Split ergativity

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Split ergativity is shown by languages that have a partly ergative behaviour but employ another syntax or morphology, usually accusative, in some contexts. In fact, most of the so-called ergative languages are not pure but split-ergative.

Split conditions[edit]

The split is usually conditioned by one of these:

  1. The presence of a discourse participant (a first or second person) in the proposition. The Australian language Dyirbal behaves ergatively in all morphosyntactic contexts, except when one of these is involved. When a first or second person pronoun appears, however, it is marked according to a nominative–accusative pattern (with the least marked case when it is the agent or intransitive, and with the most marked case when it is the patient). This can be explained in terms of the high animacy of a first or second person speaker in the animacy hierarchy.
  2. The use of certain tenses and/or aspects in the verb. The Indo-Iranian family, for example, shows a split between the perfective and the imperfective aspect. A verb in the perfective aspect causes its arguments to be marked using an ergative pattern, while the imperfective aspect triggers accusative marking. (Related languages and others always tend to associate past tense and/or perfect aspect with ergativity.)
  3. The type of marking involved. Some languages (including various Austronesian languages of New Guinea, such as Sinaugoro) exhibit an ergative–absolutive pattern with respect to case marking, but a nominative–accusative pattern with respect to agreement.
  4. The agentivity of the intransitive subject. In languages like Dakota, arguments of active verbs such as to run are marked like transitive agents, as in accusative languages, while arguments of inactive verbs such as to stand are marked like transitive objects, as in ergative languages. Languages with this kind of marking are known as split-S languages, and are formally a subtype of active languages.
  5. Pragmatic considerations or for emphasis, contrast, or clarity. In certain Tibeto-Burmese languages elicited data has consistent ergative, aspectually split-ergative, or active-stative case marking pattern, while in natural discourse the “ergative” marking is found only in some clauses, often a minority, usually with some pragmatic sense of emphasis or contrast (DeLancey, 2011).[1]


An example of split ergativity, conditioned by tense and aspect, is found in Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu), which has an ergative case on subjects in the perfective aspect for transitive verbs in the active voice, but in all other aspects (habitual, progressive), subjects appear in the nominative case:

लड़का किताब ख़रीदता है
laṛkā kitāb xarīdtā hai
boy-Msg.NOM book.Fsg.NOM buy-IMPERFECTIVE-Msg be.PRES.3sg [2]
"The boy buys a book."
लड़के-ने किताब ख़रीदी
laṛke-ne kitāb xarīdī
boy.Msg-ERG book.Fsg.NOM buy-PERFECTIVE.Fsg[2]
"The boy bought a book."

In the first sentence, the verb in present tense has the masculine ending , agreeing with laṛkā (boy), but in the second sentence, the verb in past tense has the feminine ending , agreeing with the feminine noun kitāb (book). "Boy" now appears as laṛke-ne, literally "by the boy".

In Columbia River Sahaptin the split is determined by the person of both subject and object. The ergative suffix -nɨm occurs only for third-person subjects when the direct object is first- or second-person.

ku=š i-q̓ínu-šan-a ína wínš-nɨm
"And the man saw me."
ku=nam i-q̓ínu-šan-a imaná wínš-nɨm
"And the man saw you."
ku i-q̓ínu-šan-a paanáy wínš
and 3NOM-see-IMPERFECTIVE-PST him/her/it man
"And the man saw him."

Another ergative suffix -in marks the subject in the inverse. Both subject and object are always third-person in the inverse.

Direct (same as above example):

ku i-q̓ínu-šan-a paanáy wínš
and 3NOM-see-IMPERFECTIVE-PST him/her/it man-ERGATIVE
"And the man saw him."


ku pá-q̓inu-šan-a paanáy wínš-in
and INVERSE-see-IMPERFECTIVE-PST him/her/it man
"And the man saw him."


  1. ^ https://www.academia.edu/3887136/_Optional_ergativity_in_Tibeto-Burman_languages
  2. ^ a b The morph-by-morph analysis has been simplified to show the features relevant to the topic of split ergativity.


  • Dixon, R. M. W. (1994). Ergativity. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-44898-0.