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ERGATIVITY - I’m having trouble with it

  Tags: Syntax | Grammar
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GibberMeister
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 Message 1 of 28
30 March 2009 at 11:33am | IP Logged 
I wonder if someone can give me a simple easy to understand explanation of this. I've read a number of definitions, but have ended up more confused than when I started.

It all began with Basque, but I've read that the Kartvelian languages and ancient Hurrian display ergativity and this is also reflected in their influence on Kurdish.

I have also read that English has traits of ergativity, but for the life of me I still have difficulty seeing what exactly makes a language 'ergative' in nature.

I'm sure if I understood this basic concept it would help with my Basque grammar.

Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Edited by GibberMeister on 30 March 2009 at 11:34am

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Volte
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 Message 2 of 28
30 March 2009 at 2:10pm | IP Logged 
A simple explanation:

In languages like English, "He sees him" and "He ran" are two sentences. The first has the subject, a transitive verb, and a direct object. The second has a subject and an intransitive verb. The subject is in the same form in both sentences ('he') - alternatives like 'him' would be ungrammatical.

In Basque, the pattern would be "He sees him" and "him ran"; the subject of intransitive verbs and the object of transitive verbs takes the same form, while the subject of transitive forms takes a different one.

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Iversen
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 Message 3 of 28
30 March 2009 at 10:06pm | IP Logged 
I don't know any ergative language, but spurred on by a claim that Tagalog is ergative I investigated the different definitions and tried to understand them.
In my log (around page 25) I try this explanation:

"About ergative (or ergative-absolutive) languages:
Let simplify the discussion by assuming that there are only two kinds of verbs, transitive and non-transitive (those with a direct object and those without). In the Indoeuropean languages the subject of all these have the same case, nominative. In a 100% ergative language the subject of an intransitive verb is in the same case as the OBJECT of a transitive, not the subject, while the subject is in another case, absolutive (or agentive? . I have seen that word somewhere). Basque is said to be ergative, and the same applies to Georgian, though only in the past tense. And there are a lot of other complications which every true language addict should be aware of, because they show a lot about the way languages can function. See more details here."

At page 26 I add this more semantic comment:

"Imagine how actions must be seen in an ergative context. You have an action (expressed through the verb) and it affects something in the world: I start the motor / the motor starts. The motor is the thing that actually starts, and in the ergative languages it would be in the same case in these two - sorry about the pun - cases. In our languages it is in two different cases. You can't really see this in English, but try French:

le bois, je LE fend   (transitive use of the verb)
le bois, IL fend (intransitive use of the verb).

In a truly ergative language 'le bois' would be in the same case in both these constructions. In our languages we just see the strange phenomenon that a verb sometimes has a certain thing as its object (when there is a subject), sometimes as its subject (when there isn't an animated agent). As far as I can see this only occurs with inanimate subjects/objects, - it would be interesting to know how Basque and Georgian tackle animates, but I haven't studied that question. But for me it is clearly a sign that non-ergative languages try to come to terms with the basic idea behind the action verbs in ergative languages.

In quite general terms you could say that ergative languages preserve the identity of the affected entity, while non-ergative languages preserve the identity of agents, the ones that do something. But again, this kind of philosophizing is something you can do after having made a grammar on visible evidence, not the kind of things that you should use as a foundation for your grammar - though some text book writers and   linguists seem to have a problem understanding that."

As I wrote I don't speak any of these languages so I hope that the true specialists will come forward to explain the phenomenon, but the things above illustrate where I got from trying to understand it. And btw. I still haven't seen anything that can be used as an argument for Tagalog being ergative. Please tell me if you have a good argument for this claim.


Edited by Iversen on 23 April 2009 at 2:37pm

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GibberMeister
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 Message 4 of 28
31 March 2009 at 1:26pm | IP Logged 
I think I'm coming to grips with it now. Epecially after Volte's ultra-simplistic explanantion! Thanks.

I found this and it all seems clearer. Maybe I was having a dumb-dumb moment before...


''Consider the phrase:

    Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit.
    "Martin buys the newspapers for me."

Martin-ek is the agent (transitive subject), so it is marked with the ergative case ending -k (with an epenthetic -e-). Egunkariak has an -ak ending which marks plural object (plural absolutive, direct object case). The verb is erosten dizkit, in which erosten is a kind of gerund ("buying") and the auxiliary dizkit means "he/she (does) them for me". This dizkit can be split like this:

    * di- is used in the present tense when the verb has a subject (ergative), a direct object (absolutive), and an indirect object, and the object is he/she/it/them.
    * -zki- means the absolutive (in this case the newspapers) is plural, if it were singular there would be no infix; and
    * -t or '-da-' means "to me/for me" (indirect object).
    * in this instance there is no suffix after -t. A zero suffix in this position indicates that the ergative (the subject) is third person singular (he/she/it).

The phrase "you buy the newspapers for me" would translate as:

   Zuek egunkariak erosten dizkidazue

The auxiliary verb is composed as di-zki-da-zue and means 'you pl. (do) them for me'

    * di- = direct object, present tense
    * -zki- = direct object is plural
    * -da- = indirect object (to me/for me) {-t becomes -da- when not final.}
    * -zue = subject (you pl.)

