Ergativity and causativity

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0


I. Ergativity

I.1 Introduction

The term ‘ergativity’ is used to describe a grammatical pattern in which there is a formal parallel between the object of a transitive clause and the subject of an intransitive clause. The subject of the transitive clause, however, is treated differently. Dixon, in his standard survey of ergativity, uses the following symbols for these three elements: S = intransitive subject, A = transitive subject, and O = transitive object (1994 : 6)[1].

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Initially, the term ‘ergativity’ was only associated with case marking on constituents of a noun phrase. Manning summarises this as folllows: “The more patient-like argument of a transitive verb appears in the same absolutive case[2] as the single argument of an intransitive verb, while the more agent-like argument of a transitive verb is marked differently, in what is known as the ergative case” (1996 : 3). Thus, ergativity is the counterpiece to accusativity, where one case is employed for the intransitive (S) and the transitive subject (A) (nominative) and another case marks the transitive object (O) (accusative).

The term ‘ergativity’ derives from the Greek words ergon ‘work, deed’ and ergátēs ‘doer (of an action)’ (Bussmann 1996 : 151) and thus relates to the active – the “more agent-like” – member of the pair involved in a transitive structure. Dixon states that the first use of this term was in 1912 in a study on the Dagestanian language Rutul (1994 : 3).[3]

I.2 Absolutive-ergative system vs. other systems

From the point of view of nominative-accusative languages such as English or German the absolutive-ergative system is often treated as an exception. Indeed, in Europe there are only two languages (or language families) that show ergativity: Basque, which is fully ergative at the morphological level, and North-east, North-west, and South Caucasian. In Africa, as well, ergative languages are very rare. However, according to Comrie and Dixon, ergativity can be found in almost all parts of the world and nearly a quarter of all languages can be described as ‘ergative’ (1981 : 336; 1994 : 2).

Latin is an example of the nominative-accusative system because S and A are treated alike and O is treated differently:[4]

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

All the sentences show the same case inflection for S in (3) and (4) and A in (5) and (6), i.e. –us for nominative singular. The transitive object O in (5) and (6), however, displays a different case inflection (accusative –um).

The following sentences in Dyirbal, an ergative language belonging to the Pama-Nyungan group, a part of the Australian language family (Dixon 1994 : 4, 9) exemplify how the ergative-absolutive system works:

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The nouns in (7) and (8), which are in the S function, and the nouns in (9) and (10) in the O function do not have an affix. They display the absolutive case, which has zero realisation. The noun in the A function in (9) and (10), however, has the suffix - ŋ gu, which is the ergative case ending (the affixes -n and - nyu indicate non-future tense).

Since in Latin as well as in Dyirbal the case ending of an NP defines its syntactic function, the word order can be changed without leading to a change in meaning. However, in transitive sentences of a nominative-accusative language the NP in A function (nom.) usually precedes the NP in O function (acc.). In ergative-absolutive languages the NP in O function (abs.) usually precedes the constituent in A function (erg.). Thus, Dixon concludes that the NP in the unmarked case is usually the left-most NP in a clause (1994 : 11).


[1] Comrie also uses the symbols S and A, but chooses P for the transitive object because he thinks that “A and P are reminscient of the semantic terms agent and patient” (Comrie 1981 : 333).

[2] Dixon points out that the case marking S and O was originally called ‘nominative’, but is nowadays referred to as ‘absolutive’ (1994 : 1).

[3] According to the OED, however, Lyons (1968) was the first to use this term, whereas Marouzeau (1943) introduced the corresponding adjective, i.e. ‘ergative’.

[4] The following examples are taken from (Dixon 1994 : 9-12).

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Ergativity and causativity
University of Freiburg  (English Department)
The Syntax and Semantics of the English Verb Phrase
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Ergativity, Syntax, Semantics, Causativity
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Regina Männle (Author), 2008, Ergativity and causativity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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