LINGUIST List 24.609

Fri Feb 01 2013

Review: Morphology; Syntax; Typology: Authier & Haude (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 01-Feb-2013
From: Adina Dragomirescu <>
Subject: Ergativity, Valency and Voice
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Gilles AuthierEDITOR: Katharina HaudeTITLE: Ergativity, Valency and VoiceSERIES TITLE: Empirical Approaches to Language Typology [EALT] 48PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Adina Dragomirescu, Romanian Academy, Institute of Linguistics


Besides the editors’ introduction, this volume contains eleven studies onlanguages with predominantly ergative features, with a precise focus on voicealternations and transitivity phenomena found in these languages. Thesearticles are based on oral presentations given at the monthly seminar,“Ergativité: typologie, diachronie et cognition” (Villejuif -- Paris,2005-2009), organised by Francesc Queixalós. As is well-known, ergativelanguages are very different, but despite this fact, the volume has an obviousguiding line; all the contributors are fieldwork linguists, and all the datapresented here are first-hand data from more or less known ergative languages.

The editors’ “Introduction” (pp. 1-14) contains a short presentation ofergativity and of specific terminology relevant to the volume, mainly based onDixon’s work (1972, 1994). The notions defined in this section are well knownfrom literature on ergativity and include: morphological ergativity, syntacticergativity, pivots, alignment splits such as pronominal and aspectual splits,etc. Voice alternations (the key notion of the book) “determine the number,formal encoding, and semantic role of verbal argument(s)”, “serve to describean event from different perspectives, and to retain the same participant asthe central argument through larger stretches of discourse”, and “ideally forma productive system” (p. 5). The editors define several voice alternationmechanisms described in this volume: voice-decreasing devices (e.g. passive,antipassive, middles, anticausatives, noun incorporation); devices thatmaintain the same number of arguments (e.g. symmetrical voice, inversesystems, lability and lexical alternations, and a related phenomenon, namelydifferential object marking); and voice-increasing devices (e.g. causatives,benefactives or applicatives). A short outline of each article is provided atthe end of the introduction.

The first two chapters deal with Mayan languages. “Ergativity and voice inMayan languages: a functional-typological approach” (pp. 15-49), by ColetteGrinevald and Marc Peake, starts with a brief presentation of the Mayanfamily. Section 2 deals with the multiplicity of verbal markers encodingtransitivity (i.e. Pan-Mayan characteristics), and then presents data fromspecific Mayan languages (i.e. Jakaltek Popti’, Tojol Ab’al). Section 3summarises the specific features of ergative marking in Mayan languages,taking into account two different terminologies: the “primitives” A

S; and the person markers of ergativity, “set A” and “set B”. Finally, inSection 4, the authors highlight the role of markers in the identification ofvoice systems (e.g. active-transitive, passive, antipassive, agent-focus, andapplicative). Their conclusion is that ergativity is a major Pan-Mayan trait,and that Mayan patterns of verbal ergative alignment (including the voicesystem) are typologically relatively rare.

In the chapter “Ergativity and the passive in three Mayan languages” (pp.51-110), Valentina Vapnarsky, Cédric Becquey, and Aurore Monod Becquelin offera comparative analysis of the passive in Yucatec, Ch’orti’, and Tseltal. Theextended presentation of the main characteristics of these languages and oftheir features related to ergativity and voice ends with some generalisingconclusions: transitivity is a very important feature in all Mayan languages,where the authors identify many transitivising and intransitivisingderivations, with reflexes in phonology, morphology and syntax; the use of thepassive is motivated by discursive, semantic and discourse-pragmatic factors,rather than by syntactic ones. Consequently, the passive in Mayan languages isnot strictly related to ergative or accusative features.

In the chapter “A tale of two passives in Cavineña” (pp. 111-131), AntoineGuillaume offers a detailed analysis of two verbal suffixes with passive value(-tana and -ta) in the above-mentioned ergative language from the Tacananfamily spoken in Amazonian Lowland Bolivia. The article contains a briefpresentation of the argument-coding system in this language, an analysis ofthe two passive derivations, and a diachronic account of the emergence of thetwo different suffixes. The underlying idea is that, despite many claims foundin the literature, the passive is rather common in Amazonian languages and inergative languages in general.

