A quick tutorial on ergativity, by way of the Squid-Headed One

Ergative and its counterpart accusative are terms used in linguistics to talk about different kinds of languages. Here's a brief tutorial on the relevant concepts. (Note for linguists: Yes, I'm oversimplifying things and brushing past certain side issues.)

In English and other languages we call accusative, identical case endings are used for subjects of transitive and intransitive sentences, and another set of case endings is used for objects of transitive sentences. So we say "He ate brains" and "He died", but "Cthulhu ate him".

"He" (traditionally called the nominative form)is used for both intransitive subjects (abbreviated S) and agents of transitive sentences (abbreviated A), and "him" (traditionally called the accusative form) is used for patients (those on whom an agent acts) of transitive sentences (abbreviated P). Typically the nominative form is simpler than the accusative form. This can't be illustrated well in English, with its bare remnants of case; but the final -m of him and them is a case ending originally attached to the nominative forms he and they.

But in ergative languages like Basque, S forms are identical with P forms instead of with A forms. So in Basque we'd say (in literal translation) "He ate brains", "Him died", "Cthulhu ate him". The S+P case is called absolutive, the A case is called ergative, and it's the absolutive case that usually has a simpler ending. Most ergative languages are only partly ergative; Hindi, for example, is accusative in some verb tenses and ergative in others.

Now suppose we combine two sentences with "and", like this: "Cthulhu ate him and died". In English that sentence has to mean that it was Cthulhu who died, eh? But in Basque, it could only be interpreted as short for "Cthulhu ate him and him died", meaning that the unnamed eatee (sic) was the one who perished. This is called syntactic ergativity, and not all languages that are ergative in the above (morphological) sense exhibit it.

Chinese, on the other hand, is neither ergative nor accusative. Sentences that literally translate to "Cthulhu dropped the watermelon and burst" and "Cthulhu dropped the watermelon and was embarrassed" are equally valid, and Chinese speakers interpret them according to common sense. That is, "...the watermelon burst" (ergative) and "...Cthulhu was embarrassed" (accusative). Only the latter one reads properly in the English translation because English isn't ergative.

There are languages that use other schemes. Split-S languages use A forms for subjects of some intransitive verbs, and P forms for others. Fluid-S languages can use A forms or S forms as subjects of intransitive verbs depending on context. So "John slept" with an agent case ending on "John" would mean that John chose to sleep, or something like that; "John slept" with a patient case ending would mean it was involuntary. Sometimes it's about whether the S has control rather than volition.These two types are jointly called active languages.

In yet another type, dubbed Monster Raving Loony languages (that name is not official), there is one form for A and P and another form for S! Rushan (not to be confused with Russian) is one of this rare type.

The unusual word eatee that I used above brings up the -ee suffix, which shows just a little hint of ergativity in English. Typically, it makes a P noun out of a verb, like mortgagee, donee, and vendee -- as opposed to -or and -er, which make A nouns out of transitive verbs. But -ee can also be applied to make an S noun out of an intransitive verb, like absentee and escapee. We don't normally talk of absenters or escapers, because -er is ergative, whereas -ee is absolutive. (What to do with bargee 'one who poles a barge', I don't know, and doubt that you do either -- the OED calls it "apparently arbitrary".)


Anton said...

At least some of our English "ergative" participles (absentee etc) come from Romance reflexive verbs.

Luistxo Fernandez said...

Another view on Basque ergativity with death examples from a native point of view, in my blog: Murder is just transitive death.

David Marjanović said...

Is there a chance that the spelling is misleading on bargee? Maybe we're looking at the good old West Germanic nickname suffix?

John Cowan said...

The second edition of the OED (which predates the ergative theory) says:

-ee¹, suffix

Used in technical terms of Eng. law, was originally an adaptation of the of certain Anglo-French past participles, which were used as nouns. The existence in legal Anglo-French of pairs of correlative words like apelour 'appellor', apelé 'appellee', seems to have led in the first place to the invention of words in -ee parallel to those agent-nouns in -or which had been adapted in legal use from Anglo-French. Subsequently the terminations -or and -ee were freely added to English verb-stems to form nouns, those in -or denoting the agent, and those in -ee the passive party, in such transactions as are the object of legislative provision.

The derivatives in -ee however, unlike the AF. participial nouns after which they were modelled, have not usually a grammatically passive sense, but denote the 'indirect object’ of the verbs from which they are derived. Thus vendee is the person to whom a sale is made, indorsee the person in whose favour a draft, etc. is indorsed, lessee the person to whom property is let. With still greater departure from the original function of the suffix, payee denotes the person who is entitled to be paid, whether he be actually paid or not.

In a few cases the suffix has been appended, not to a verb-stem in English or Anglo-French, but to a Latin participial stem etymologically related to an English noun, as in legatee, a person to whom a legacy has been bequeathed.

2. The use of this suffix in law terms has been frequently imitated in the formation of humorous (chiefly) nonce-words, as jestee, cuttee, educatee, laughee, sendee, denoting the personal object of the verbs from which they are formed.

3. In a few words, as bargee, devotee, the suffix is employed apparently arbitrarily.

4. -ee also appears in the English spelling of certain nouns adopted from modern French participial nouns in , as debauchee, refugee.

-ee², suffix

Of vague meaning and obscure origin. In bootee, coatee, where it has a diminutive force, it may (though not very probably) be an altered form of -y (in Sc. -ie). In other words, as goatee, settee, the analogies that may have given rise to the suffix are uncertain.

GAC said...

I would still define Mandarin as an accusative language, mainly because outside of your example, it has accusative syntax. In fact, the complex sentence you mentioned is more about the fact that the subject has been dropped than anything else. Yes, English only allows pro-dropping if both subjects of a complex sentence like that are the nominative argument, but I'm not sure how far you can take that.

John Cowan said...

GAC, you have a point. Chinese is not only pro-drop, it's argument-drop generally: if a subject or object is obvious, there's no reason to say it.