LINGUIST List 6.619

Fri 28 Apr 1995

Sum: Burmese

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  1. Bert Peeters, Summary: Burmese

Message 1: Summary: Burmese

Date: Wed, 26 Apr 1995 10:39:30 Summary: Burmese
From: Bert Peeters <>
Subject: Summary: Burmese

Original query:
It has been suggested that languages such as Burmese, where the overt
marking of syntactic functions depends on individual circumstances (no
marking if no possibility of ambiguity), could be seen as representing an
"old" type of language which in due course would have given rise to
both ergative and accusative languages. Is there any evidence that
Burmese is indeed a typologically "old" language and that accusative
and ergative languages are "newer developments" going back to a
common type?

My source: Andre' Martinet, "De l'expression libre des rapports
syntaxiques", *Folia linguistica* 22. 405-411 (with a reference to work
by Denise Bernot).

Apart from a short reply from David Solnit (Linguistics, University of
Michigan; e-mail:, replies came in and were
solicited from various colleagues, all of whom seem to belong to one
of two "camps" (irrespective of the theoretical framework they use to
put their view). There is the "LaPolla camp", represented by the man
himself and (implicitly) by Martinet, and the "DeLancey camp", also
represented by the man himself, and a few others. All replies have been
edited. I hope nobody's views have been misrepresented.

Camp number one: "The LaPolla camp"

Randy LaPolla (Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica)
My research on Sino-Tibetan diachronic morphosyntax has shown that
no ergative or accusative marking can be reconstructed back beyond
the "branch" level. For example, under ST you have Chinese and Tibeto-
Burman, and under Tibeto-Burman you have some large groupings such
as Bodic and Burmic and Karenic, and under these you have various
branches. The oldest ergative marker (the one with the widest genetic
distribution) is the -s erg/abl/inst marker of the Bodish (Tibetan) branch.
This is only reconstructable to Bodish, not to Bodic, the higher level
grouping. The accusative marking found, mostly of the type I refer to
as "anti-ergative" (or "anti-agentive") marking, is younger, as even very
closely related languages often differ in either having it or not, or in
terms of what form they use. On the other hand, in Burmese, there is no
systematic ergative or accusative marking, with subject and object
marking being used only to disambiguate agents from non-agents. It is
an ST descendent of an "older" type.

Relevant work (all of it by Randy LaPolla):
"On the Dating and Nature of Verb Agreement in Tibeto-Burman".
 *Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies* 55
 (1992). 298-315.
"Anti-ergative Marking in Tibeto-Burman". *Linguistics of the Tibeto-
 Burman Area* 15 (1992). 1-9.
"Parallel Grammaticalizations in Tibeto-Burman: Evidence of Sapir's
 'Drift'". *Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area* 17 (1994).
"Ergative Marking in Tibeto-Burman". To appear in *New Horizons
 in Tibeto-Burman Morphosyntax* (Yoshio Nishi, James A.
 Matisoff, Yasuhiko Nagano, eds). Osaka: National Museum of

Camp number two: "The DeLancey camp"

Scott DeLancey (Linguistics, University of Oregon)
As far as Burmese is concerned, your description of case marking isn't
quite right. Any subject or object can be case marked, not just in case
there's a possibility of ambiguity. The subject and object markers both
have a pragmatic function as well--the object marker is simultaneously
an object and a contrastive marker, and the subject postposition is also
something similar. So the way the system works is that subjects and
objects are marked for case iff they are discourse-pragmatically
contrastive. (Since fronting an object is also a way of marking it as in
contrastive focus, fronted objects always have object marking, which
I'd guess is the origin of this story about case marking only in case of
As far as I know, this pattern is attested only in Burmese and a handful
of other Tibeto-Burman languages. I don't know why anyone would
think it's particularly archaic.

Relevant work (all of it by Scott DeLancey):
"Notes on agentivity and causation". *Studies in Language* 8 (1982).
"Etymological notes on Tibeto-Burman case particles". *Linguistics of
 the Tibeto-Burman Area* 8 (1984). 59-77.
"Verb agreement in Proto-Tibeto-Burman". *Bulletin of the School of
 Oriental and African Studies* 52 (1989). 315-33.

