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Review of  Ergativity in Amazonia

Reviewer: Carmen Jany
Book Title: Ergativity in Amazonia
Book Author: Spike Gildea Francesc Queixalós
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Issue Number: 22.361

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EDITORS: Gildea, Spike; Queixalós, Francesc
TITLE: Ergativity in Amazonia
SERIES: Typological Studies in Language 89
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Carmen Jany, Department of World Languages, California State University, San


The book under review, ''Ergativity in Amazonia'', is the result of a three year
project bringing together researchers from all over the world in three annual
workshops, all working with first-hand data on Amazonian languages. The volume
features a highly understudied and underdescribed phenomenon for this particular
geographic region. As the authors in the introductory paper note, ergativity
occurs in many languages of the world, but it is least documented in Amazonia.
This work brings together nine articles (eight papers and a theoretical
introduction) about ergative alignment in sixteen Amazonian languages. There are
many more languages showing ergative alignment patterns in this geographic
region, many of which have not yet been described (Monrós 2004). The papers in
this volume are written by linguists with many years of fieldwork experience and
are all based on discourse data, as well as on data from elicitation. The eight
contributions are grouped thematically into two parts and preceded by an
introductory paper discussing the geographical and genetic distribution of main
clause ergativity, in addition to major theoretical issues related to ergativity.

In ''Manifestations of ergativity in Amazonia'' Queixalós and Gildea set forth the
definition of ergativity and the conceptual tools used by the researchers to
describe and examine the observed phenomena. Following the authors, the
morphosyntactic and semantic definition of ergativity can be problematic if
researchers rely on categories of European languages, such as the traditionally
presupposed universal category of subject, a category often questioned in the
papers of this volume. The contributors of this volume adopt the same definition
of ergativity as the World Atlas of Language Structures (Haspelmath et al. 2008)
whereby alignment is defined by the patterning of semantico-syntactic primitives
S, A, O (or P) manifesting in nominal case-marking, verbal person-marking, word
order with respect to the predicate, constituency of the verb phrase, control of
co-reference with reflexives or core arguments of conjoined or subordinate
clauses, relativization, and topicalization. In ergative alignment S and O
pattern together in the absolutive in opposition to the ergative A. Although the
authors question the theoretical validity and cognitive reality of these
categories, S, A, and O are used for convenience. To identify ergative patterns
by semantic roles would be problematic, as Queixalós and Gildea note, given that
there is more than one role possible per argument. Split systems based on
semantics, such as active-stative and agent-patient systems are excluded from
this study. Queixalós and Gildea indicate that while consistent accusative
languages are common, languages with ergative patterns tend to present such
patterns only in a subset of constructions alongside accusative patterns. This
can be explained by a cognitive bias in the world's languages towards agents in
transitive clauses, i.e. we pay more attention to agents than to patients. Given
this premise, it would be expected that diachronically languages tend to move
towards accusative patterns. Hence Queixalós and Gildea mention
re-accusativization pathways and grammaticalization paths from reanalysis of
biclausal constructions, in particular nominalizations, and from marked voice
constructions, such as passives. Several papers in the volume discuss possible
diachronic pathways for the patterns observed.

The five papers in the first part, entitled ''Well-established systems:
Morphological ergativity'', discuss primarily ergative patterns related to
morphology in four major language families: Panoan, Tacanan, Cariban, and Jê.

David Fleck's paper ''Ergativity in the Mayoruna Branch of the Panoan Family''
describes and compares ergative alignment patterns in the five still-spoken
Mayoruna languages of the Panoan family and shows how Mayoruna languages are
more similar to each other than to other Panoan languages, thus providing
further evidence for the Mayoruna subfamily. The data for this comprehensive
study stems from a combination of extensive original fieldwork and archival
research. By applying a synchronic and diachronic analysis, Fleck's comparison
of personal pronoun systems, pronominal enclitics, special verb types, such as
extended intransitive verbs, transitivity agreement on adverbials, and negative
constructions reveals that Mayoruna languages, in particular Mastes, are
gradually moving in the direction of becoming morphologically ergative. Fleck
concludes that this gradual switch represents a regularization process across
the Mayoruna subfamily increasing consistency of the ergative pattern by analogy
to the case marking alignment, a phenomenon not commonly attested. Fleck's work
is only an initial step toward the grammatical reconstruction of the Panoan
family given the lack of and limited description of many languages of this family.

''Ergativity in Shipibo-Konibo, a Panoan language of the Ucayali'' by Pilar M.
Valenzuela treats the highly consistent morphological ergativitiy found in the
nominal case-marking of this language. Valenzuela describes the
ergative-absolutive case-marking system in great detail, illustrates the only
instance of syntactic ergativity manifested in internally-headed relative
clauses, and discusses several types of non-ergative arrangements present in
various constructions: accusative case-marking on emphatic pronouns; accusative
distribution of emphatic pronouns and of the plural agreement marker on verbs;
neutral case-marking in the progressive construction pointing to an aspectually
conditioned split; an idiosyncratic pattern in the occurrence of doubled
pronouns; and a tripartite participant agreement system on adjuncts.

