Ergative–absolutive alignment

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In linguistic typology, ergative–absolutive alignment is a type of morphosyntactic alignment in which the single argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb behaves like the object of a transitive verb, and differently from the agent ("subject") of a transitive verb.[1] Examples include Basque, Georgian, Mayan, Tibetan, and certain Indo-European languages (such as Pashto and the Kurdish languages and many Indo-Aryan languages like Hindi–Urdu). It has also been attributed to the Semitic modern Aramaic (also called Neo-Aramaic) languages. Ergative languages are classified into 2 groups: those that are morphologically ergative but syntactically behave as accusative (for instance, Basque, Pashto and Urdu) and those that—on top of being ergative morphologically—also show ergativity in syntax. No language has been recorded in which both the morphological and syntactical ergative are present.[2] Languages that belong to the former group are more numerous than those to the latter. Dyirbal is said to be the only representative of syntactic ergativity, yet it displays accusative alignment with certain pronouns.

The ergative-absolutive alignment is in contrast to nominative–accusative alignment, which is observed in English and most other Indo-European languages, where the single argument of an intransitive verb ("She" in the sentence "She walks") behaves grammatically like the agent (subject) of a transitive verb ("She" in the sentence "She finds it") but different from the object of a transitive verb ("her" in the sentence "He likes her"). When ergative–absolutive alignment is coded by grammatical case, the case used for the single argument of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb is the absolutive, and the case used for the agent of a transitive verb is the ergative. In nominative-accusative languages, the case for the single argument of an intransitive verb and the agent of a transitive verb is the nominative, while the case for the direct object of a transitive verb is the accusative.

Many languages have ergative–absolutive alignment only in some parts of their grammar (e.g., in the case marking of nouns), but nominative-accusative alignment in other parts (e.g., in the case marking of pronouns, or in person agreement). This is known as split ergativity.

Ergative vs. accusative languages[edit]

An ergative language maintains a syntactic or morphological equivalence (such as the same word order or grammatical case) for the object of a transitive verb and the single core argument of an intransitive verb, while treating the agent of a transitive verb differently. Such languages are said to operate with S/O syntactic pivot.

This contrasts with nominative–accusative languages such as English, where the single argument of an intransitive verb and the agent of a transitive verb (both called the subject) are treated alike and kept distinct from the object of a transitive verb. Such languages are said to operate with S/A (syntactic) pivot.

Ergative alignment (intransitive Subject and transitive Object treated the same way) displaying S/O pivot
Accusative alignment (intransitive Subject and transitive Agent treated the same way) displaying S/A pivot

(reference for figure:[3])

These different arguments are usually symbolized as follows:

  • A = agent of transitive verb
  • O = object of transitive verb (also symbolized as P for "patient")
  • S = core argument (i.e. subject) of intransitive verb

The relationship between ergative and accusative systems can be schematically represented as the following:

Ergative–absolutive Nominative–accusative

See morphosyntactic alignment for a more technical explanation and a comparison with nominative–accusative languages.

The word subject, as it is typically defined in grammars of nominative-accusative languages, has a different application when referring to ergative–absolutive languages, or when discussing morphosyntactic alignment in general.

Ergative languages tend to be either verb-final or verb-initial; there are few, if any, ergative SVO-languages.[4]

Realization of ergativity[edit]

Ergativity can be found in both morphological and syntactic behavior.[5]

Morphological ergativity[edit]

If the language has morphological case, then the verb arguments are marked thus:

  • The agent of a transitive verb (A) is marked as ergative case, or as a similar case such as oblique.
  • The core argument of an intransitive verb (S) and the object of a transitive verb (O) are both marked with absolutive case.[3]

If there is no case marking, ergativity can be marked through other means, such as in verbal morphology. For instance, Abkhaz and most Mayan languages have no morphological ergative case, but they have a verbal agreement structure that is ergative. In languages with ergative–absolutive agreement systems, the absolutive form is usually the most unmarked form of a word (exceptions include Nias and Tlapanec).[6]

The following examples from Basque demonstrate an ergative–absolutive case marking system:

Ergative language
Sentence: Martin etorri da. Martinek Diego ikusi du.
Word: Martin etorri da Martin-ek Diego ikusi du
Gloss: Martin-ABS has arrived Martin-ERG Diego-ABS has seen
Function: S VERBintrans A O VERBtrans
Translation: "Martin has arrived." "Martin has seen Diego."

