ergatives and topics

Alec Coupe A.Coupe at LATROBE.EDU.AU
Wed Jul 16 08:36:49 UTC 2008

Dear Claire,
>From a distinctly Tibeto-Burman perspective, another possibility is that
an oblique case marker (typically an instrumental or ablative) develops
a number of extended functions, some of which are pragmatic. The
reanalysed morpheme may be employed in a more abstract function to
disambiguate the semantic roles of two core arguments of a transitive
clause (especially when both referents are animate), to mark a
contrastive topic, to encode that a referent is acting in a socially
marked manner, or to signal that a referent is acting with increased
agentivity in a given instance of reporting. These pragmatic marking
functions are variously demonstrated by agentive markers in Ao, Meithei
and Tibetan; similar motivations for core case marking are also reported
in some Papuan languages. I assume that the non-systematic use of core
case marking encountered in TB languages - particularly in Ao and
Meithei - is not representative of morphological ergativity (in the
sense of Dixon 1994), but plausibly might provide a pathway for the
development of a canonical ergative marking pattern, such as that
reported in Dolakha Newar (Genetti 2007). Thus, it seems more likely (at
least in TB languages) that pragmatically-motivated marking provides a
source for canonical ergative marking, rather than the converse.
Pragmatic uses of agentive/ergative markers are discussed in the
following publications:
Anderson, Neil and Martha Wade. 1988. Ergativity and control in Folopa.
'Language and linguistics in Melanesia' 19:1-16.
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.
Tournadre, Nicolas. 1991. The rhetorical use of the Tibetan ergative.
'Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area' 14.1: 93-108.
Other references:
Dixon, R.M.W. 1994. 'Ergativity' Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Genetti, Carol. 2007. 'A grammar of Dolakha Newar (Mouton Grammar
Library 	40). Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Kind regards,


Alec Coupe, PhD
Linguistics Program
La Trobe University
Victoria 3086

Tel  +61 3 9479-3297
Fax +61 3 9479-1520
web page:

-----Original Message-----
From: Discussion List for ALT [mailto:LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG]
On Behalf Of Claire Bowern
Sent: Sunday, 13 July 2008 8:24 PM
Subject: ergatives and topics

Hello everyone,
I'm collecting examples of ergative case markers being reanalysed as 
topic or focus markers. I know of the Jingulu case as described by Rob 
Pensalfini, but other examples would be useful.
Claire Bowern

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