accusative and ergative languages

Patrick C. Ryan proto-language at
Tue Aug 3 22:25:40 UTC 1999

Dear Larry and IEists:

 ----- Original Message -----
From: Larry Trask <larryt at>
Sent: Sunday, August 01, 1999 7:25 AM

> On Mon, 19 Jul 1999, Patrick C. Ryan wrote:

> [on my list of typical subject properties in Basque]

>> Why do you not give us an example of these so-called subject
>> properties in some ergative language besides Basque?

Larry responded:

> I've chosen Basque because it is the ergative language I know the best,
> and I can speak with some authority here.  But most other ergative
> languages I've read about do not appear to be significantly different --
> though a few certainly are.

>> And how were these properties selected?

> Empirically.  See Ed Keenan's famous article in C. N. Li (ed.), Subject
> and Topic.

> [on my examples of reflexives and reciprocals]

>> Since '*Each other was talking to Susie and Mike' is equally
>> ridiculous, I fail to see any valuable point made.

> I'm afraid you have failed to understand the point of my examples.

> If transitive sentences in ergative languages were "really" passives,
> then the absolutive NP should be the subject, and it should exhibit
> typical subject properties, such as an inability to be reflexive or
> reciprocal.

Pat responds:

It is you who are missing the point. The absolutive NP in an ergative
language is the patient. Lacking an agent (which would be the ergative),
there is no possibility of a reflexive or reciprocal. It takes an agent and
a patient to tango the Reflexive or Reciprocal. Sumerian regularly expresses
reflexives: how? by putting the agent in the ergative and the patient (which
is the same) in the absolutive.

Larry continued:

> In Basque, however, absolutive NPs in transitive sentences
> can freely be reflexive or reciprocal, whereas ergative NPs cannot.
> It is only in intransitive sentences that absolutive NPs cannot be
> reflexive or reciprocal.  So, ergative NPs in transitive sentences --
> but not absolutive NPs in transitive sentences -- share the subject
> properties of absolutive NPs in intransitive sentences.  This is exactly
> the opposite of what is predicted by the "passive" theory, and it
> constitutes a nail in the coffin of that theory.

Pat responds:

I am unconvinced.  Of course an absolutive NP in a transitive sentence in
Basque can be the patient half of a reflexive or reciprocal. The ergative
would be the agent half. So what's the big deal?

Pat wrote previously:

>> Frankly, I am amazed. A reflexive requires an agent and a patient,

Larry responded:

> Sorry; not so.  Consider these examples:

> Susie saw herself in the mirror.
> Susie is annoyed with herself.
> Susie excelled herself.

> The first two certainly, and the third arguably, contain no agent, and
> the third one certainly, and the first two arguably, contain no patient.
> Yet all are overtly reflexive.

Pat responds:

Larry, this is patent nonsense.

In the sentence: "Susie saw the room behind her in the mirror", "Susie" is
certainly an agent and "room" is certainly a patient.  Your sentence is
exactly analogous. "herself" is the patient (a paraphrase for "Susie"), and
"Susie" is the agent.

In your second sentence, it is equivalent to "Susie[1] annoyed Susie[2]".
"annoy" is construed in English as a two-element verb (usually), of which
the first element is the agent ("Susie[1]") and the second element is the
patient ("Susie[2]').

It is incredible to find anyone, let alone a linguist, denying that any true
reflexive construction does not mandatorily contain an agent, which is
coterminous with its patient.

Pat wrote previously:

>> and a reciprocal requires two agents and two patients.

Larry responded:

> No; same problem:

> Susie and Mike collided with each other.
> Susie and Mike fancy each other.
> Susie and Mike resemble each other.

> Not an agent in sight, and not many patients, either.

Pat responds:

Agent: Susie; patient: Mike; second agent: Mike; second agent: Susie.

Larry continued:

> Reflexives and reciprocals are *grammatical* constructions, not semantic
> states of affairs.

Pat responds:

I suppose we could dance around the definitions of "grammatical" and
"semantic" but the fact is that, e.g. "reflexive" means simply: "a verb
having an identical subject and direct object".  The fact that you want to
extend "reflexive" into areas in which it does not belong based on
pseudo-reflexive constructions in some languages does not alter one iota
what a true reflexive is.

Pat wrote previously:

>> An intransitive verb, by definition, has only one NP element

Larry responded:

> Also wrong:

> Susie is sleeping with Mike.
> Susie smiled at Mike.
> Susie got ready for Mike.

> All intransitive, but all with multiple NPs.

Pat responds:

Well, it is my fault for leaving out the qualification "essential" or

Actually, I thought you might grasp that without the qualifiation.

Do you think there is a difference between:

"Joe is hitting" and

"Joe is sleeping"?

Or is it just a peculiarity of my personality that would make me ask:
"Hitting whom?" but NOT ask "Sleeping with whom?" ?


Pat wrote:

>> Of all the languages I have ever seen, Basque is, by a mile, far the
>> most "unusual" language.

Larry responded:

> Nope.

Pat writes:

Larry, I do not need nor want you to assume the prerogative of correcting my
expressed impressionistic opinions.

Larry continued:

> Except that its morphological ergativity is unusually
> thoroughgoing, Basque is not unusual in any respect I can think of.
> Basque is syntactically unremarkable and morphologically highly regular.

> Basque only becomes "unusual" if you insist on applying to it
> demonstrably fallacious views like the "passive" theory of ergatives.
> Only then does it start to appear bizarre.

Pat responds:

It is bizarre, in my opinion, because of its weird phonology, and the habit
it has of borrowing (according to you and Michelena) vocabulary from
everywhere for just about everything so that one is hard put to find
originally Basque words for anything.

> [LT]

>>> The "passive" view of ergative languages in general is indefensible.

Pat wrote previously:

>> 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.

Larry responded:

> Estival and Myhill, in Dixon's account of them, emphatically do *not*
> embrace the passive theory of ergatives: they only endorse the view that
> ergatives invariably *originate* from passives.  To my knowledge,
> Shibatani has never offered the slightest endorsement of the passive
> theory.

Pat responds:

Shibatni's endorsement is implied by his allowing Estival and Myhill to
publish under his aegis. Are you not the one who is forever complaining
about wrong-minded ideas being allowed to see the light of a printing press?
Would Estival and Myhill be published in a book under your editorship? Fat

Larry continued:

> As for the linguists of the past, well, they didn't know much syntax,
> and they got it badly wrong -- as we now realize.

> The linguists of the past frequently believed in all sorts of crazy
> things which we have long since laid to rest: stadialism, linguistic
> Darwinism, primitive languages, all sorts of things.  Even the great
> Otto Jespersen, to cite just one name, believed in primitive languages
> and in absolute progress in grammatical systems.  But nobody believes in
> this stuff today.

> Linguistics has moved on in the last few decades, and in our
> understanding of syntax as much as in any other area.

Pat responds:

And will continue to move on, past you and many who preside now.


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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