LINGUIST List 5.144

Tue 08 Feb 1994

Sum: Ergative

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Ergativite (the term)

Message 1: Ergativite (the term)

Date: Fri, 4 Feb 94 18:25:22 ESTErgativite (the term)
From: <>
Subject: Ergativite (the term)

I got a ton of mail, some of it polite, concerning my allusion
to the fact that the term 'ergative' is an example of folk
etymology, since it does not really come from Greek 'ergates'
but rather from Latin 'erga'. While I have not published this,
it is a fact that this term first occurs in a grammar of a
Papuan language by S. W. Ray in the late 19th century and
there denotes a locative case for which Latin 'erga' would
be a possible translation. Within a few years, without explanation,
the (in)famous Pater Schmidt, writing in an article which cites
Ray, uses the same term to denote what before then was called
'casus agentis' or 'casus auctoris' (i.e., what we now call
ergative). It is obvious to me that the folk etymology thus
occurred in Schmidt's mind. (I should add that Ray does not
give any explanation of the term 'ergative', he just uses it.
The Latin etymology, however, is the only one which fits the
facts). One might add that a Greek source for a case label
in -ive would be surprising in any event. The popularity
of this term in its modern sense is apparently due to its
being picked up by the (in)famous Trombetti and then by
various other writers, such as Fink and especially Dirr.
It is the latter who is often credited with coining the
term 'ergative', even though he clearly picked it up
from Trombetti or Fink and used it for the first time
many years after Ray and Schmidt.
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