accusative and ergative languages

Patrick C. Ryan proto-language at
Tue Aug 3 15:03:06 UTC 1999

Dear Ralf-Stefan and IEists:

 ----- Original Message -----
From: Ralf-Stefan Georg <Georg at>
Sent: Thursday, July 29, 1999 5:47 AM

>> Pat responded:

>> I suggest you read it. "But we do still encounter scholars who insist that
>> there is a necessary diachronic connection, e.g. Estival and Myhill
>> (1988:445): 'we propose here the hypothesis that in fact all ergative
>> constructions have developed from passives'."  Are you suggesting that
>> Estival and Myhill are not "linguists", or that Shibatani, in whose book
>> this essay appeared, is not a "linguist"?  The quotation above is from p.
>> 189 of Dixon's 1994 book. What are you playing at?

R-S responded:

> Linguists can do wrong.

Pat responds:

I can do wrong. You can do wrong. Anyone can do wrong. And perhaps they are
wrong but it refutes the idea that only non-PhD "linguists" like myself can
hold such a view, does it not? That was the point, was it not?

>> Pat responds (on L.T's catalogue of subject properties):


>> If you are referring to the "tests" above, you have proved nothing.

R-S responded:

> This is much in line with what I said in  today's other post of mine. You
> see, you read, you understand (or don't), but you reject nevertheless.
> Always.
> The subject-property-test *is* sufficient to discriminate between ergative
> and passive constructions.

Pat resonded:

There is one mistake that you consistently make, Ralf-Stefan, and that is
you frame every discussion as if it were a *personal* contest between you
and your "antagonist". I am not interested in "beating" you, I am only
interested in hearing the best arguments on the other side of any issue on
which I have a position. The value of such discussions will not be that I
persuade you or you persuade me but rather that other readers, hopefully
more objective than either one of us, will weigh our respective
"Informationen" and reach an opinion of their own.

As far as the "subject-property test", it is not a "test" per se but a
definition. And the relationship it may be identifying does not, as another
poster mentioned, necessarily have to be "subjectiveness".

R-S continued:
> Again:
> Take an intransitive sentence in an exclusively accusative language. S-V
> S is, by convention, called "subject" (just a convention). It's semantic
> role can be one of the following: Agent, Experiencer aso. (some people
> insist on Agent being restricted to agents of transitive constructions, bog
> s nimi).
> Now, take a transitive one. A-V-O
> What accusative languages do is to treat S *and* A alike under all
> circumstances (there are such languages, i.e. split-free accusative-lgs.).

Pat interjects:
Oh, so "our" type of languages, accusative-type, can be *split-free* but
"their" type of languages, ergative-type, cannot be. Akkusativ ueber alles!

R-S continued:

> This leads to the notion that these languages know a macro-category
> comprising S and A, which most conventionally is called "subject" also, in
> compliance with western grammatical tradition.
> Now subjects have properties of various sorts, part of which have been
> enumerated by Larry Trask. The real list is longer, and you can expand it
> yourself. It is nothing more than a list of things which are generally true
> for "subjects" in these languages.
> Now, part of the things a passive formation does to a sentence is that the
> *subject* is now what was semantically the undergoer/patient (choose your
> favourite term) of the corresponding active sentence, an example:

> active: Stefan proves Pat wrong (active, A-V-O)
>         Pat is proven wrong by Stefan (passive, S-V[pass]-Agent-periphrasis)
> "Pat", in this passive sentence, has been moved to a position (not only in
> terms of word order), where it assumes all the functions commonly found
> with S. It has become the "subject" of the sentence, according to
> traditional terminolgy. The syntactic properties (partly enumerated by
> Larry, but the list is longer) found with "Stefan" in the active sentence
> are now found with "Pat" in its passive equivalent.

> Now let's look at ergative constructions:

> Again, we find intransitive sentences there: S-V (gosh, I'm starting from
> scratch, but I think I have to)
> And transitive sentences as well: A-V-O. What makes the construction
> ergative is, of course, nothing but the fact that S and O are treated alike
> in this language (or in some subsystems of this language).
> Now, in a morphologically ergative language, such a sentence may look like:

> A-erg V O-abs
> a passive sentence, we recall, looks like (word order irrelevant): S V
> Agent-periphrasis (P. is proven wrong by S., to take a random example with
> positive truth-value, however;-).
> Of course, ergative constructions and passives bear some resemblance: in
> both the (semantic !) Agent is morphologically marked, in both the semantic
> patient may be morphologically unmarked (this does not work when there is
> an overt accusative marker in the language, of course).  However, this is
> where the resemblance ends. In an ergative sentence like:
> Stefan-Erg proves Pat-Abs wrong we should expect, under the
> ergative-as-passive scenario, that subject properties remain with Pat (as
> in the "true" passive above); however, they rest with "Stefan".

Pat responds:

What you seem not to be able to grasp because of your unfamiliarity with
languages like Sumerian is that the ergative "subject" is frequently NOT
EXPRESSED. And, I am not even sure that "subject" is a useful term to apply
to relationships between ergative and nominative languages.

R-S wrote:

> This is the general picture only, and the test has to be carried out with
> real "ergative languages" of course, but this is what you will find. It is
> nothing less that the watershed between ergative constructions and passive
> constructions. It does not matter whether you accept the full list of
> "subject properties" enumerated. You may accept some and dislike others.
> With those you do accept, though, you will find this picture. The more
> subject properties you can bring yourself to accept, the more instances of
> the difference between ergative and passive constructions you will find.
> It's that easy. But you do have to look at complex constructions, not only
> at the minimal sentence.
> This does *not* mean that ergativity in some given language may not have
> come about via a passive transformation. It may. In order to claim the
> right of being accepted as a "real" ergative construction (and not the
> passive it may have been in an earlier life), the shift of subject
> properties to the Agent-phrase (the ERG-NP) from the Patient-phrase is
> crucial.

Pat responds:

Ralf-Stefan is going in a circle.

R-S continued:

> For a succinct demonstration that, what looked to some people like an
> ergative construction, but is rather to interpreted as passive, see my (and
> A.P. Volodin's) "Die itelmenische Sprache", Wiesbaden 1999, though I admit
> that we could have been a bit clearer on the issue. If anything, this
> thread has prompted me to write a clearer exposition of the relevant
> chapter in this book.

>> Pat responded:

>> Obviously, I do not think so. And Estival and Myhill (and probably
>> Shibatani) do not either --- not to mention the majority of linguists of the
>> past.

R-S continued:

> Estivall/Myhill/Shibatani should speak up for themselves. As for the
> linguists of the past, well, they are linguists of the past, if they had
> got everything straight already in 1890, what the hell are we doing here (I
> assume, that's what you ask anyway reading all this ;-).

Pat writes:

They have. And they wrote it so they would not be misinterpreted. As a
general observation, we often find that we have thrown out the baby with the
bathwater; and that is not modernity --- it is faddism.


PATRICK C. RYAN (501) 227-9947; FAX/DATA (501)312-9947 9115 W. 34th St.
Little Rock, AR 72204-4441 USA WEBPAGES: and PROTO-RELIGION: "Veit
ek, at ek hekk, vindga meipi, nftr allar nmu, geiri undapr . . . a ~eim
meipi er mangi veit hvers hann af rstum renn." (Havamal 138)

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