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LINGUIST List 24.609

Fri Feb 01 2013

Review: Morphology; Syntax; Typology: Authier & Haude (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 01-Feb-2013
From: Adina Dragomirescu <adina_dragyahoo.com>
Subject: Ergativity, Valency and Voice
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-2447.html

EDITOR: Gilles Authier
EDITOR: Katharina Haude
TITLE: Ergativity, Valency and Voice
SERIES TITLE: Empirical Approaches to Language Typology [EALT] 48
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Adina Dragomirescu, Romanian Academy, Institute of Linguistics


Besides the editors’ introduction, this volume contains eleven studies on
languages with predominantly ergative features, with a precise focus on voice
alternations and transitivity phenomena found in these languages. These
articles are based on oral presentations given at the monthly seminar,
“Ergativité: typologie, diachronie et cognition” (Villejuif -- Paris,
2005-2009), organised by Francesc Queixalós. As is well-known, ergative
languages are very different, but despite this fact, the volume has an obvious
guiding line; all the contributors are fieldwork linguists, and all the data
presented here are first-hand data from more or less known ergative languages.

The editors’ “Introduction” (pp. 1-14) contains a short presentation of
ergativity and of specific terminology relevant to the volume, mainly based on
Dixon’s work (1972, 1994). The notions defined in this section are well known
from literature on ergativity and include: morphological ergativity, syntactic
ergativity, pivots, alignment splits such as pronominal and aspectual splits,
etc. Voice alternations (the key notion of the book) “determine the number,
formal encoding, and semantic role of verbal argument(s)”, “serve to describe
an event from different perspectives, and to retain the same participant as
the central argument through larger stretches of discourse”, and “ideally form
a productive system” (p. 5). The editors define several voice alternation
mechanisms described in this volume: voice-decreasing devices (e.g. passive,
antipassive, middles, anticausatives, noun incorporation); devices that
maintain the same number of arguments (e.g. symmetrical voice, inverse
systems, lability and lexical alternations, and a related phenomenon, namely
differential object marking); and voice-increasing devices (e.g. causatives,
benefactives or applicatives). A short outline of each article is provided at
the end of the introduction.

The first two chapters deal with Mayan languages. “Ergativity and voice in
Mayan languages: a functional-typological approach” (pp. 15-49), by Colette
Grinevald and Marc Peake, starts with a brief presentation of the Mayan
family. Section 2 deals with the multiplicity of verbal markers encoding
transitivity (i.e. Pan-Mayan characteristics), and then presents data from
specific Mayan languages (i.e. Jakaltek Popti’, Tojol Ab’al). Section 3
summarises the specific features of ergative marking in Mayan languages,
taking into account two different terminologies: the “primitives” A

S; and the person markers of ergativity, “set A” and “set B”. Finally, in
Section 4, the authors highlight the role of markers in the identification of
voice systems (e.g. active-transitive, passive, antipassive, agent-focus, and
applicative). Their conclusion is that ergativity is a major Pan-Mayan trait,
and that Mayan patterns of verbal ergative alignment (including the voice
system) are typologically relatively rare.

In the chapter “Ergativity and the passive in three Mayan languages” (pp.
51-110), Valentina Vapnarsky, Cédric Becquey, and Aurore Monod Becquelin offer
a comparative analysis of the passive in Yucatec, Ch’orti’, and Tseltal. The
extended presentation of the main characteristics of these languages and of
their features related to ergativity and voice ends with some generalising
conclusions: transitivity is a very important feature in all Mayan languages,
where the authors identify many transitivising and intransitivising
derivations, with reflexes in phonology, morphology and syntax; the use of the
passive is motivated by discursive, semantic and discourse-pragmatic factors,
rather than by syntactic ones. Consequently, the passive in Mayan languages is
not strictly related to ergative or accusative features.

In the chapter “A tale of two passives in Cavineña” (pp. 111-131), Antoine
Guillaume offers a detailed analysis of two verbal suffixes with passive value
(-tana and -ta) in the above-mentioned ergative language from the Tacanan
family spoken in Amazonian Lowland Bolivia. The article contains a brief
presentation of the argument-coding system in this language, an analysis of
the two passive derivations, and a diachronic account of the emergence of the
two different suffixes. The underlying idea is that, despite many claims found
in the literature, the passive is rather common in Amazonian languages and in
ergative languages in general.