Antoine Guillaume in his article entitled ''How ergative is Cavineña?'' presents a
clear description of morphological ergativity and explores possible ergative
patterns at the syntactic level in Cavineña, a language of the Tacanan family.
Guillaume shows that contrary to previous analyses Cavineña has pervasive
morphological ergativity whereby case-marking and pronominal clitics follow an
ergative-absolutive pattern. Previous accounts of Cavineña have mistakenly
analyzed it as having a split system. Guillaume argues that the so-called split
is based on a morphophonological phenomenon, i.e. suffix deletion conditioned by
morphophonological factors, rather than on a syntactic one and concludes that
Cavineña does not have split ergativity. His search for possible syntactic
ergativity in the language led him to examine co-reference constraints in
dependent clauses. While co-reference constraints in internally-headed relative
clauses may follow an ergative-absolutive pattern, the same as shown by
Valenzuela for Shipibo-Konibo, the dependent structures investigated by
Guillaume operate on a nominative-accusative basis.

In ''The ergativity effect in Kuikuro (Southern Carib, Brazil)'' Bruna Franchetto
gives a thorough description of the morphosyntactic dimensions of ergativity in
Kuikuro, a Cariban language, and explores some proposals within the generative
framework in regards to parallels between main clauses and nominalizations. As
Franchetto illustrates, Kuikuro shows ergative case marking and the morphosyntax
of possessed nouns is nearly identical to verbal inflection. Moreover,
Franchetto examines the range of uses of the ergative suffix/postposition 'heke'
and concludes that its oblique uses are clearly distinguished from its use to
mark the agentive core argument of a transitive verb.

Spike Gildea and Flávia de Castro Alves examine ergativity in Cariban and Jê
languages in ''Nominative-Absolutive: Counter-Universal Split Ergativity in Jê
and Cariban'' and question the validity of the typological definition for
ergative constructions found in Dixon (1994). The authors combine personal
fieldwork data with a reanalysis of previously published data showing split
ergativity in the form of nominative-absolutive alignment in five languages from
the two families. They find both nominative and absolutive morphological
patterns with no accusative or ergative patterns in all five languages. While
the absolutive surfaces in verbal cross-referencing, the nominative occurs with
word order, case forms of pronouns, and auxiliary agreement. A second split is
based on tense-aspect-mood categories whereby the nominative-absolutive clauses
code future, imperfective, irrealis, and negative, counter to what has been
shown in the typological literature. The results of this analysis are thus
typologically surprising. This leads the authors to question the current
definition of ergativity which seems to place more emphasis on ergative case
marking than on absolutive cross-referencing. Most of the languages examined
here present no nominal case-marking.

The second part ''Recent diachronic innovations: Syntactic ergativity'' comprises
three papers and focuses on genetic isolates which are both morphologically and
syntactically ergative.

In ''Ergativity in Trumai'' Raquel Guirardello-Damian analyzes morphological and
syntactic alignment patterns in Trumai, a language isolate spoken in Brazil.
Trumai shows deep ergativity with consistent ergative-absolutive patterns
surfacing in morphology and syntax, including case marking, verbal
cross-referencing, relativization, reflexive clauses, verb phrase constituency,
and word order. However, nominative-accusative alignment occurs in argument
suppression and in the use of posture auxiliaries. The two alignment systems
thus coexist and compete with each other in the syntax. A move towards
accusativity is noted in the verb classes where verbs of class 2 (transitives
with ergative-absolutive marking) are being replaced with the equivalent verbs
of class 4 (intransitives with absolutive-dative marking). Guirardello-Damian
concludes with a discussion about the traditional category of ''subject'' which is
lacking in this language and suggests that the alignment system in Trumai is
best described using the language-specific case categories ergative, absolutive,
and dative for the obligatory arguments.

As with Trumai, Katukina-Kanamari is a strongly ergative language. Francesc
Queixalós, in ''Grammatical Relations in Katukina-Kanamari'', shows that Katukina
manifests ergative-absolutive alignment in case-marking, verbal
cross-referencing, verb phrase constituency, coordination, focalization,
interrogation, relativization, and coreference with certain auxiliaries. While
most syntactic mechanisms operate on the basis of the patient (defined ''in
intuitive prototypical semantic terms'' p. 259), an antipassive construction
allows for the agent to be accessible to such mechanisms as relativization,
interrogation, clause coordination, and subordination, among others. A
nominative-accusative pattern of limited use also occurs. Queixalós identifies
accusative patterns in applicatives, noun incorporation, and causative
constructions. Trying to explain the Katukina patterns in terms of traditional
grammatical relations as defined by subject and object categories, Queixalós
argues that in this language in a transitive clause ''the patient is a subject,
and the agent is an object'' (p. 261). Queixalós concludes with a discussion on
diachrony affirming that the shift to ergativity in Katukina is a recent event.
He further provides an explanation for why ergative alignment patterns are less
frequent in the world's languages.