Three other chapters tackle Caucasian languages. Gilles Authier’s article,“The detransitive voice in Kryz” (pp. 133-163), deals with an unwrittenergative language belonging to the Lezgic branch of the North-East Caucasianfamily. This language is special among East-Caucasian languages because it hasa detransitive voice with a prominent passive reading, the use of which isrestricted by semantic parameters and lexical properties of verbs. Theexistence of a passive structure in this language seems to be motivated bymodal and aspectual parameters, not by syntactic features (such as anaccusative pivot), and probably appeared quite recently, under the influenceof Azeri. The development of the passive was probably favoured by theexistence of other detransitive voices with comparable morphology in nearlyall branches of the East-Caucasian family.

In “Laz middle voice” (pp. 165-197), René Lacroix analyses the morpheme i- inLaz, a South Caucasian language. This morpheme present in various syntacticcontexts with Class A and Class B middle verbs (e.g. Subject-Objectcoreference construction, Subject-Dative coreference construction, objectpossession construction, antipassive, perfective aspectual constructions,lexicalised items, passive, impersonal middle, anticausative, etc.)corresponds to what has been called ‘middle voice’ with reference to otherlanguages and, as shown towards the end of the chapter, even if there is ahistorical relation between the middle and the applicative i-, these twomarkers should be kept distinct in a synchronic description.

In “Ergativity in the Adyghe system of valency-changing derivations” (pp.323-353), Alexander Letuchiy questions the ergative nature of the WestCaucasian language, Adyghe, by analysing transitivity increase mechanisms(i.e. causative, benefactive, malefactive, and locative), and transitivitydecrease mechanisms (i.e. potential, antipassive, facilitive, anddifacilitive). The conclusion of this chapter is that, despite some importantdifferences with respect to the prototypical situations found in othersyntactically ergative languages (e.g. in Adyghe, derivations can change thestatus of any participant, except for the agent/transitive subject), Adyghecan be considered a syntactically ergative language.

Guillaume Jacques’s paper, “Argument demotion in Japhug Rgyalrong” (pp.199-225), deals with a Sino-Tibetan (morphologically) ergative language spokenin China. One of the core features of the verbal system of this language istransitivity. Consequently, there are many transitivity-changing devices, suchas generic, antipassive, lability and incorporation (used for the demotion ofpatients), and generic and antipassive (used for the demotion of agents).Other mechanisms, such as the de-experiencer prefix, are used to derive anintransitive verb from a transitive verb of perception, labile verbs, andincorporation.

In “The Katukina-Kanamari antipassive” (pp. 227--258), Francesc Queixalósinvestigates the antipassive in the above-mentioned language from Amazonia,which seems to be the only surviving language of the small Katukina family.After reviewing some basic patterns of this language (e.g. ergative alignment,word order and constituency, movement, elision, ostention/modification orreplacement by a demonstrative, coordination, focalisation, constituentquestions, relativisation, nominalisation, control, subject and object), theauthor gives prominence to the antipassive device, which seems to have mainlyformal motivations (e.g. allowing the agent to participate in movement,ostension, coordination, focalisation, relativisation, nominalisation),alongside some functional motivations, which are harder to detect (e.g. thepragmatic promotion or demotion of the agent or the patient, indefiniteness,etc.).

In the chapter “Undergoer orientation in Movima”, Katharina Haude analyses thesystem of verbal morphemes in an unclassified language from Amazonian Bolivia,in which most of the transitive clauses (the direct ones) display an ergativepattern (i.e. are undergoer oriented), while inverse constructions exhibit anaccusative pattern (i.e. are actor oriented); in the intransitive domain,unaccusative verbs are generally oriented towards the undergoer, whereasunergative verbs are oriented towards the actor.

