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Ergative–absolutive language

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Ergative–absolutive language

An ergative–absolutive language (or simply an ergative language) is a language in which the single argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb behaves like the object of a transitive verb, and differently from the agent ("subject") of a transitive verb. For instance, instead of saying "I moved her" and "she moved", speakers of an ergative language would say the equivalent of "I moved her" and "her moved".

Ergative vs. accusative languages

An ergative language maintains a syntactic or morphological equivalence (such as the same word order or grammatical case) for 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 single argument of an intransitive verb and the agent of a transitive verb (both called the subject) are treated alike and kept distinct 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")
  • 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:

  Ergative–absolutive Nominative–accusative

See morphosyntactic alignment for a more technical explanation and a comparison with nominative–accusative languages.

Note that the word subject, as it is typically defined in grammars of nominative–accusative languages, is inapplicable when referring to ergative–absolutive languages, or when discussing morphosyntactic alignment in general.

Ergative languages tend to be either verb-final or verb-initial; there are few, if any, ergative SVO-languages.[1]

Realization of ergativity

Ergativity can be found in both morphological and syntactic behavior.

Morphological ergativity

If the language has morphological case, then the verb arguments are marked thus:

  • The agent of a transitive verb (A) is marked as ergative case, or as a similar case such as oblique.
  • The core argument of an intransitive verb (S) and the object of a transitive verb (O) are both marked with absolutive case.

If there is no case marking, ergativity can be marked through other means, such as in verbal morphology. For instance, Abkhaz and most Mayan languages have no morphological ergative case, but they have verbal agreement structure which is ergative. In languages with ergative–absolutive agreement systems, the absolutive form is usually the most unmarked form of a word (exceptions include Nias and Tlapanec[2]).

The following examples from Basque demonstrate an ergative–absolutive case marking system:[3]

Ergative language
Sentence: Gizona etorri da.      Gizonak mutila ikusi du.
Word: gizon-a etorri da      gizon-ak mutil-a ikusi du
Gloss: man-ABS has arrived      man-ERG boy-ABS saw
Function: S VERBintrans      A O VERBtrans
Translation: "The man has arrived."      "The man saw the boy."

In Basque, gizon is "man" and mutil is "boy". Gizon has a different case marking depending on whether it is the argument of a transitive or intransitive verb: the absolutive case, -a, and ergative case, -ak. In contrast, the core argument of the intransitive clause and the object of the transitive clause have the same absolutive case.

In contrast, Japanese is a nominative–accusative language:

Accusative language
Sentence: Otoko ga tsuita.      Otoko ga kodomo o mita.
Words: otoko ga tsuita      otoko ga kodomo o mita
Gloss: man NOM arrived      man NOM child ACC saw
Function: S VERBintrans      A O VERBtrans
Translation: "The man arrived."      "The man saw the child."

In this language, the argument of the intransitive and agent of the transitive sentence are marked with the same nominative case particle ga, while the object of the transitive sentence is marked with the accusative case o.

If we set: A = agent of a transitive verb; S = argument of an intransitive verb; O = object of a transitive verb, then we can contrast normal nominative–accusative English with a hypothetical ergative English:

Accusative English:

I (S) traveled; She (S) traveled.
I (A) invited her (O) to go with me; She (A) invited me (O) to go with her.

(S form = A form)

Hypothetical ergative English:

Me (S) traveled; Her (S) traveled.
I (A) invited her (O) to go with me; She (A) invited me (O) to go with her.

(S form = O form)

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.

perfective aspect (also known as the "aorist screeve"). Compare:

K'ac'i vašls č'ams. (კაცი ვაშლს ჭამს) "The man is eating an apple."
K'ac'ma vašli č'ama. (კაცმა ვაშლი ჭამა) "The man ate an apple."

K'ac'- is the root of the word "man". In the first sentence (present continuous tense) the agent is in the nominative case (k'ac'i). 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:

K'ac'ma daacemina. (კაცმა დააცემინა) "The man sneezed."

Although the verb sneeze is clearly intransitive, it is conjugated like a transitive verb. 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.

Syntactic ergativity

Ergativity may be manifested through syntax, such as saying “Arrived I” for “I arrived”, 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 and others 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:


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):

  1. Father returned.
  2. Father saw mother.
  3. Mother saw father.
  4. Father(i) returned and father(i) saw mother.
  5. Father returned and ____(i) saw mother.
  6. Father(i) returned and mother saw father(i).
  7. *Father returned and mother saw ____(i). (ill-formed, because S and deleted O cannot be coreferential.)

