An ergative-absolutive language (or simply ergative language) is a language that treats the argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb like the object of a transitive verb but distinctly from the agent ("subject") of a transitive verb.
The distinguishing feature of an ergative language is that it maintains an equivalence between the object of a transitive verb and the single core argument of an intransitive verb, while treating the agent of a transitive verb differently. This contrasts with nominative-accusative languages (such as English), where the agent of a transitive verb and the core argument of an intransitive verb are treated alike but distinctly from the object of a transitive verb.
The relationship between ergative and accusative systems can be schematically represented as the following:
Note that the word subject, as it is typically defined in grammars of nominative-accusative languages, is inapplicable when referring to ergative-absolutive languages, or when discussing morphosyntactic alignment in general.
If there is no case marking, ergativity can be marked through other means, such as in verbal morphology. For instance, Abkhaz and most Mayan languages have no morphological ergative case, but they have verbal agreement structure which is ergative. In languages with ergative-absolutive agreement systems, the absolutive form is usually the most unmarked form of a word.
The following Basque examples demonstrate an ergative-absolutive case marking system:
|Sentence:||Gizona etorri da.||Gizonak mutila ikusi du.|
|Word:||gizon-a||etorri da||gizon-ak||mutil-a||ikusi du|
|Translation:||‘The man has arrived.’||‘The man saw the boy.’|
In Basque, gizona is "the man" and mutila is "the boy". Gizon has a different case marking depending on whether it is the argument of a transitive or intransitive verb. The first form is in the absolutive case, marked here by a (-a) suffix and the second form is in the ergative case, marked by a -ak suffix. The core argument of the intransitive sentence and the object of the transitive sentence both have the same absolutive case, while ergative case appears only on the transitive agent.
In contrast, Japanese, a nominative-accusative language, marks nouns with a different case marking system:
|Sentence:||Otoko ga tsuita.||Otoko ga kodomo o mita.|
|Words:||otoko ga||tsuita||otoko ga||kodomo o||mita|
|Gloss:||man NOM||arrived||man NOM||child ACC||saw|
|Translation:||‘The man arrived.’||‘The man saw the child.’|
In this language, otoko, argument of the intransitive and agent of the transitive sentence is marked with the same nominative case ga. However, kodomo, the object of the transitive sentence is marked with the accusative case o.
To help understanding, we can simulate English as being an ergative language; Declension, as an example for pronouns, is due to the function of such pronoun in a sentence;
So, let’s remember: A = agent of a transitive verb ; S = argument of an intransitive verb; O = object of a transitive verb;
Thus, we have:
Accusative English (as it is)
I (S) have traveled.
I (A) have invited her (O) to go with me.
Ergative English (if it were so)
Me (S) have traveled.
I (A) have invited her (O) to go with me
In this last case (ergative) the declension for S and O is the same (Acc)
A number of languages have both ergative and accusative morphology. A typical example is a language that has nominative-accusative marking on verbs and ergative-absolutive case marking on nouns.
Kats- is the root of the word "man". In the first sentence (present continuous tense) the agent is in the nominative case (katsi). In the second sentence, which shows ergative alignment, the root is marked with the ergative suffix -ma.
However, there are some intransitive verbs in Georgian that behave like transitive verbs, and therefore employ the ergative case in the past tense. Consider:
Although the verb sneeze is clearly intransitive, it is conjugated like any other transitive verbs. In Georgian there are a few verbs like these, and there has not been a clear-cut explanation as to why these verbs have evolved this way. One explanation is that verbs such as "sneeze" used to have a direct object (the object being "nose" in the case of "sneeze") and over time lost these objects, yet kept their transitive behavior.
Ergativity may be manifested through syntax in addition to morphology. Syntactic ergativity is quite rare, and while all languages that exhibit it also feature morphological ergativity, few morphologically ergative languages have ergative syntax. As with morphology, syntactic ergativity can be placed on a continuum, whereby certain syntactic operations may pattern accusatively while other ergatively. The degree of syntactic ergativity is then dependent on the number of syntactic operations that treat the Subject like the Object. Syntactic ergativity is also referred to as inter-clausal ergativity, as it typically appears in the relation of two clauses.
Syntactic ergativity may appear in:
|Father returned, and father saw mother.|
|Father returned and saw mother.|
|Yabu ŋumaŋgu buṛan.|
|"Father saw mother."|
|Ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan.|
|"Mother saw father."|
|Ŋuma banaganyu, ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan.|
|"Father returned and mother saw father."|
|Ŋuma banaganyu, yabuŋgu buṛan.|
|"Father returned and was seen by mother."|
Many languages classified as ergative in fact show split ergativity, whereby syntactic and/or morphological ergative patterns are conditioned by the grammatical context, typically person or the tense/aspect of the verb. Basque is unusual in having an almost fully ergative system.
In Dyirbal, pronouns are morphologically nominative-accusative when the agent is first or second person, but ergative when the agent is a third person.
Some specific languages are the following:
Certain Australian Aboriginal languages (e.g., Warlpiri) possess an intransitive case and an accusative case along with an ergative case, and lack an absolutive case; such languages are called ergative-accusative languages or tripartite languages.
Many other languages have more limited ergativity, such as Pashto and Hindi (Indo-Iranian), where ergative behavior occurs only in the perfective, and Georgian, where ergativity only occurs in the aorist.
The Philippine languages (e.g. Tagalog) are sometimes considered ergative (Schachter 1976, 1977; Kroeger 1993). However they would better be considered to have their own morphosyntactic alignment. See Austronesian alignment.
English does show a trace of something that could be regarded as ergativity. With an intransitive verb, adding the suffix -ee to the verb produces a label for the person performing the action:
However, with a transitive verb, adding -ee does not produce a label for the person doing the action. Instead, it gives us a label for the person to whom the action is done:
The differing effect of the "-ee" suffix, depending on the transitivity of the verb, can be considered ergativity. (Etymologically, the sense in which "-ee" denotes the object of a transitive verb is the original one, arising from French past participles in "-é". This would still be considered the prevalent sense in UK English: the intransitive uses are all 19th century American coinages and all except "escapee" are still marked as "chiefly U.S." by the Oxford English Dictionary.)
English also has a number of so-called ergative verbs, which allow the object of a transitive clause to become the subject of an intransitive clause.