Aurore Monod Becquelin and Cédric Becquey’s article, “Case patterns and verbclasses in Trumai” (pp. 289-322), deals with the Trumai language, whichbelongs to the Upper Xingu group from Mato Grosso, Brazil. The authorsquestion previous analyses put forth for this language, focusing especially onthe claim that it is an ergative language (Dixon 1994), and, by using corpusdata, demonstrate that ergative verbs are not dominant in this language -- afact which is considered important by the authors in establishing the ergativenature of a language. The data show that this language does not display anypredominant alignment in the lexicon. Trumai patterns with Austronesianlanguages in that there are two sets of transitive verbs, agent-oriented (i.e.“extended intransitive” in Dixon’s terminology), and patient-oriented verbs(i.e. “ergative”). However, what is special about Trumai is that theergative/accusative split is lexically governed for highly transitive verbs,and this split never involves morphological marking on the verb.

The final chapter is “The evolution of transitive verbs in Basque andemergence of dative-marked patients” (pp. 355-379), by Céline Mounole. Theauthor shows that differential object marking (precisely, dative-markedpatients), unusual in ergative languages, was first attested in the 16thcentury, but fully developed in the 19th century as a consequence of languagecontact with Spanish, and depends on factors like animacy and referentiality.In contrast with the other articles in this book, Mounole’s article does notexplore a valency-changing device or a voice mechanism, but rather the way inwhich the spread of the dative-marked patient affects the canonical transitivestructure in Basque.


This book, edited by Gilles Authier and Katharina Haude, includes a largeamount of first-hand data from different ergative languages. Alongside thesevery interesting data, the editors and the authors offer a complete and veryinteresting picture of the relation between ergativity and voice alternations,although the limits between syntactic and lexical valency alternations aresometimes quite squishy. The most common voice alternation mechanisms areclearly defined in the introduction of the book and the more restricted onesare defined in the studies that refer to the respective mechanisms. Most ofthe chapters contain a brief presentation of the language under scrutiny, themechanisms of valency change present in the respective language, and discussthe (typological) relevance of the existence of these mechanisms.

Besides the large amount of data and the systematic presentation of thevoice/valency-changing devices, the strongest point of the book is that itre-evaluates some of the well-known assumptions on ergative languages; some ofthe analyses included in the volume – and the most interesting for typologyand general linguistics – enable one to re-think the linguistic typology ofthe languages under discussion in some situations (e.g. Monod-Becquelin andBecquey demonstrate that Trumai is not an ergative language, Letuchiy showsthat Adyghe is not only morphologically ergative, but also syntacticallyergative) or to revisit certain typological generalisations, which are provennot to work for many of the languages described in this book (e.g. thetraditional assumption that passivisation is uncommon in ergative languages isshown not to hold – see Grinevald and Peake’s demonstration for Mayanlanguages).

Even if the terminology is explained in most of the cases, sometimes it isdifficult to follow the different systems adopted by the authors. For example,for referring to the transitive subject, transitive object, and intransitivesubject, respectively, some of the authors use Comrie’s (1978) A / P / S terminology,others adopt Dixon’s (1987, 1994) A / S / O system, while others prefer Creissels’s (2006)A / P / U notation.

In conclusion, the book reviewed is essential reading for everyone interestedin ergativity, voice alternations and valency-changing mechanisms. This booktargets a very large audience: it is of interest not only to researchersworking on ergativity, but also to undergraduates, who can learn whatergativity is, how it can be related to other phenomena found in differentlanguages, and how one can work with understudied languages that require notonly the interpretation of raw linguistic material, but also an accuratedescription of it.


Comrie, Bernard. 1978. Ergativity. In Syntactic Typology: Studies in thePhenomenology of Language, Winfred P. Lehmann (ed.). 329-394. Hassocks, Sussex:Harvester Press.

Creissels, Denis. 2006. Syntaxe générale. Une introduction typologique. Paris:Hermès-Lavoisier.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1972. The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. (ed.) 1987. Studies in Ergativity (Lingua, 71), Amsterdam: NorthHolland.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1994. Ergativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Adina Dragomirescu is a Researcher at “Iorgu Iordan -- Al. Rosetti” Instituteof Linguistics of the Romanian Academy, Department of Grammar, and TeachingAssistant at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Letters, where sheteaches Romanian syntax, morphology, phonology and stylistics and Romancesyntax. In 2009, she defended her PhD dissertation, “Ergativity, typology,syntax, semantics”, which was published in 2010 by Bucharest University Press.She is the co-author of 5 other books and has published around 75 articles andbook reviews. Her current domains of inquiry are Romanian supine and motionverbs.

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