Three other chapters tackle Caucasian languages. Gilles Authier’s article,
“The detransitive voice in Kryz” (pp. 133-163), deals with an unwritten
ergative language belonging to the Lezgic branch of the North-East Caucasian
family. This language is special among East-Caucasian languages because it has
a detransitive voice with a prominent passive reading, the use of which is
restricted by semantic parameters and lexical properties of verbs. The
existence of a passive structure in this language seems to be motivated by
modal and aspectual parameters, not by syntactic features (such as an
accusative pivot), and probably appeared quite recently, under the influence
of Azeri. The development of the passive was probably favoured by the
existence of other detransitive voices with comparable morphology in nearly
all branches of the East-Caucasian family.

In “Laz middle voice” (pp. 165-197), René Lacroix analyses the morpheme i- in
Laz, a South Caucasian language. This morpheme present in various syntactic
contexts with Class A and Class B middle verbs (e.g. Subject-Object
coreference construction, Subject-Dative coreference construction, object
possession construction, antipassive, perfective aspectual constructions,
lexicalised items, passive, impersonal middle, anticausative, etc.)
corresponds to what has been called ‘middle voice’ with reference to other
languages and, as shown towards the end of the chapter, even if there is a
historical relation between the middle and the applicative i-, these two
markers should be kept distinct in a synchronic description.

In “Ergativity in the Adyghe system of valency-changing derivations” (pp.
323-353), Alexander Letuchiy questions the ergative nature of the West
Caucasian language, Adyghe, by analysing transitivity increase mechanisms
(i.e. causative, benefactive, malefactive, and locative), and transitivity
decrease mechanisms (i.e. potential, antipassive, facilitive, and
difacilitive). The conclusion of this chapter is that, despite some important
differences with respect to the prototypical situations found in other
syntactically ergative languages (e.g. in Adyghe, derivations can change the
status of any participant, except for the agent/transitive subject), Adyghe
can be considered a syntactically ergative language.

Guillaume Jacques’s paper, “Argument demotion in Japhug Rgyalrong” (pp.
199-225), deals with a Sino-Tibetan (morphologically) ergative language spoken
in China. One of the core features of the verbal system of this language is
transitivity. Consequently, there are many transitivity-changing devices, such
as generic, antipassive, lability and incorporation (used for the demotion of
patients), and generic and antipassive (used for the demotion of agents).
Other mechanisms, such as the de-experiencer prefix, are used to derive an
intransitive verb from a transitive verb of perception, labile verbs, and

In “The Katukina-Kanamari antipassive” (pp. 227--258), Francesc Queixalós
investigates the antipassive in the above-mentioned language from Amazonia,
which seems to be the only surviving language of the small Katukina family.
After reviewing some basic patterns of this language (e.g. ergative alignment,
word order and constituency, movement, elision, ostention/modification or
replacement by a demonstrative, coordination, focalisation, constituent
questions, relativisation, nominalisation, control, subject and object), the
author gives prominence to the antipassive device, which seems to have mainly
formal motivations (e.g. allowing the agent to participate in movement,
ostension, coordination, focalisation, relativisation, nominalisation),
alongside some functional motivations, which are harder to detect (e.g. the
pragmatic promotion or demotion of the agent or the patient, indefiniteness,

In the chapter “Undergoer orientation in Movima”, Katharina Haude analyses the
system of verbal morphemes in an unclassified language from Amazonian Bolivia,
in which most of the transitive clauses (the direct ones) display an ergative
pattern (i.e. are undergoer oriented), while inverse constructions exhibit an
accusative pattern (i.e. are actor oriented); in the intransitive domain,
unaccusative verbs are generally oriented towards the undergoer, whereas
unergative verbs are oriented towards the actor.

