Ergativity: The Secret of Languages without Subjects

by Hélène Gérardin

Who doesn’t recall their first grammar lessons and the enchantment of the terms – “subject”, “object”, “verb” – heard the earliest classes, never to escape the ears of language and grammar enthusiasts? What if, despite their ubiquity, these terms weren’t truly universal? What if some languages didn’t allow the subject to be defined as easily as our grammar classes seem to imply? At the heart of this question lies the mystery of ergativity.

To understand the scope of the issue, we need to think back to the first English grammar lessons we had at school. There we are instilled with an indisputable truth that “the subject is the element of the sentence which carries out the action” and that “the object is the element which undergoes it”. These certainties continue to guide us as we explore the corollaries of these definitions: “the verb agrees with its subject and not with its object”. Subsequently, when later studying languages with declension, we persist in the same direction: “the subject is marked in the nominative case and the object in the accusative case”.

There are numerous examples illustrating this framework:

(1)

English

Latin

Russian

The man

Vir

Mužčina

Subject (nominative)

arrives.

venit.

prixodit.

Verb

(2)

Français

Latin

Russian

The man

Vir

Mužčina

Subject (nominative)

builds

aedificat

stroit

Verb

a house.

dom-um.

dom.

Object (accusative)

However, this framework and these definitions are not universally applicable; they merely reflect what is known as an “accusative” system. Many languages operate under different systems; these are called ergative languages, and they are characterised by an “ergative” system. Ergativity manifests across diverse language families and regions, including Basque, Caucasian languages, Mayan languages, numerous Amerindian, Australian, Siberian, and Indo-Aryan languages, to name a few.

In ergative languages, there is no single category termed “subject”, and this affects the distribution of cases. What makes ergative languages different from accusative languages is the fact that the former establish a fundamental dichotomy between intransitive verbs (which do not take a direct object, as in (1)) and transitive verbs (which take a direct object, as in (2)). Consequently, the nominative case is used to denote what in English corresponds to the subject for intransitive verbs and the object for transitive verbs. Conversely, another case (commonly referred to as ergative) is used to mark the subject of transitive verbs. As for the verb, it aligns with the element marked in the nominative case, regardless of its function (as either subject or object).

Laz, a South Caucasian language, illustrates an ergative system through the two example sentences cited above:

(3) ‘The man arrives.’

Laz

k’oči

Subject (nominative)

mulun.

Verb

(4) ‘The man builds a house.’

Laz

k’oči-k

Subject (ergative)

k’odums

Verb

oxori.

Object (nominative)

Some languages exhibit the coexistence of both systems. For instance, Svan, another South Caucasian language, features an accusative system in the present and an ergative system in the past.

Present :

(5) ‘The man arrives.’

Svan

māre

Subject (nominative)

anγri.

Verb

(6) ‘The man builds a house.’

Svan

māre

Subject (nominative)

agem

Verb

kor-s.

Object (accusative-dative)

Passé :

(7) ‘The man arrived.’

Svan

māre

Subject (nominative)

anqäd.

Verb

(8) ‘The man built a house.’

Svan

māre-m

Subject (nominative)

adge

Verb

kor.

Object (nominative)

This is the secret of ergativity, a phenomenon – and here lies another yet unexplored mystery – that spans the entire globe, with a particular fondness for mountainous regions. The Caucasus stands as a prime illustration.

Hélène Gérardin, INALCO and ILARA, lecturer of linguistics and Kartvelian languages

Hélène Gérardin is a graduate of ENS – Ulm and a member of the SeDyl research team. She defended a PhD dissertation entitled Primary and derived intransitive verbs in Georgian: morphosyntactic, semantic and derivational description, at Sorbonne Paris Cité.

For further information

Video by Hélène Gérardin focussing on Kartvelian languages, as part of the Introductions series of ILARA Online.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
ILARA (September 12, 2023). Ergativity: The Secret of Languages without Subjects. ILARA, the Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/vvav


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