Here represents a zero morpheme, as the absolutive case is unmarked in Basque. The forms for the ergative are -k after a vowel, and -ek after a consonant. It is a further rule in Basque grammar that in most cases a noun phrase must be closed by a determiner. The default determiner (commonly called the article, which is suffixed to common nouns and usually translatable by "the" in English) is -a in the singular and -ak in the plural, the plural being marked only on the determiner and never the noun. For common nouns, this default determiner is fused with the ergative case marker. Thus one obtains the following forms for gizon ("man"): gizon-a (man-the.sing.abs), gizon-ak (, gizon-ak (man-the.sing.erg), gizon-ek ( When fused with the article, the absolutive plural is homophonous with the ergative singular. See Basque grammar for details.[7]

In contrast, Japanese is a nominative–accusative language:

Accusative language
Sentence: 男の人が着いた Otokonohito ga tsuita. 男の人がこどもを見た Otokonohito ga kodomo o mita.
Words: otokonohito ga tsuita otokonohito ga kodomo o mita
Gloss: man NOM arrived man NOM child ACC saw
Function: S VERBintrans A O VERBtrans
Translation: "The man arrived." "The man saw the child."

In this language, the argument of the intransitive and agent of the transitive sentence are marked with the same nominative case particle ga, while the object of the transitive sentence is marked with the accusative case o.

If one sets: A = agent of a transitive verb; S = argument of an intransitive verb; O = object of a transitive verb, then we can contrast normal nominative–accusative English with a hypothetical ergative English:

accusative English
(S form = A form)
hypothetical ergative English
(S form = O form)
word order SVO SOV VOS
transitive nominative A accusative O ergative A absolutive O absolutive O ergative A
He kisses her. He her kisses. Kisses her he.
She kisses him. She him kisses. Kisses him she.
intransitive nominative S absolutive S absolutive S
He smiles. Him smiles. Smiles him.
She smiles. Her smiles. Smiles her.

A number of languages have both ergative and accusative morphology. A typical example is a language that has nominative-accusative marking on verbs and ergative–absolutive case marking on nouns.

Georgian has an ergative alignment, but the agent is only marked with the ergative case in the perfective aspect (also known as the "aorist screeve"). Compare:

K'aci vašls č'ams. (კაცი ვაშლს ჭამს) "The man is eating an apple."
K'acma vašli č'ama. (კაცმა ვაშლი ჭამა) "The man ate an apple."

K'ac- is the root of the word "man". In the first sentence (present continuous tense) the agent is in the nominative case (k'aci ). In the second sentence, which shows ergative alignment, the root is marked with the ergative suffix -ma.

However, there are some intransitive verbs in Georgian that behave like transitive verbs, and therefore employ the ergative case in the past tense. Consider:

K'acma daacemina. (კაცმა დააცემინა) "The man sneezed."

Although the verb "sneeze" is clearly intransitive, it is conjugated like a transitive verb. In Georgian there are a few verbs like these, and there has not been a clear-cut explanation as to why these verbs have evolved this way. One explanation is that verbs such as "sneeze" used to have a direct object (the object being "nose" in the case of "sneeze") and over time lost these objects, yet kept their transitive behavior.

Differing Noun-Pronoun Alignment[edit]

In rare cases, such as the Australian Aboriginal language Nhanda, different nominal elements may follow a different case-alignment template. In Nhanda, common nouns have ergative-absolutive alignment—like in most Australian languages—but most pronouns instead follow a nominative-accusative template. In Nhanda, absolutive case has a null suffix while ergative case is marked with some allomorph of the suffixes -nggu or -lu. See the common noun paradigm at play below:[8]

Intransitive Subject (ABS)





pundu yatka-yu

rain.ABS go-ABL.NFUT

Rain is coming.

Transitive Subject-Object (ERG-ABS)







nyarlu-nggu yawarda nha-'i

woman-ERG kangaroo.ABS see-PAST

The woman saw the kangaroo

Compare the above examples with the case marking of pronouns in Nhanda below, wherein all subjects (regardless of verb transitivity) are marked (in this case with a null suffix) the same for case while transitive objects take the accusative suffix -nha.

