a transitive verb and the core argument of an intransitive verb are treated alike but distinctly from the object of a transitive verb.

These different arguments are usually symbolized as follows:

* O = object of transitive verb (also symbolized as P for ‘patient’, and P is indeed more appropriate than is O, because O is biased towards accusative languages. Anologically, it is also defined as Agent of transitive verb below, not as subject. If accusative and ergative languages are to be compared, we need a non-biased terminology, completely omitting subject/object)
* S = core argument of intransitive verb
* A = agent of transitive verb

The relationship between ergative and accusative systems can be schematically represented as the following:

In this language, "otoko", argument of the intransitive and agent of the transitive sentence is marked with the same nominative case "ga". However, "kodomo", the object of the transitive sentence is marked with the accusative case "o".

To help understanding, we can simulate English as being an ergative language; Declension, as an example for pronouns, is due to the function of such pronoun in a sentence;

So, let’s remember: A = agent of a transitive verb ; S = argument of an intransitive verb; O = object of a transitive verb;

Thus, we have:

Accusative English (as it is)

I (S) have traveled.

I (A) have invited her (O) to go with me.

Ergative English (if it were so)

Me (S) have traveled.

I (A) have invited her (O) to go with me

In this last case (ergative) the declension for S and O is the same (Acc)

A number of languages have both ergative and accusative morphology. A typical example is a language that has nominative-accusative marking on verbs and ergative-absolutive case marking on nouns.

Georgian also has an ergative alignment, but the agent is only marked with the ergative case in the past tense (also known as the "aorist screeve"). Compare:

: "Katsi vashls chams." ("კაცი ვაშლს ჩამს") "The man is eating an apple.":"Katsma vashli chama." ("კაცმა ვაშლი ჩამა") "The man ate an apple."

"Kats-" is the root of the word "man". In the first sentence (present continuous tense) the agent is in the nominative case "(katsi)." In the second sentence, which shows ergative alignment, the root is marked with the ergative suffix "-ma".

However, there are some intransitive verbs in Georgian that behave like transitive verbs, and therefore employ the ergative case in the past tense. Consider:

:"Katsma daatsemina." ("კაცმა დააცემინა") "The man sneezed."

Although the verb "sneeze" is clearly intransitive, it is conjugated like any other transitive verbs. In Georgian there are a few verbs like these, and there has not been a clear-cut explanation as to why these verbs have evolved this way. One explanation is that verbs such as "sneeze" used to have a direct object (the object being "nose" in the case of "sneeze") and over time lost these objects, yet kept their transitive behavior.

yntactic ergativity

Ergativity may be manifested through syntax in addition to morphology. Syntactic ergativity is quite rare, and while all languages that exhibit it also feature morphological ergativity, few morphologically ergative languages have ergative syntax. As with morphology, syntactic ergativity can be placed on a continuum, whereby certain syntactic operations may pattern accusatively while other ergatively. The degree of syntactic ergativity is then dependent on the number of syntactic operations that treat the Subject like the Object. Syntactic ergativity is also referred to as inter-clausal ergativity, as it typically appears in the relation of two clauses.

Syntactic ergativity may appear in:
* Word order (for example, the absolutive argument comes before the verb and the ergative argument comes after it).
*Syntactic pivots
*Relative clauses – determining which arguments are available for relativization
*Switch reference


Example of syntactic ergativity in the "conjunction reduction" construction (coordinated clauses) in Dyirbal in contrast with English conjunction reduction. (The subscript (i) indicates coreference.)

English (SVO word order):
# Father returned.
# Father saw mother.
# Mother saw father.
# Father(i) returned and father(i) saw mother.
# Father returned and ____(i) saw mother.
# Father(i) returned and mother saw father(i).
# *Father returned and mother saw ____(i). (Ill-formed, because S and deleted O cannot be coreferential.)

Dyirbal (OSV word order):
# Ŋuma banaganyu. ("Father returned.")
# Yabu ŋumaŋgu buṛan. (lit. "Mother father-"ŋgu" saw", i.e. "Father saw mother.")
# Ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. "Father mother-"ŋgu" saw", i.e. "Mother saw father.")
# Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, yabu ŋumaŋgu(i) buṛan. (lit. "Father"(i)" returned, mother father-"ŋgu(i)" saw", i.e. "Father returned, father saw mother.")
# *Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, yabu ____(i) buṛan. (lit. *"Father"(i)" returned, mother ____"(i)" saw"; ill-formed, because S and deleted A cannot be coreferential.)
# Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, ŋuma(i) yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. "Father"(i)" returned, father"(i)" mother-"ŋgu" saw", i.e. "Father returned, mother saw father.")
# Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, ____(i) yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. "Father"(i)" returned, ____"(i)" mother-"ŋgu" saw", i.e. "Father returned, mother saw father.")

plit ergativity

The term "ergative-absolutive" is considered unsatisfactory by some, since there are very few languages without any patterns that exhibit nominative-accusative alignment. Instead they posit that one should only speak of "ergative-absolutive systems", which languages employ to different degrees.

Many languages classified as ergative in fact show split ergativity, whereby syntactic and/or morphological ergative patterns are conditioned by the grammatical context, typically person or the tense/aspect of the verb. Basque is unusual in having an almost fully ergative system.

In Urdu and Hindi, ergative case is marked on agents in the perfective aspect for transitive and ditransitive verbs, while in other situations agents appear in the nominative case.

:"laṛkā kitāb kharīdtā hai":boy-NOMINATIVE-MASCULINE book-NOMINATIVE-FEMININE buy-IMPERFECT-MASCULINE be-PRESENT ¹ :"The boy buys a book."

