LINGUIST List 8.1059

Wed Jul 16 1997

Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Patrick C. Ryan, Re: 8.1030, Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic
  2. Bill Bennett, 8.1030 Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

Message 1: Re: 8.1030, Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 20:25:00 +0000
From: Patrick C. Ryan <>
Subject: Re: 8.1030, Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

Dear John:

You make some good points about ergative languages but let us remember
the controversy which once raged over the question of whether the
transitive verbs in ergative languages were passive. One of the
reasons this "raged" was because passive uses of verbs WITHOUT

I submit, therefore, that while ergative languages represent an
advance, it is a provisional advance only.

Secondly, the middle voice of nominative-type languages was invented
to satisfy the need for a cause-effect relationship for intransitive
verbs also. "I move myself" is really what "I go" means, does it not?


> From: "John O'Neil" <>

> I want to respond to part of a post which particularly caught my
> attention.
> From: "Patrick C. Ryan"
> >What really separates "primitive" languages from advanced ones, is
> the
> >insistence of nominative-type (G. A. Klimov) languages on an overtly
> >expressed transitive subject.
> >
> >The mindset that this produces is directly responsible for the
> >scientific approach that has resulted in the technology of the late
> >20th century.
> >
> >However we may wish to theorize, it is a fact that the scientific
> >advances that have us all in a state of perpetual uneasiness, have
> >come about through scientists who speak nominative-type languages, or
> >who got their training in nominative-type languages.
> >
> >Science is simply a matter of correctly linking cause and effect.
> >Nominative-type language are used to organizing their thoughts by
> >reflex into a cause and effect algorithm.
> However, even accepting the premises, this doesn't hold together
> logically -- in fact, one would expect just the opposite.
> "Nominative-type" (itself a somewhat slippery term) languages hardly
> use transitivity at all in determining which argument is the
> nominative subject of a sentence. Both transitive and intransitive
> sentences have nominative subjects, and among intransitive sentences
> both "unergative" and "unaccusative" sentences have nominative
> subjects also. Not a very fertile ground for cause-&-effect thinking.
> On the other hand, one could make a more plausible argument that
> "Ergative-type" languages (to borrow Mr. Ryan's terminology) *do*
> organize sentences along an agent/patient axis more directly. The
> transitive subject -- likely an agent and thus a cause -- is in the
> ergative case, while the object or the intransitive subject -- usually
> patients and therefore "effects" -- are in the absolutive case. Hence,
> an Ergative-type language more directly reflects a cause-&-effect
> logic of the world.
> To follow Mr. Ryan's argument, we would expect that speakers of
> *ergative* languages should have developed modern science, not
> speakers of nominative languages. Alas, that is not the result he was
> looking for.
> John O'Neil

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Message 2: 8.1030 Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

Date: Sun, 13 Jul 1997 10:20:39 +0100 (BST)
From: Bill Bennett <>
Subject: 8.1030 Disc: Evolution analytic > synthetic

I had not thought that I would have any need to intervene in such a
fundamental question. Unless I am being unjust, or erroneous, the
picture so far presented is analytic > synthetic. But a simple series
of this kind is not the reason for the way that language evolves. At
any given moment, speakers are using language implicitly or
explicitly. I will finish typing this linguistic account (along the
scale of explicitness) and address younger members of my family in
code (implicitly). If my language use sought conciseness
(implicitness), than in time it might be working at the well-known
"now for cocoa and I'll put the cat out" with one vocable, the
language might end as "ugh" (synethesis) - unless the language were to
be "saved" by a countering balance in explicitness.

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