Intransitive Pronoun Subject (NOM)





wandha-ra-nyja yatka-ndha?

Where-3.OBL-2SG.NOM go-NPAST

Where are you going?

Transitive Pronoun Subject-Object (NOM-ACC)







nyini nha-'i ngayi-nha

2.NOM see-PST 1-ACC

You saw me

Syntactic ergativity[edit]

Ergativity may be manifested through syntax, such as saying "Arrived I" for "I arrived", in addition to morphology. Syntactic ergativity is quite rare, and while all languages that exhibit it also feature morphological ergativity, few morphologically ergative languages have ergative syntax. As with morphology, syntactic ergativity can be placed on a continuum, whereby certain syntactic operations may pattern accusatively and others ergatively. The degree of syntactic ergativity is then dependent on the number of syntactic operations that treat the subject like the object. Syntactic ergativity is also referred to as inter-clausal ergativity, as it typically appears in the relation of two clauses.

Syntactic ergativity may appear in:


Example of syntactic ergativity in the "conjunction reduction" construction (coordinated clauses) in Dyirbal in contrast with English conjunction reduction. (The subscript (i) indicates coreference.)

English (SVO word order):

  1. Father returned.
  2. Father saw mother.
  3. Mother saw father.
  4. Father(i) returned and father(i) saw mother.
  5. Father(i) returned and ____(i) saw mother.
  6. Father(i) returned and mother saw father(i).
  7. * Father(i) returned and mother saw ____(i). (ill-formed, because S and deleted O cannot be coreferential.)

Dyirbal (OSV word order):

  1. Ŋuma banaganyu. (Father returned.)
  2. Yabu ŋumaŋgu buṛan. (lit. Mother father-ŋgu saw, i.e. Father saw mother.)
  3. Ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. Father mother-ŋgu saw, i.e. Mother saw father.)
  4. Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, yabu ŋumaŋgu(i) buṛan. (lit. Father(i) returned, mother father-ŋgu(i) saw, i.e. Father returned, father saw mother.)
  5. * Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, yabu ____(i) buṛan. (lit. *Father(i) returned, mother ____(i) saw; ill-formed, because S and deleted A cannot be coreferential.)
  6. Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, ŋuma(i) yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. Father(i) returned, father(i) mother-ŋgu saw, i.e. Father returned, mother saw father.)
  7. Ŋuma(i) banaganyu, ____(i) yabuŋgu buṛan. (lit. Father(i) returned, ____(i) mother-ŋgu saw, i.e. Father returned, mother saw father.)

Crucially, the fifth sentence has an S/A pivot and thus is ill-formed in Dyirbal (syntactically ergative); on the other hand, the seventh sentence has an S/O pivot and thus is ill-formed in English (syntactically accusative).

Father returned.
father returned
S VERBintrans
Father returned, and father saw mother.
father returned and father saw mother
S VERBintrans CONJ A VERBtrans O
Father returned and saw mother.
father returned and ____ saw mother
S VERBintrans CONJ A VERBtrans O
Ŋuma banaganyu.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu
father-ABS returned
S VERBintrans
"Father returned."
Yabu ŋumaŋgu buṛan.
yabu-∅ ŋuma-ŋgu buṛan
mother-ABS father-ERG saw
O A VERBtrans
"Father saw mother."
Ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS mother-ERG saw
O A VERBtrans
"Mother saw father."
Ŋuma banaganyu, ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu ŋuma-∅ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS returned father-ABS mother-ERG saw
S VERBintrans O A VERBtrans
"Father returned and mother saw father."
Ŋuma banaganyu, yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu ____ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS returned (deleted) mother-ERG saw
S VERBintrans O A VERBtrans
"Father returned and was seen by mother."

Split ergativity[edit]

The term ergative–absolutive is considered unsatisfactory by some, since there are very few languages without any patterns that exhibit nominative–accusative alignment. Instead they posit that one should only speak of ergative–absolutive systems, which languages employ to different degrees.

