accusative and ergative languages

Tue Aug 10 19:52:07 UTC 1999

Dear IE Gentlefolk:

In arguing with Larry, Pat wrote:

>> Second, the point that Leo is making about distinguishing syntactic
>> from morphological subjects needs to be addressed by you in terms of
>> "subject" properties.

Larry replied:

>I have already discussed this at length.  In a Basque transitive
>sentence, it is the ergative NP, and not the absolutive NP, which shares
>the subject properties of the absolutive NP in an intransitive sentence.
>As far as I am concerned, that is the end of the matter.

If Basque and Dyirbal were the whole story, that might be the case; my question
as to whether these syntactic properties are actually *subject* properties
would then be merely a matter of nomenclature.  But the reality is more
complicated, since in many languages, some of these properties belong to the
morphological subject, others to what I have called (in my Case Grammar
framework) the Highest Ranking NP (HRNP).  Consider German for a moment.
Reflexivization and many other syntactic properties are controlled by the
morphological subject, regardless of its "rank" in the Case Hierarchy.  But
word order in the "Mittelfeld" is, to a considerable extent, hierarchical, with
the HRNP leftmost.  Since German seems also to have a rule permitting the
morphological subject to be relocated to the start of the Mittelfeld, the
differences are not always apparent; but the following contrast may be

	1. Hat ein Professor dem Studenten geholfen?
	   'Did a professor help the student?'

	2. ??Hat dem Studenten ein Professor geholfen?

	3. ?*Hat ein Professor dem Studenten gefehlt?
	   'Was a Professor lacking for the student?'

	4. Hat dem Studenten ein Professor gefehlt?

_Helfen_ in (1) and (2) is agentive; the object is Beneficiary rather than
patient (hence the dative casemarking).  The higher ranking Agent is naturally
placed before the Beneficiary, even though it is indefinite.

_Fehlen_ 'to be lacking' has a Patient as subject; I analyze the surface dative
as Beneficiary (Experiencer in sentences where _fehlen_ means rather 'feel the
absence of; miss').  Both Beneficiary and Experiencer rank higher than Patient;
I believe this is why (4) is acceptable (surface order follows ranking), while
(3) is very poor (indefinite morphological subjects should not be so relocated;
(5), with a definite morphological subject, is, however, acceptable).

	5. Hat der Professor dem Studenten gefehlt?

It is very interesting to examine "subject" properties in languages of the
Philippines.  I'm working from memory, but if I remember correctly, about half
of the "subject" properties belong to the noun marked with _ang_ (a
morphological subject, though often called "topic"), and half belong to the
HRNP.  Since the two tend not to coincide, Tagalog syntax is interesting...

If I haven't fouled up the facts here, one must conclude that while one might
speak of a "syntactic subject" in German (even though some word order matters
work differently), there would be no point whatsoever in searching for a
syntactic subject in Tagalog, since the properties are evenly split.  If so,
then the term "syntactic subject" might best be abandoned for *all* languages,
since the terms "morphological subject" and "HRNP" appear to cover all cases in
all language types.

None of above is meant in any way to endorse Pat's view of ergativity, which is
indeed indefensible.


Leo A. Connolly                         Foreign Languages & Literatures
connolly at                    University of Memphis

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