Weird things that languages do #1: Ergativity

As many people know, English has a particularly impoverished case system. This means that we don’t see much evidence of (overt) case to mark grammatical function (like subject or object). If you’ve got a sentence like Mary saw Jim, then you know from the word order that it was Mary (the subject) doing the seeing of Jim (the object). Many languages encode this kind of information via case. Latin, for example, marks the subject of a verb with Nominative case, and the object with Accusative case. If English had any kind of case marking for this, it would look like this:

(1) Mary.NOM saw Jim.ACC.

(2) Mary.NOM slept.

(Obviously, pronouns show case marking in English e.g. I saw him vs he saw me, but there is lots of evidence that this is being further eroded, e.g. between you and me/I, When he saw Paul and me/I, etc. Go look it up in corpora if you don’t believe me!)

You’ll notice above that Nominative case marks the subject of both transitive (example 1) and intransitive sentences (example 2). Some languages which have case marking do not have this alignment at all. Instead, such languages mark the subject of an intransitive verb with the same case as the object of a transitive verb. These languages are known as Ergative languages, as opposed to e.g. Latin, which is an Accusative language. Were English to be an ergative language (and have overt case marking), it would mark its case like this:

(3) Mary.ERG saw Jim.ABS

(4) Mary.ABS slept.

(ABS is short for Absolutive, and ERG Ergative. These are the names of the cases.)

It is clear from these examples that the object in (3), a transitive sentence, is marked with Absolutive case, as is the subject of (4), which is an intransitive sentence. Wacky, eh?

Let’s look at a real example from Basque, pillaged from the Wikipedia article I linked above (so if the gloss isn’t perfect, which it looks like it’s not, sorry! Basque speakers please correct it!)

(5) Gizon-a etorri da.

man-ABS has arrived

‘The man has arrived.’

(6) Gizon-ak mutil-a ikusi du.

man-ERG boy-ABS saw

‘The man saw the boy.’

Even more bizarrely, some languages can show signs of having both a Nominative-Accusative and Ergative-Absolutive case marking. This is known as split ergativity. For example, a language might have Ergative-Absolutive case marking on nouns, but Nominative-Accusative marking on pronouns. Or, like Hindi-Urdu (Wikipedia reckons this is a language…), it might mark subjects in the perfective aspect for transitive verbs in the active voice with Ergative case, while in other aspects (habitual, progressive) subjects appear in the Nominative case.

More weird things that languages do will follow!

6 thoughts on “Weird things that languages do #1: Ergativity

  1. I am wondering whether a system could be devised for distinguishing absolute from relative weirdness in languages, in much the same way as astronomers distinguish between absolute and apparent magnitude of stars. I suspect speakers of ergative languages think nominative languages are weird! As for the I/me thing in English, I think Eng seems to be developing indeclinable disjunctive pronouns like French, except that whereas Fr (often) has a separate form for the disjunctive (e.g. moi as opposed to je/me) Eng speakers just use one or other of the nom. and oblique forms (it varies from speaker to speaker).

    • Thanks for your comment Robert! I suspect you’re right, that speakers of ergative languages would think accusative case-marking to be weird! I’m referring to phenomena such as this as ‘weird’ only to ‘popularize’ it a bit, as English speakers who know little about non-IE languages would (I assume) think of it as odd. However, percentage-wise, far more languages have accusative case marking than ergative case marking, so it is the norm, though I don’t currently have a statistic to throw at you. Perhaps others might be able to help here. -V.

  2. Pingback: Weird things that languages do #2: the Antipassive construction | Quirky Case

  3. Your glosses on basque example do the job to explain what ergativity is! That’s what they’re meant for! If you’d like to be more precise, you could have more precise glosses for the verbs (etorri da : come be.PRESENT or ikusi du : see has). Some scholars consider the -a to be a definite determiner, leaving the ABS case unmarked and ERG case marked by -k ending. Thus you’d have
    Gizon-a-k mutil-a ikusi du
    man-DET-ERG child-DET see has
    ‘The man saw the child’

    Thanks for your beautyful blog!

  4. Thank you so much for helping me understand this better 🙂 This is my first page I’ve seen on your blog but I hope you have some more info on split ergative systems 🙂

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