Dyirbal (OSV word order):

  1. Ŋuma banaganyu. (Father returned.)
  2. Yabu ŋumaŋgu buṛan. (lit. Mother father-ŋgu saw, i.e. Father saw mother.)
  3. Ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. Father mother-ŋgu saw, i.e. Mother saw father.)
  4. Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, yabu ŋumaŋgu(i) buṛan. (lit. Father(i) returned, mother father-ŋgu(i) saw, i.e. Father returned, father saw mother.)
  5. *Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, yabu ____(i) buṛan. (lit. *Father(i) returned, mother ____(i) saw; ill-formed, because S and deleted A cannot be coreferential.)
  6. Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, ŋuma(i) yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. Father(i) returned, father(i) mother-ŋgu saw, i.e. Father returned, mother saw father.)
  7. Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, ____(i) yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. Father(i) returned, ____(i) mother-ŋgu saw, i.e. Father returned, mother saw father.)
Father returned.
father returned
S VERBintrans
Father returned, and father saw mother.
father returned and father saw mother
S VERBintrans CONJ A VERBtrans O
Father returned and saw mother.
father returned and ____ saw mother
S VERBintrans CONJ A VERBtrans O
Ŋuma banaganyu.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu
father-ABS returned
S VERBintrans
"Father returned."
Yabu ŋumaŋgu buṛan.
yabu-∅ ŋuma-ŋgu buṛan
mother-ABS father-ERG saw
O A VERBtrans
"Father saw mother."
Ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS mother-ERG saw
O A VERBtrans
"Mother saw father."
Ŋuma banaganyu, ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu ŋuma-∅ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS returned father-ABS mother-ERG saw
S VERBintrans O A VERBtrans
"Father returned and mother saw father."
Ŋuma banaganyu, yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu ____ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS returned (deleted) mother-ERG saw
S VERBintrans O A VERBtrans
"Father returned and was seen by mother."

Split 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, the ergative case is marked on agents in the preterite and perfect tenses for transitive and ditransitive verbs, while in other situations agents appear in the nominative case.

laṛkā kitāb kharīdtā hai
"The boy buys a book."
laṛke ne kitāb kharīdī
"The boy bought a book."
(¹) The grammatical analysis 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.

Optional ergativity

Many languages with ergative marking display what is known as optional ergativity, where the ergative marking is not always expressed in all situations. McGregor (2010) gives a range of contexts when we often see optional ergativity, and argues that the choice is often not truly optional but is affected by semantics and pragmatics. Note that unlike split ergativity, which occurs regularly but in limited locations, optional ergativity can occur in a range of environments, but may not be used in a way that appears regular or consistent.

Optional ergativity may be motivated by:

  • The animacy of the subject, with more animate subjects more likely to be marked ergative
  • The semantics of the verb, with more active or transitive verbs more likely to be marked ergative
  • The grammatical structure or [tense-aspect-mood]

Languages from Australia, New Guinea and Tibetan have been shown to have optional ergativity.[4]

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, the Tibetan Plateau, and Australia.

Some specific languages are the following:

Caucasus and Mesopotamia




Certain Australian Aboriginal languages (e.g., Wangkumara) 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.


Sign languages (for example, Nepali Sign Language) should also generally be considered ergative in the patterning of actant incorporation in verbs.[17] In sign languages which have been studied, classifier handshapes are incorporated into verbs, indicating the subject of intransitive verbs when incorporated, and the object of transitive verbs. (If we follow the "Semantic Phonology" model proposed by William Stokoe (1991)[18] this ergative-absolutive paterning also works at the level of the lexicon: thus in Nepali Sign Language the sign for TEA has the motion for the verb DRINK with a manual alphabet handshape च /ca/ (standing for the first letter of the Nepali word TEA चिया /chiya:/) being incorporated as the object.)

Many other languages have limited ergativity. In both perfective.

The Philippine languages (e.g., Tagalog) are sometimes considered ergative (Schachter 1976, 1977; Kroeger 1993), however they have also been considered to have their own unique morphosyntactic alignment. See Austronesian alignment.

Several scholars have hypothesized that Proto-Indo-European was an Ergative language. However, this hypothesis is disputed.[19]

Approximations of ergativity in English

English has derivational morphology that parallels ergativity in that it operates on intransitive verbs and objects of transitive verbs. 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"

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 appointed Susie" → "Susie is an appointee"

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 is still the prevalent sense in British English: the intransitive uses are all 19th-century American coinages and all except "escapee" are still marked as "chiefly U.S." by the Oxford English Dictionary.

English also has a number of so-called ergative verbs, where the object of the verb when transitive is equivalent to the subject of the verb when intransitive.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Donohue, Mark (2008). "Semantic alignment systems: what's what, and what's not". In Donohue, Mark & Søren Wichmann, eds. (2008). The Typology of Semantic Alignment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ The forms below are actually the definite singular in the absolutive and ergative. See Basque grammar for details.
  4. ^ McGregor (2010) Optional ergative case marking systems in a typological-semiotic perspective. Lingua 120: 1610–1636
  5. ^ (Gorani kurdish is an egatif language)
  6. ^ (Aniko Csirmaz and Markéta Ceplová, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zazaki is an ergative language)
  7. ^ (Zazaki is an ergative language, page 17-18)
  8. ^ (zazaki is ergative)
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ (Sorani is ergative, page 255)
  14. ^ (kurmanji is ergative)
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ MW Morgan (2009) Cross-Linguistic Typology of Argument Encoding in Sign Language Verbal Morphology. Paper presented at Association of Linguistic Typology, Berkeley
  18. ^ William Stokoe (1991) Semantic Phonology. Sign Language Studies, 71 ,107–114.
  19. ^ Bavant, Marc (2008). "Proto-Indo-European Ergativity... Still To Be Discussed". Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 44 (4): 433–447.  


External links

  • "A quick tutorial on ergativity, by way of the Squid-headed one", at Recycled Knowledge (blog), by John Cowan, 2005-05-05.
  • "Ergativity in Sumerian", an article about ergativity and how it manifests itself in the ancient Sumerian language
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