LINGUIST List 6.642

Fri 05 May 1995

Sum: Morphological vs syntactic ergativity

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  1. Bert Peeters, Sum: Morphological vs syntactic ergativity

Message 1: Sum: Morphological vs syntactic ergativity

Date: Wed, 3 May 1995 14:52:37 +Sum: Morphological vs syntactic ergativity
From: Bert Peeters <>
Subject: Sum: Morphological vs syntactic ergativity

Original query:

Reading through the book notes in
*Language* 1990 (the things we do...), I stumbled across a BN on
Anne Cooreman's *Transitivity and discourse continuity in Chamorro
narratives*, by Thomas E. Payne (vol. 66:3, pp. 631-632). Payne reports
Cooreman as saying that - I quote - "ergativity in Chamorro (...) is
rather marginal, restricted to morphological marking in realis constructions
and certain complement clauses. Cooreman claims there is no evidence
of syntactic ergativity."
Now, here is a possibly dumb question from someone who knows more
about ergativity in superficially accusative languages than about the
same in ergative languages or anywhere else for that matter. The question
is: What's the difference between morphological and syntactic ergativity?

Thanks to all of the following for replying:
Leo Connolly
Arantza Martinez Etxarri
Randy J. Lapolla
Alexis Manaster Ramer
Amoena B. Norcross
Tom Payne
One person who wished not to be mentioned by name

Most respondents referred back to either one of the following sources:

Dixon, R.M.W. 1979. "Ergativity". *Language* 55. 59-138.
Dixon, R.M.W. 1994. *Ergativity*. Cambridge: CUP.

On p. 16 of the book, the following is said (S = intransitive subject, A =
transitive subject, O = transitive object):

"In summary, the terms 'ergative' and 'ergativity' - and 'accusative' and
'accusativity' - may be used:
1. To describe the ways in which the syntactic functions of predicate
arguments are marked in simple transitive and intransitive clauses, i.e.
whether S is marked in the same way as O and differently from A (an
ergative arrangement) or whether S is marked in the same way as A and
differently from O (an accusative arrangement). This is 'morphological'
or 'intra-clausal' ergativity/accusativity ans it relates to the marking of
syntactic relations in derived structure (not at any level of underlying
2. To describe syntactic constraints that a language may place on the
combining of simple clauses into complex sentences, by coordination,
subordination, complementation, etc."

Here are some of the more substantial answers (slightly edited)

The distinction goes back to work on relational grammar in the early
70s, e.g., Woodbury on Eskimo, and perhaps independently to the work
of Anderson and/or Dixon and/or Silverstein. The idea was that case
marking and agreement were somehow more superficial than the other
things. In fact, they have turned out not to be as superficial as once
thought. However, the distinction remains a useful one, since it does
look like these two kinds of ergativity are often quite independent of
each other.

Name withheld on request:
Morphologically ergative languages have case-marking such that the
subject of most/some intransitives matches the transitive object, not the
transitive subject as in 'nominative' languages. The assumption (at least
in a P&P framework) is to assume that these verbs are unaccusative, and
somehow the case-marking gets to be done as if the argument was an
object - e.g. the case gets assigned before movement to subject position
where the equivalent of nominative would be assigned. Complications
may arise if case marking also varies according to other factors. Cf. work
by R.M.W. Dixon, and also by Hale and Bittner.
The notion of "syntactically ergative languages" is most controversial.
Dyirbal seems to be a good example (cf. R.M.W. Dixon's books; also A.
Marantz, On the nature of grammatical relations, MIT 1984 - Marantz
later refuted by Chomsky). The idea is that although they look like
morphologically ergative languages so far as case-marking is concerned,
the reason is different. The reason, again couched in a P&P framework,
is that the transitive verbs are coded in the opposite way to what we do:
i.e. these languages put the agent-like role internally, and the patient-like
role externally. Most intransitives are coded to have just an external
role, and this will get case-marked like the transitive external role ie the
patient-like one, the 'subject'. The arguments are based on syntactic
processes that depend on subjects, e.g. coordinate VP structure
reduction, missing subjects, PRO subject, equi, imperative deletion, etc.

