Ergatives and Topics: summary

Claire Bowern clairebowern at GMAIL.COM
Tue Aug 5 00:01:13 UTC 2008

Many thanks to everyone who responded to my query about ergativity and
topic marking, and apologies for the delay in responding to both
individual and group postings.

My original query was in relation to the reanalysis of ergative case
markers as topic or focus markers (I was deliberately vague about the
discourse use). The responses I received fell into three areas.

First, a number of people pointed out that topic/focus to ergative is
much more common than the reverse, and several people specifically
mentioned pragmatic ergative marking in Tibeto-Burman (e.g. Genetti
2007, Coupe 2007, Chelliah 1997). Scott DeLancey, Balthasar Bickel, Alec
Coupe, Frans Plank and Andrej Malchukov sent references which I've
combined below.

Andrej Malchukov mentioned Bill McGregor and optional ergativity. The
type of ergative marking that Bill McGregor talks about for Nyulnyulan
languages is a little different from this. It's particularly used in my
experience for unusual participants (e.g. low-animacy participants doing
typically high-animacy activities) or to suggest volition. It is
independent of focal word order, for example.

Second, John Peterson mentioned onlist a case of L2 focal usage of an
ergative marker, where in L2 Hindi there are uses of the ergative as a
focus marker (John mentions Santali). Perhaps related to this are the
cases of reanalysis under language attrition or intense contact, such as
the Jingulu example, Gurindji Kriol and Light Warlpiri (O'Shannessy
2005). A number of publications from the Aboriginal Child Language
Acquisition Project are relevant here

A third point that came up -- e.g. from Jean-Christophe Verstraete --
was that a lot of ergative marking already has discourse uses of various
types and that it's difficult to distinguish the priority of grammatical
function or discourse uses, since the two coexist.

Many thanks again to all who responded.


Anderson, Neil and Martha Wade. 1988. Ergativity and control in Folopa.
'Language and linguistics in Melanesia' 19:1-16.

Bickel, B. (1999). From ergativus absolutus to topic marking in Kiranti:
a typological perspective. Proceedings of the 25th Annual Meeting of the
Berkeley Linguistics Society, 38 – 49.

Chelliah, Shobhana. 1997. 'A Grammar of Meithei' (Mouton Grammar Library
17).    Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Coupe, A.R. 'A grammar of Mongsen Ao' (Mouton Grammar Library 39).
Berlin  and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Foley, William A. 1986. 'The Papuan languages of New Guinea.' Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Genetti, Carol. 2007. 'A grammar of Dolakha Newar (Mouton Grammar
Library 40). Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

LaPolla, Randy.  1995.  'Ergative' marking in Tibeto-Burman.  pp.
189-228 in Nishi, Yoshio, James Matisoff, and Yasuhiko Nagano, eds., New
horizons in Tibeto-Burman morphosyntax. (Senri Ethnological Studies 41).
  Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.

Malchukov, A. 2008. 2008. “Animacy and asymmetries in differential case
marking”. /Lingua/ 118, 203-221.

Plank, F. 1979 Ergativity: towards a theory of grammatical relations.
London: Academic Press

Saxena, Anju.  To appear.  Optional ergative as a discourse marker in
Himalayan languages.  Lingua.

Tournadre, Nicolas. 1991. The rhetorical use of the Tibetan ergative.
'Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area' 14.1: 93-108.

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