Monday, November 30, 2009

Ergative Languages

Languages such as English are classified as nominative-accusative or simply accusative languages. However, a number of languages are classified as ergative-absolutive or simply ergative languages. Ergative languages are very different from accusative languages.

In accusative languages the subject of a transitive verb and intransitive verb are the same. The object of a transitive verb is different and is thus marked differently. This is illustrated by the sentences "He knows her" and "He is sleeping". In the sentence "She met him yesterday", the object "him" is marked differently from the subject "He".

In ergative languages the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are the same. It is the subject of a transitive verb which is marked differently. In an ergative language, the subject of the sentences "He knows her" and "He is sleeping" are different. In the sentence "He is sleeping", the subject "He" is marked the same as the object in the sentence "She met him yesterday". However, the subject in a sentence such as "He knows her" is marked differently.

The subject of an intransitive verb can be analyzed as a patient or experiencer. In contrast, the subject of a transitive verb is an agent. In ergative languages, the patient is marked the same as the object.

The subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are referred to as the absolutive in an ergative language. The subject of a transitive verb is referred to as the ergative. In an accusative language, the subject of a transitive and intransitive verb is referred to as the nominative and the object of a transitive verb is referred to as the accusative.

In an accusative language such as English, the agent and the experiencer are marked the same and the object is different. In an ergative language such as Basque, the experiencer and the object are marked the same and the agent is different.

How would English look if it were an ergative language? Let us take the examples "He knows her", "He is sleeping" and "He met her yesterday" to exemplify. The subject of "He is sleeping" and the object of "He met her yesterday" would be marked the same. However, the subject of "He met her yesterday" would be marked differently.

If English were a hypothetical ergative language, the previous examples would look as follows:

He is sleeping.
*Him met she yesterday.
*Him knows she.

The asterisk is used to mark an ungrammatical sentence. In the examples we notice that the subject of the intransitive in "He is sleeping" is the same as the object of the transitive in "Him met she yesterday". In these examples, the subject of the intransitive and the object of the transitive are both subject pronouns.

Ergative languages are very different from accusative languages. Basque and Georgian are two of the world's ergative languages. In ergative languages, the distinction between subject and object of accusative languages is not made. Rather, the distinction is between agent and patient which is also known as agent and experiencer.

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