Essentially, morphological ergativity is when there is a morphological
case distinction between ergative and absolutive, like the Latin
morphological distinction betwen nominative and accusative. Syntactic
ergativity is when syntactic processes are sensitive to the ergative-
absolutive distinction. For example, some languages allow relativisation
on absolutive arguments, but not on ergative arguments. My favorite
example is from Yup'ik where coreference in coodinate clauses is based
on the absolutive. So if you say: "He ate the bug and got sick" it is the
*bug* that got sick, even though pragmatics would seem to make the
other reading more probable. Syntactic ergativity is logically distinct
from morphological ergativity, though the two often go together. In
1976 Stephen Anderson claimed that ergativity is usually just a
morphological phenomenon. Since then, syntactic ergativity has
surfaced in various places, but it does still seem to be the case that most
syntactic processes that are sensitive to grammatical relations in
morphologically ergative languages are oriented to the nominative/
accusative distinction.
There are no examples that I know of where a morphologically
nominative/accusative language exhibits syntactic ergativity.

Morphological ergativity refers to case-marking (or the equivalent). In
accusative languages such as English and French, the subject of a
transitive agentive verb gets the same treatment as the subject of an
intransitve (one-place) verb:

 I ate a banana.
 I died.

In a morphologically ergative language, it's the patient NP (our DO)
that is treated the same as the subject of a one-place predicate. The
agent (or whatever) gets some other treatment. In a lousy imitation
(note that the verb has the same morphology as with the one-place

 I died.
 A banana ate by me.

Syntactic ergativity is quite rare. Most morphologically ergative
languages treat the Agent (or whatever would be the subject in a "typical"
accusative language) about the same as the subject of the one-place
predicate: it can undergo raising, equideletes with other Agents and with
the sole NP of a one-place predicate, while the Patient, despite its
subject-like "look", equideletes only with other Patients or not at all. In
other words, the syntax of these languages works much as in English or
French, without regard to case-marking. Such languages are said to be
syntactically accusative. There are, however, some ergative languages
(Dyirbal is the most consistent example I know) where the patient of
such sentences is not only morphologically the subject, but also acts like
one syntactically. This seemingly obvious behavior is quite rare.
I know of no languages which are syntactically ergative without also
being morphologically ergative. Nor should there be any, in my opinion.
I use a case grammar analysis, which in brief is as follows:
1. Deep cases (thematic roles) are ranked. Agents outrank patients
(themes), while patients (theme) outrank such oblique categories as Place.
2. Accusative languages such as English normally make the highest-
ranking NP the morphological subject. However, even though
experiencers and beneficiaries (possessors and "typical" indirect objects)
rank right below Agent, some verbs in some languages prefer to make
the patient the subject. (Cf. English _own_ with Beneficiary as subject,
but _belong to_ with Patient as subject.)
3. In some languages a higher-ranking non-subject shows subject-like
properties that the lower-ranking morphological subject does not have.
Usually this involves only position, but in Icelandic the darned things
can undergo raising and equidelete with those subjects which rank
highest in their own clause. This causes many scholars to claim that
such NPs are then the "real" or "syntactic" subjects. I say rather, the
properties in question in a given language are not subject properties at
all, but pertain rather to the highest-ranking NP argument *as such*.
The morphological subject -- the traditional subject, and the only one
that cannot be called something else -- usually has syntactic properties
of its own, such as equideletion and control of verb agreement.
The exact distribution varies from language to language. In English, for
instance, high-ranking non-subjects seem to have no syntactic salience
whatsoever. But they do in German (position) and Spanish (position
and often elimination of verb agreement). In Icelandic, they're nearly
the whole show. Morphological subjects there are syntactically significant
iff they are also the highest ranking NP argument.
4. Ergative languages make the Patient (if present) the morphological
subject, even in the present of an Agent, Experiencer, or Beneficiary.
But in most such languages the higher-ranking NP argument has most
of the syntactic "subject" properties (controlling reflexivization;
equideletion; can be raised). That is, the properties in question in most
ergative languages pertain to the Highest-Ranking argument and hence
apply only to those morphological subjects which are also (with Theme-
location verbs or the like, or after passive or "anti-passive" has applied)
the highest-rankign arguments. But in Dyirbal, and perhaps a few other
languages, the morphological subject is the whole show, as it is in English.
5. There are thus two centers of syntactic salience: the morphological
subject, and the highest-ranking NP argument. But where they coincide,
as they normally do in accusative languaes, syntactic ergativity is
impossible. It can occur only where, and when, the morphological
subject (if any) is not the highest-ranking NP argument.
(So-called "active" languages, with no uniform "subject" morphology,
are best analyzed as lacking subjects altogether. All so-called "subject"
properties then must, of course, pertain to the highest-ranking NP

If you're interested in a language whose morphology is thoroughly
ergative but whose syntax is thoroughly nominative-accusative, there is
Tzotzil (a Mayan language I've had the opportunity to do a fair bit of work
on). There's a good pedagogical grammar of the language published in
Spanish by UNAM Press (Haviland, 1981). I recently translated it into
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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