Katharina Haude examines argument encoding in Movima in ''The intransitive basis
of Movima clause structure''. Movima is an isolate spoken in Bolivia. According
to Haude, argument encoding is based on a salience hierarchy including deictic,
semantic, and pragmatic factors, and participant roles are indicated by a direct
and inverse system marked on the predicate. Movima shows an unusual
split-ergative system whereby the direct construction (the most frequent and
pragmatically unmarked construction) patterns ergatively and the inverse
construction patterns accusatively. Moreover, Haude finds that only the
obviative (= second constituent after the predicate) can be relativized or
topicalized. In order to relativize the proximate (=first constituent after the
predicate), a valence-decreasing operation is needed: the voice particle 'kaw'
is added, and the proximate becomes the single argument in an intransitive
clause. Haude shows that main clauses in Movima are parallel to predicate
nominal clauses where the predicate is a possessed noun. Viewing all verbal
clauses as originating from equational intransitive predicate nominal clauses
allows for an interpretation of all clauses in Movima as being intransitive.
Such an interpretation is possible due to the distributional similarities of
verbs and nouns in the language. Haude proposes that the proximate may have
originated from a modifier similar to a possessor leaving the obviative as
historically the only core argument. This explains its privileged syntactic status.


This fine collection of papers demonstrates the importance of examining
first-hand discourse data to shape current linguistic theory, as each author --
after meticulously describing and discussing ergative patterns in a particular
language or language family -- questions or further defines established
linguistic categories. While some papers clearly emphasize their contribution to
theory (Fleck, Gildea and de Castro Alves, Haude), others remain primarily
descriptive in nature and could be enhanced by highlighting their theoretical
contribution. Nevertheless, the volume as a whole clearly makes a significant
contribution toward revising, shaping, and refining established linguistic
categories. For instance, all authors indicate that identification of
traditional grammatical relations is problematic for the language or languages
studied. This proves that clause structures attested in Amazonia are relevant to
current and future linguistic typology, and more generally that examining and
publishing data from understudied languages is essential to shape linguistic

Haspelmath (2007) argues that categories with the same label in two languages
are never identical and sometimes not even particularly similar. Therefore, it
is important to reinforce all discussions with sufficient data from naturally
occurring language to allow for replication and future re-evaluation of any
claims made. In this volume, all points made are thoroughly illustrated by an
abundance of examples stemming from both discourse and elicitation data. In
fact, the authors often refer to their previous and extensive work on a
language, making it clear that they have thoroughly studied the language being
discussed. While I highly welcome this data-driven approach, it is unfortunate
that the explanation of the glosses is treated differently in each paper.
Glosses are either discussed in a footnote at the beginning of a paper, they are
included in the endnotes of a particular article, or an explanation of glosses
is lacking altogether. This book would have benefited from a general list of
glosses adopted for the entire volume and included at the beginning or end of
the book. If this is not possible due to established glossing traditions for a
particular language or language family, a more consistent presentation could
have been adopted, such that the reader would always know where to find
explanations for glosses. Another minor inconsistency occurs in the format of
the articles: not all papers include a brief abstract at the beginning. Despite
these minor shortcomings this book is certainly a significant addition to
studies in ergativity.

Moreover, it has to be noted that, as with many other published selections of
papers, the volume is limited to treating a set of selected languages rather
than representing an exhaustive study of ergativity in Amazonia. Nonetheless, it
is a first step toward including languages of this understudied geographic
region in typological and theoretical discussions of ergativity. The volume may
thus be less valuable as a complete work of reference, but any linguist working
on ergativity should consult this work. As the editors acknowledge, there is a
significant gap in the coverage of the region, since papers focusing on Tupian
languages are absent. In addition, further studies and more accurate language
descriptions focusing on ergative patterns in South America and based on
discourse data are necessary to examine grammaticalization pathways given that
detailed descriptions of synchronic systems offer diachronic insight. Several
authors propose diachronic explanations for the observed patterns, a first step
in that direction.

In sum, it is great to see more work come out of this highly underdescribed and
understudied geographic region and to have collaboration of researchers across
the globe. This volume is surely an important addition to typology potentially
inspiring further first-hand data-driven typological studies that challenge and
refine current definitions of ergativity and of linguistic categories.
Furthermore, I welcome the growing interdependent relationship between fieldwork
and typology, as evident from this volume, where new data from previously
undescribed languages and already existing data equally inform linguistic theory.


Dixon, Robert M.W. 1994. ''Ergativity''. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2007. Pre-established categories don't exist: Consequences
for language description and typology. In ''Linguistic Typology 11''. 119-132.

Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil, and Bernard Comrie (eds.).
2008. ''World Atlas of Language Structures Online''. Munich: Max-Planck Digital

Monrós, Eva. 2004. L'ergativitat a Amèrica. Fitxes bibliogràphiques. In
''Ergativity in Amazonia III'', Francesc Queixalós, 189-278. Paris: CELIA-CNRS.

Carmen Jany received her PhD from UC Santa Barbara in 2007. Since then, she holds a position as Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Spanish at California State University in San Bernardino. Her main research interests include linguistic typology, Native American and other endangered languages, morpho-syntax, phonetics and phonology, and language contact. Currently, she is working on the grammatical description of Chuxnabán Mixe, a Mexican indigenous language. Her dissertation was a typologically-framed grammatical description and analysis of Chimariko, an extinct Northern California language.