:"laṛke ne kitāb kharīdī":boy-ERGATIVE-MASCULINE book-NOMINATIVE-FEMININE buy-PERFECT-FEMININE ¹:"The boy bought a book."

::"(¹) The grammatical breakup has been simplified to show the features relevant to the example."

In Dyirbal, pronouns are morphologically nominative-accusative when the agent is first or second person, but ergative when the agent is a third person.

Distribution of ergative languages

Prototypical ergative languages are, for the most part, restricted to specific regions of world: the Caucasus, parts of North America and Mesoamerica, and Australia.

Some specific languages are the following:

* Basque
*Dyirbal and many other Australian Aboriginal languages, which are famous in the linguistic literature for their ergative patterns
*Eskimo-Aleut languages
*KurdishFact|date=August 2008 and Hurrian
* Mixe-Zoque
* Sumerian
* Tibetan
*The Tsimshian and Chinook languages
* the Northeast and Northwest Caucasian families
* Chibchan languages
* Panoan languages (Peru, Brazil, Bolivia), e.g. Shipibo-Conibo
* Several dialects of Persian language including Davani

Certain Australian Aboriginal languages (e.g., Warlpiri) possess an intransitive case and an accusative case along with an ergative case, and lack an absolutive case; such languages are called ergative-accusative languages or tripartite languages.

Many other languages have more limited ergativity, such as Pashto and Hindi (Indo-Iranian), where ergative behavior occurs only in the perfective, and Georgian, where ergativity only occurs in the aorist.

The Philippine languages (e.g. Tagalog) are sometimes considered ergative (Schachter 1976, 1977; Kroeger 1993). However they would better be considered to have their own morphosyntactic alignment. See Austronesian alignment.

Traces of ergativity in English

English does show a trace of something that could be regarded as ergativity. With an intransitive verb, adding the suffix "-ee" to the verb produces a label for the person performing the action:

:"John has retired." → "John is a retiree.":"John has escaped." → "John is an escapee.":"John is standing." → "John is a standee."

However, with a transitive verb, adding "-ee" does not produce a label for the person doing the action. Instead, it gives us a label for the person to whom the action is done:

:"Mike employs Susie." → "Susie is an employee.":"Mike has inducted Susie." → "Susie is an inductee.":"Mike has appointed Susie" → "Susie is an appointee."

The differing effect of the "-ee" suffix, depending on the transitivity of the verb, can be considered ergativity.(Etymologically, the sense in which "-ee" denotes the object of a transitive verb is the original one,arising from French past participles in "-é". This would still be considered the prevalent sense in UK English:the intransitive uses are all 19th century American coinages and all except "escapee" are still markedas "chiefly U.S." by the "Oxford English Dictionary".)

English also has a number of so-called ergative verbs, which allow the object of a transitive clause to become the subject of an intransitive clause.


* Anderson, Stephen. (1976). On the notion of subject in ergative languages. In C. Li. (Ed.), "Subject and topic" (pp. 1-24). New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0124473504.
* Anderson, Stephen R. (1985). Inflectional morphology. In T. Shopen (Ed.), "Language typology and syntactic description: Grammatical categories and the lexicon" (Vol. 3, pp. 150-201). Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. ISBN 0521581583.
* Comrie, Bernard. (1978). Ergativity. In W. P. Lehmann (Ed.), "Syntactic typology: Studies in the phenomenology of language" (pp. 329-394). Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292775458.
* Dixon, R. M. W. (1979). Ergativity. "Language", "55" (1), 59-138. (Revised as Dixon 1994).
* Dixon, R. M. W. (Ed.) (1987). "Studies in ergativity". Amsterdam: North-Holland. ISBN 044470275X.
* Dixon, R. M. W. (1994). "Ergativity". Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521448980.
* Foley, William; & Van Valin, Robert. (1984). "Functional syntax and universal grammar". Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521259568.
* Kroeger, Paul. (1993). "Phrase structure and grammatical relations in Tagalog". Stanford: CSLI. ISBN 0937073865.
* Mallinson, Graham; & Blake, Barry J. (1981). Agent and patient marking. "Language typology: Cross-linguistic studies in syntax" (Chap. 2, pp. 39-120). North-Holland linguistic series. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company.
* Plank, Frans. (Ed.). (1979). "Ergativity: Towards a theory of grammatical relations". London: Academic Press.
* Schachter, Paul. (1976). The subject in Philippine languages: Actor, topic, actor-topic, or none of the above. In C. Li. (Ed.), "Subject and topic" (pp. 491-518). New York: Academic Press.
* Schachter, Paul. (1977). Reference-related and role-related properties of subjects. In P. Cole & J. Sadock (Eds.), "Syntax and semantics: Grammatical relations" (Vol. 8, pp. 279-306). New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0126135088.
* Silverstein, Michael. (1976). Hierarchy of Features and Ergativity. In R.M.W. Dixon (ed.) "Grammatical Categories in Australian Languages" (pp. 112-171). New Jersey: Humanities Press. ISBN 0391006940. Reprinted in Pieter Muysken and Henk van Riemsdijk (eds.), "Features and Projections" (pp. 163-232). Dordrecht: Foris. ISBN 9067651443.

ee also

*Ergative verb
*Split ergativity
*Morphosyntactic alignment
*Transitivity (grammatical category)

External links

* [ Cartoon Theories of Linguistics: Ergativity] A simplification of the basic idea of ergativity in cartoon form.
* [ "A quick tutorial on ergativity, by way of the Squid-headed one"] , at Recycled Knowledge (blog), by John Cowan, 2005-05-05.

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