Rod Johnson
My feeling is that ambiguity avoidance is not much of a factor, though
it is surely one aspect of case-marking. It's very common to avoid Nps
entirely in Burmese--a clause will often consist only of a verb (complex)
and that's it, or perhaps one NP. This means a lot is left up to the
disambiguation abilities of the reader. The idea of "ambiguity avoidance"
stems, I think, partly from Western linguists' inability to cope with the
degree of inexplicitness allowed by Burmese.
I think presence vs. absence of case marking is more closely associated
with issues concerning:
--New topic or revival of an old topic or promotion from non-topic to
 topic (marked with _ka._ or _kou_) vs. continuing topic (unmarked).
--Exact semantic role (non-subject agents are marked, non-agent
 subjects not, though they have the same marker _ka._; non-human
 goals are marked, indirect objects not; etc.)
--Referentiality (non-referential or incorporated objects are not marked)
--"Unusualness" of an NP in a certain role (e.g., inanimate subjects),
 or change in role, is marked.
--Parallelism between various episodes in a text.
--Register variation.
The problem has been discussed in various places, e.g. Bernot (1980),
Wheatley (1982), and my own Ph.D. (Johnson 1992). Wheatley's work
includes a long discussion of the factors governing case optionality in
Burmese, and while he toys with the analysis referred to in the query,
he concludes (if I remember right) that it's not the whole story.
As to the suggestion that Burmese is an "old" type of language. . . I
think it's actually innovative in this respect within Tibeto-Burman, in
part probably due to areal factors (contact with similar languages in
Thailand, China and Indochina). In general, I think that claims like this
are more often based on romantic notions of a "simpler time" than they
are on real knowledge of language function and change. I see no
reason to think ergative and accusative patterns haven't been around
as long as language has.
Bernot, Denise. 1980. *Le pre'dicat en birman parle'*. In the series
 *Langues et civilisations de l'Asie du sud-est et du monde
 insulindien*, vol. 8.
Johnson, Rod. 1992. *The Limits of Grammar: Syntax and Lexicon in
 Modern Spoken Burmese*. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University
 of Michigan. [Not much new here]
Okell, John. 1969. *A Reference Grammar of Colloquial Burmese*
 (2 vols.). London: OUP. [The standard source, rich in data on
 this question]
Wheatley, Julian. 1982. *Burmese: a Grammatical Sketch*. Unpublished
 Ph.D. thesis, UC Berkeley.

Kris Lehman (Department of Anthropology, UIUC)
The claim that a language such as Burmese is of a type that would have
given rise to either ergative or accusative languages is misguided. In
Lehman (1985), I have shown that Old Burmese must itself have had a
quasi-ergative marker, derived from a strong or focal-contrastive form
of the proximal demonstrative. In plain English, we must reconstruct an
Old Burmese dialect in which the subject of an intransitive verb was
suffixed (case-marked, morphophonologically) with the oblique form of
one of the demonstratives, the forceful or emphatic one (non-oblique /I/,
oblique /i./ on the creaky tone), whilst the transitive subject was suffixed,
as required, with /thi/, the other, unforceful demonstrative. Note that in
my paper I do not assert that this can be taken back to *proto-Burmese,
only that there was a dialect of this kind in OB, of which the reflexes
are quite clear in later, standard OB.
I agree that the distinction between ergative and accusative is less
likely to be family-specific, and that it is more likely to have been
around since language began.
Lehman, F.K. 1985. "Ergativity in the Nominal-Verbal Cycle: Internal
 Syntactic Reconstruction in Burmese". Arelene Zide, et al., eds.
 *Proceedings of the Conference on Participant Roles: South
 Asia and Adjacent Areas*. Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Dr Bert Peeters
Department of Modern Languages (French)
University of Tasmania
GPO Box 252C Tel. (002) 202344 +61 02 202344
Hobart TAS 7001 Fax. (002) 207813 +61 02 207813
Australia Email:
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