Ergativity correlations

J. Clancy Clements (Kapil) clements at INDIANA.EDU
Sat Feb 7 17:31:56 UTC 1998

On Mon, 2 Feb 1998, Jon Aske wrote:

> Sure, some ideas make very poor topic candidates (those that are very low in
> topicality, such as non-referential ones).  On the other hand, all ideas can
> be the focus of an assertion in some context or another.  I'm not sure of
> what this has to do with ergativity.  Transitive subjects can be foci too,
> though less often than absolutive subjects, and for a variety of reasons,
> but not because they are A's as opposed to S's, i.e. not because of their
> grammatical category.  Grammatical relations/categories really cannot
> explain anything.

Here is my reasoning.  First, I'm assuming that frequency determines the
default position in Spanish, then secondarily the distribution of different
types of NPs, i.e. definite, indefinite and mass/bare plural NPs.  As you
pointed out, in Spanish intransitive clauses, one finds comparable
distribution between pre- and post-verbal subjects.  So, frequency as a
criterion doesn't help.  Next, if we look at the distribution of NP types
in pre- and post-verbal position, we find that all types mentioned above
appear postverbally, but not all types appear preverbally. This, as you
point out, is discourse related. It suggests, nevertheless, that the
default position for subjects in Spanish intrans. clauses is postverbal.

In transitive clauses, again because of discourse reasons, the subject
(which is mostly the topic) is overwhelmingly preverbal.  Here frequency
tells us that for Spanish transitive clauses, preverbal position is the
default position for subjects.

So, you find a pattern, apparent in the default position of the subject in
transitive and intransitive clauses, that is suggestive of an ergative
marking pattern in that trans. clause objects and intrans. clause subjects
have their default position postverbally, i.e. they are marked with the
same word order.  Now, does this mean that Spanish is an ergative
language. That's not what is being claimed.  The claim is that Spanish
exhibits an ergative marking pattern, even though this pattern is
accounted for by discourse-related arguments.

Postverbal subject word order is not grammaticalized in Spanish. Were it
to become grammaticalized, then one could speak of ergativity. The
reanalysis of passive marking in some languages leads to an ergative
marking.  There are, though, transitional stages in the process of the
reanalysis.  Spanish could be in a similar process with respect to the
position of its subject.

> > BUT in the marking of
> > DOs and IOs in Spanish, there is a Primary Object - Secondary Object
> > marking, and this is also found in the Castilian pronominal system.  Dryer
> > (1986) shows that such a system is analogous to ergative - absolutive
> > marking.  I'd be happy to give you references if you're interested.
> Perhaps you could give us some examples and what it is that you interpret as
> being analogous to ergative-absolutive marking in the Spanish pronominal
> system.  I am familiar with Dryer's paper, although I have more than a few
> problems with it, and Matthew probably does too now, but I'm not sure I see
> how it applies to this case.

PO marking marks monotrans. DOs and ditransitive IOs identically, just as
intrans. subjects and trans. DOs are marked identically.  In Spanish, you
have personal "a", which disambiguates subjects from objects in monotrans.
clauses.  If the subject and DO share key features, personal "a" marks the
DO. This disambiguation account works for almost all cases except for
cases where the DO is personified, as in *Visito a Paris* 'I visit Paris'.
In ditrans. clauses, the IO is marked with personal "a".
The crucial test is in ditransitive clauses with two animate objects.
Which object is marked?  It's the PO, i.e. the IO, as in *Juan presenta
Luisa a Marta*.  For pronominals, *le* marks monotrans. DOs (animate) and
ditrans. IOs in a number of dialects, (Castilian, Paraguayan, Uruguayan,
among others; so called LEISMO--- there's a lot more to be said because
issue of gender and animacy come into play here).  So, here again, you
find a marking pattern suggestive of ergative marking.

Clancy Clements

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