Many languages classified as ergative in fact show split ergativity, whereby syntactic and/or morphological ergative patterns are conditioned by the grammatical context, typically person or the tense/aspect of the verb. Basque is unusual in having an almost fully ergative system in case-marking and verbal agreement, though it shows thoroughly nominative–accusative syntactic alignment.[9]

In Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu), the ergative case is marked on agents in the perfective aspect for transitive and ditransitive verbs (also for intransitive verbs when they are volitional),[10] while in other situations agents appear in the nominative case.









lar̥kā kitāb xarīdtā hai.


'The boy buys a book'









lar̥ke-ne kitāb xarīdī hai.


'The boy has bought a book'





lar̥kā khā̃sā.


'The boy coughed.'





lar̥ke-ne khā̃sā.


'The boy coughed (intentionally).'

In the Northern Kurdish language Kurmanji, the ergative case is marked on agents and verbs of transitive verbs in past tenses, for the events actually occurred in the past. Present, future and "future in the past" tenses show no ergative mark neither for agents nor the verbs. For example:

(1) Ez diçim. (I go)
(2) Ez wî dibînim. (I see him.)
(3) Ew diçe. (He goes)
(4) Ew min dibîne. (He sees me.)


(5) Ez çûm. (I went)
(6) Min ew dît. (I saw him.)
(7) Ew çû. (He went.)
(8) Wî ez dîtim. (He saw me.)

In sentences (1) to (4), there is no ergativity (transitive and intransitive verbs alike). In sentences (6) and (8), the ergative case is marked on agents and verbs.

In Dyirbal, pronouns are morphologically nominative–accusative when the agent is first or second person, but ergative when the agent is a third person.

Optional ergativity[edit]

Many languages with ergative marking display what is known as optional ergativity, where the ergative marking is not always expressed in all situations. McGregor (2010) gives a range of contexts when we often see optional ergativity, and argues that the choice is often not truly optional but is affected by semantics and pragmatics. Unlike split ergativity, which occurs regularly but in limited locations, optional ergativity can occur in a range of environments, but may not be used in a way that appears regular or consistent.

Optional ergativity may be motivated by:

  • The animacy of the subject, with more animate subjects more likely to be marked ergative
  • The semantics of the verb, with more active or transitive verbs more likely to be marked ergative
  • The grammatical structure or [tense-aspect-mood]

Languages from Australia, New Guinea and Tibet have been shown to have optional ergativity.[11]

Distribution of ergative languages[edit]

Prototypical ergative languages are, for the most part, restricted to specific regions of the world: Mesopotamia (Kurdish, and some extinct languages), the Caucasus, the Americas, the Tibetan Plateau, and Australia and parts of New Guinea.

Specific languages and language families include:





Certain Australian Aboriginal languages (e.g., Wangkumara) possess an intransitive case and an accusative case along with an ergative case, and lack an absolutive case; such languages are called tripartite languages or ergative–accusative languages.



Caucasus and Near East[edit]

Several scholars have hypothesized that Proto-Indo-European was an ergative language, although this hypothesis is controversial.[29]

Languages with limited ergativity[edit]

Sign languages[edit]

Sign languages (for example, Nepali Sign Language) should also generally be considered ergative in the patterning of actant incorporation in verbs.[32] In sign languages that have been studied, classifier handshapes are incorporated into verbs, indicating the subject of intransitive verbs when incorporated, and the object of transitive verbs. (If we follow the "semantic phonology" model proposed by William Stokoe (1991)[33] this ergative-absolutive patterning also works at the level of the lexicon: thus in Nepali Sign Language the sign for TEA has the motion for the verb DRINK with a manual alphabet handshape च /ca/ (standing for the first letter of the Nepali word TEA चिया /chiya:/) being incorporated as the object.)

Approximations of ergativity in English[edit]

English has derivational morphology that parallels ergativity in that it operates on intransitive verbs and objects of transitive verbs. With certain intransitive verbs, adding the suffix "-ee" to the verb produces a label for the person performing the action:

"John has retired" → "John is a retiree"
"John has escaped" → "John is an escapee"

However, with a transitive verb, adding "-ee" does not produce a label for the person doing the action. Instead, it gives us a label for the person to whom the action is done:

"Susie employs Mike" → "Mike is an employee"
"Mike has appointed Susie" → "Susie is an appointee"

Etymologically, the sense in which "-ee" denotes the object of a transitive verb is the original one, arising from French past participles in "-é". This is still the prevalent sense in British English: the intransitive uses are all 19th-century American coinages and all except "escapee" are still marked as "chiefly U.S." by the Oxford English Dictionary.