In spoken Basque, the auxiliary verb is never dropped even if it is redundant: "Zuek niri egunkariak erosten dizkidazue", you pl. buying the newspapers for me. However, the pronouns are almost always dropped: "egunkariak erosten dizkidazue", the newspapers buying be-them-for-me-you(plural). The pronouns are used only to show emphasis: "egunkariak zuek erosten dizkidazue", it is you (pl.) who buy the newspapers for me; or "egunkariak niri erosten dizkidazue", it is me for whom you buy the newspapers.''

Edited by GibberMeister on 31 March 2009 at 1:28pm

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LpMagilicutty
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 Message 5 of 28
23 April 2009 at 8:48am | IP Logged 
Iversen wrote:
I don't know any ergstive language, but spurred on by a claim that Tagalog is ergative I investigated the different definitions and tried to understand them.

"About ergative (or ergative-absolutive) languages:
Let simplify the discussion by assuming that there are only two kinds of verbs, transitive and non-transitive (those with a direct object and those without). In the Indoeuropean languages the subject of all these have the same case, nominative. In a 100% ergative language the subject of an intransitive verb is in the same case as the OBJECT of a transitive, ...

In quite general terms you could say that ergative languages preserve the identity of the affected entity, while non-ergative languages preserve the identity of agents, the ones that do something. ...

And btw. I still haven't seen anything that can be used as an argument for Tagalog being ergative. Please tell me if you have a good argument for this claim.


I am currently studying Tagalog and your post has really helped me. Thank you.
Tagalog is claimed to be an ergative language. Here is an example:

Kumain ang isda.    The fish ate. [fish, subject - ang case]

He ate the fish.    Kinain niya ang isda. [fish, object - ang case]
(Lit. Was-eaten by-him the fish)
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Iversen
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 Message 6 of 28
23 April 2009 at 11:48am | IP Logged 
To LpMagilicutty: My problem with Tagalog here is related to the question whether it really is the same verb that is used. As I see it (with my extremely limited knowledge of Tagalog) you have 'passive' verbs, where the element with focus marked with the word "ang" may be subjected to some action, and you have 'active' verbs where the exact same element with word "ang" may be the active subject of the very same action. If this was an ergative language I would have expected it to be the same verb, at most with a marker of some kind.

In a sense this is the inverse situation as the one with French "fendre" above: here you do have exactly the same verb, but 'le bois' (the wood) can be either subject in an intransitive context (i.e. without a direct object) or it can be the direct object, and then something else must be the subject. Here in Tagalog "ang" can indicate that both 'subjects' and 'objects' have focus, but in the first case you will pick a verb from the -um- group, in the second from the -in group. And to judge from the verbs I checked in my dictionaries during my travel to the Philippines in January these verbs weren't generally organized in nice pairs with so much morphological regularity that you could defend seeing them as active and passive forms of just one verb. But of course I could be wrong about that assumption, - after all I don't speak Tagalog. If you can defend that it is the same verb, then Tagalog is ergative, if not it isn't.

To Gibbermeister: I find your Basque examples very interesting, especially the fact that you can find a representation of the direct object in the finite auxiliary verb. But I think that the real test would be to find a sentence with the same verb(s) in an intransitive setting, i.e. without Martin (or 'you'), but leaving the newspapers in the sentence - something like "The newspapers are-being-bought". Would the newspapers then also be in the ergative case? And how would the verbal syntagm change - is there such a thing as a distinctive passive form in Basque?

EDIT: It just struck me that "sell" in English occasionally behave like "fendre" in French:
Martin sells a lot of Basque newspapers
Martin's Basque newspapers sell well


Edited by Iversen on 23 April 2009 at 2:37pm

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GibberMeister
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 Message 7 of 28
25 April 2009 at 12:54am | IP Logged 
Hmmmm, interesting example. Does that second example display a rare ergative moment in English, but without special case markings?
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Iversen
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 Message 8 of 28
25 April 2009 at 1:31am | IP Logged 
No, but due to a quirk in English it can be difficult to prove that it isn't an ergative construction.

Just like the corresponding construction in French the example illustrates how you can 'bend' the meaning of certain verbs so that they can accommodate either a subject in an intransitive setting or the same entity as a direct object in a transitive setting (with some other entity as the subject).

Nouns in both these languages have totally lost their cases, but there are still cases in the morphology of pronouns. However the 'role-shifting' entity in these cases seems always to be an inanimated thing in the 3. person (if you have any counter-example then please publish them here). In French you have "il" or "elle" as the subject and "le, la" as objects, so here it can be proven that it isn't the same case in the two constructions, which it should be in a truly ergative language. Such a language would per definition use a special 'ergative' case in both situations.

The problem with English is that it only has got "it" for innimates in the 3. person, and "it" is used both as subject and as object. So right now I cannot think of a test that could prove conclusively that English isn't an ergative language (at least in a few cases). The same applies to for instance Danish, where we have got similar constructions.

What about Basque, does it have something like a passive?

Edited by Iversen on 25 April 2009 at 1:44am



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