Aurore Monod Becquelin and Cédric Becquey’s article, “Case patterns and verb
classes in Trumai” (pp. 289-322), deals with the Trumai language, which
belongs to the Upper Xingu group from Mato Grosso, Brazil. The authors
question previous analyses put forth for this language, focusing especially on
the claim that it is an ergative language (Dixon 1994), and, by using corpus
data, demonstrate that ergative verbs are not dominant in this language -- a
fact which is considered important by the authors in establishing the ergative
nature of a language. The data show that this language does not display any
predominant alignment in the lexicon. Trumai patterns with Austronesian
languages in that there are two sets of transitive verbs, agent-oriented (i.e.
“extended intransitive” in Dixon’s terminology), and patient-oriented verbs
(i.e. “ergative”). However, what is special about Trumai is that the
ergative/accusative split is lexically governed for highly transitive verbs,
and this split never involves morphological marking on the verb.

The final chapter is “The evolution of transitive verbs in Basque and
emergence of dative-marked patients” (pp. 355-379), by Céline Mounole. The
author shows that differential object marking (precisely, dative-marked
patients), unusual in ergative languages, was first attested in the 16th
century, but fully developed in the 19th century as a consequence of language
contact with Spanish, and depends on factors like animacy and referentiality.
In contrast with the other articles in this book, Mounole’s article does not
explore a valency-changing device or a voice mechanism, but rather the way in
which the spread of the dative-marked patient affects the canonical transitive
structure in Basque.


This book, edited by Gilles Authier and Katharina Haude, includes a large
amount of first-hand data from different ergative languages. Alongside these
very interesting data, the editors and the authors offer a complete and very
interesting picture of the relation between ergativity and voice alternations,
although the limits between syntactic and lexical valency alternations are
sometimes quite squishy. The most common voice alternation mechanisms are
clearly defined in the introduction of the book and the more restricted ones
are defined in the studies that refer to the respective mechanisms. Most of
the chapters contain a brief presentation of the language under scrutiny, the
mechanisms of valency change present in the respective language, and discuss
the (typological) relevance of the existence of these mechanisms.

Besides the large amount of data and the systematic presentation of the
voice/valency-changing devices, the strongest point of the book is that it
re-evaluates some of the well-known assumptions on ergative languages; some of
the analyses included in the volume – and the most interesting for typology
and general linguistics – enable one to re-think the linguistic typology of
the languages under discussion in some situations (e.g. Monod-Becquelin and
Becquey demonstrate that Trumai is not an ergative language, Letuchiy shows
that Adyghe is not only morphologically ergative, but also syntactically
ergative) or to revisit certain typological generalisations, which are proven
not to work for many of the languages described in this book (e.g. the
traditional assumption that passivisation is uncommon in ergative languages is
shown not to hold – see Grinevald and Peake’s demonstration for Mayan

Even if the terminology is explained in most of the cases, sometimes it is
difficult to follow the different systems adopted by the authors. For example,
for referring to the transitive subject, transitive object, and intransitive
subject, respectively, some of the authors use Comrie’s (1978) A / P / S terminology,
others adopt Dixon’s (1987, 1994) A / S / O system, while others prefer Creissels’s (2006)
A / P / U notation.

In conclusion, the book reviewed is essential reading for everyone interested
in ergativity, voice alternations and valency-changing mechanisms. This book
targets a very large audience: it is of interest not only to researchers
working on ergativity, but also to undergraduates, who can learn what
ergativity is, how it can be related to other phenomena found in different
languages, and how one can work with understudied languages that require not
only the interpretation of raw linguistic material, but also an accurate
description of it.


Comrie, Bernard. 1978. Ergativity. In Syntactic Typology: Studies in the
Phenomenology of Language, Winfred P. Lehmann (ed.). 329-394. Hassocks, Sussex:
Harvester Press.

Creissels, Denis. 2006. Syntaxe générale. Une introduction typologique. Paris:

Dixon, R.M.W. 1972. The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. (ed.) 1987. Studies in Ergativity (Lingua, 71), Amsterdam: North

Dixon, R.M.W. 1994. Ergativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Adina Dragomirescu is a Researcher at “Iorgu Iordan -- Al. Rosetti” Institute
of Linguistics of the Romanian Academy, Department of Grammar, and Teaching
Assistant at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Letters, where she
teaches Romanian syntax, morphology, phonology and stylistics and Romance
syntax. In 2009, she defended her PhD dissertation, “Ergativity, typology,
syntax, semantics”, which was published in 2010 by Bucharest University Press.
She is the co-author of 5 other books and has published around 75 articles and
book reviews. Her current domains of inquiry are Romanian supine and motion
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