English also has a number of so-called ergative verbs, where the object of the verb when transitive is equivalent to the subject of the verb when intransitive.

When English nominalizes a clause, the underlying subject of an intransitive verb and the underlying object of a transitive verb are both marked with the possessive case or with the preposition "of" (the choice depends on the type and length of the noun: pronouns and short nouns are typically marked with the possessive, while long and complex NPs are marked with "of"). The underlying subject of a transitive is marked differently (typically with "by" as in a passive construction):

"(a dentist) extracts a tooth" → "the extraction of a tooth (by a dentist)"
"(I/The editor) revised the essay" → "(my/the editor's) revision of the essay"
"(I was surprised that) the water boiled" → "(I was surprised at) the boiling of the water"
"I departed on time (so I could catch the plane)" → "My timely departure (allowed me to catch the plane)"

See also[edit]


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  14. ^ Grenoble, L. A. (11 April 2006). Language Policy in the Soviet Union. Springer. ISBN 9780306480836.
  15. ^ Walker, Alan T. (1982). A Grammar of Sawu. NUSA Linguistic Studies in Indonesian and Languages of Indonesia, Volume 13. Jakarta: Badan Penyelenggara Seri Nusa, Universitas Atma Jaya. hdl:1885/111434. ISSN 0126-2874.
  16. ^ Michalowski, P. (1980). "Sumerian as an Ergative Language I". Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 32 (2): 86–103. doi:10.2307/1359671. JSTOR 1359671. S2CID 164022054.
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  18. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 April 2013. Retrieved 14 November 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) (Aniko Csirmaz and Markéta Ceplová, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zazaki is an ergative language)
  19. ^ (Zazaki is an ergative language, page 17-18)
  20. ^ Hoop, Helen de; Swart, Peter de (4 December 2007). Differential Subject Marking. Springer. ISBN 978-1-4020-6497-5.
  21. ^ Géraldine Walther (1 January 2011). "A Derivational Account for Sorani Kurdish Passives". ResearchGate. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
  22. ^ "What Sorani Kurdish Absolute Prepositions Tell Us about Cliticization - Kurdish Academy of Language". Retrieved 10 May 2016.
  23. ^ Walther, Géraldine (2012). "Fitting into morphological structure: accounting for Sorani Kurdish endoclitics". Mediterranean Morphology Meetings. 8: 299–321. doi:10.26220/mmm.2437.
  24. ^ Jügel, Thomas (17 September 2007). "Ergativität im Sorani-Kurdischen?" – via {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  25. ^ Chapter 5. Split ergativity (PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on 12 April 2013, retrieved 14 November 2012 (Sorani is ergative, page 255)
  26. ^ "Chapter 5. Split ergativity" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 April 2013. Retrieved 14 November 2012. (kurmanji is ergative)
  27. ^ Mahalingappa, Laura Jahnavi (2009). The acquisition of split-ergativity in Kurmanji Kurdish (Ph.D. thesis). The University of Texas at Austin.
  28. ^ Abstract. Laura J. Mahalingappa - University of Texas at Austin
  29. ^ Bavant, Marc (2008). "Proto-Indo-European Ergativity... Still To Be Discussed". Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics. 44 (4): 433–447. doi:10.2478/v10010-008-0022-y. hdl:10593/7433. S2CID 55922477.
  30. ^ A. Mengozzi, Neo-Aramaic and the So-called Decay of Ergativity in Kurdish, in: Proceedings of the 10th Meeting of Hamito-Semitic (Afroasiatic) Linguistics (Florence, 18–20 April 2005), Dipartamento di Linguistica Università di Firenze 2005, pp. 239–256.
  31. ^ Khan, Geoffrey. 1999. A Grammar of Neo-Aramaic: The Dialect of the Jews of Arbel. Leiden: Brill.
  32. ^ MW Morgan (2009) Cross-Linguistic Typology of Argument Encoding in Sign Language Verbal Morphology. Paper presented at Association of Linguistic Typology, Berkeley
  33. ^ William Stokoe (1991) Semantic Phonology. Sign Language Studies, 71 ,107–114.


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