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Summary Details

Query:   ergativity, word order and agreement
Author:  Jose-Luis Mendivil
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Typology

Summary:   Three weeks ago I posted a query (LINGUIST List: Vol-14-1529) in order to obtain supporting statistical data on these three statements:

a) OV languages show object agreement more usually than VO languages
b) Most ergative languages display OV order
c) Most ergative languages show object agreement

The following wise and kind people shared their knowledge and opinions with me (in order of 'appearance'):

- Andres Enrique-Arias
- Leo Connolly
- Jonathan David Bobaljik
- Mario van de Visser
- Maren Pannemann
- Hsiu-chuan Liao

Not a long list, but qualitatively relevant.

A summary of the responses follows.

The main conclusion is that correlations (a) and (c) are stronger than correlation (b).

Leo Connoly observed that all the correlations are true 'on the whole', though there are exceptions.
Both Connoly and Bobaljik referred to the need of a clear definition of what counts as 'object agreement' in correlation (c). Of course, I meant Dixon's O agreement (the absolutive argument in a transitive construction), not S agreement (the absolutive argument in an intransitive construction).

On correlation (b) Bobaljik mentioned Dixon's 1994 book 'Ergativity', where the claim is that verb-medial order is ''seldom ... preferred'' in ergative languages.
Van der Visser remarked that the correct generalization is that ergative languages do not display verb medial word order (I'd found this statement in Anderson's 1976 article on 'ergative subjects'). Mario van der Visser referred to two papers by Mahajan: 1994 and 1997. And, in the same vein, Hsiu-chuan Liao mentioned two statements, one by Trask (1979): ''The basic word order is SOV, can be VSO, never SVO'' and one by Mahajan (1994): ''SVO languages are never ergative. Ergativity is found only in verb final and verb initial languages''). Liao observes he does not believe that the claim that ''most ergative languages display OV order'' is true. He observed that although a lot of well-known ergative languages are verb-final, ergative Polynesian languages are verb-initial. He adds that if we consider Philippine languages and other Philippine-type languages as ergative, we will have a number of VO ergative languages. So he proposes that the more accurate statement would be that ''most ergative languages display either verb initial or verb final order, but never SVO.'' Liao observes that this statement is similar to Mahajan's claim, but different in that it allows OVS ergative languages (he mentions Balinese, an Austronesian language that was claimed to be ergative and that exhibits an OVS order).

As to correlation (c) Pannemann draw my attention to the work of Neeleman and Weerman (1999). In Neeleman and Weerman's framework arguments are either licensed by means of a case shell (dependent marking) or by verbal agreement (head marking). Marked case arguments such as ergative or accusative arguments carry a case shell and are therefore licensed by case. However both nominative and absolutive arguments would be a manifestation of absence of case: so these arguments do not carry a case shell and must be licensed by verbal agreement. This would account for the correlation in (c).
But, according to Liao, correlation (c) does not hold, at least not clearly. Liao (as well as other respondents) has a reasonable problem with the word 'most' I used in my original query.
According to Liao, statement (c) seems to suggest that most ergative languages exhibit verbal agreement, but he observes that it is not an easy job to measure out the total number of ergative languages in the world. Of course, if we are not sure about the total number of ergative languages, we cannot state anything like ''most ergative languages ...''.

As to (c) Liao proposes the following modification: ''In an ergative language, if the verb agrees with only one argument per clause, it tends to agree with the S (of an intransitive verb) and the O (of a transitive verb) rather than the A (of a transitive clause).''
Or, in other words: ''if an ergative language exhibit verbal agreement, the verb tends to exhibit absolutive agreement.'', which seems to be in the same spirit of Neeleman and Weerman's treatment. (Nevertheless, Liao mentions one exception: Papuan language Enga, an ergative language with S/A agreement only).

The complete list of sources I was addressed to is the following:

Dixon, R.W. (1994): Ergativity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Enrique-Arias, Andr?s (2002): ''Accounting for the Position of Verbal Agreement Morphology with Psycholinguistic and Diachronic Explanatory Factors.'' In Studies in Language 26.1

Mahajan, Anoop. 1994. ''The ergative parameter: Have-be alternation, word order and split ergativity''.? NELS 24: 317-331.

Mahajan, Anoop (1997): ''Universal Grammar and the Typology of Ergative Languages''. In Alexiadou and Hall, eds. (1997): Universal Grammar and Typological Variation. John Benjamins, 35-57.

Neeleman, Ad and Fred Weerman (1999): Flexible Syntax. A theory of Case and Arguments, Kluwer, Dordrecht.

Siewierska, Anna and Bakker, Dick (1994): ''The distribution of subject and object agreement and word order type.'' In Siewierska, Anna (ed.), Eurotype Working Papers 6: 83-126.

Trask, R. L. 1979. On the origin of ergativity. In Ergativity, ed. by Frans Plank, 385-404.

Mario van de Visser recommend me to take a look at the ''Universals Archive'' on the
website of the University of Konstanz (but I have not tried yet):
He said that there can be found language universals in a very broad sense, references, counterexamples, etcetera: ''Just typing keywords like 'ergativity' and 'word order' should provide you with the relevant information''.

Thanks again to all respondents and to the Linguist List for making all this possible.

Jose-Luis Mendivil.

LL Issue: 14.1768
Date Posted: 23-Jun-2003
Original Query: Read original query


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