In This Article Ergativity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Functionalist Approaches
  • Syntactic Ergativity
  • Antipassive
  • Nominalization and Ergative as Genitive
  • Experimental Work
  • Acquisition and Psychology
  • Universals

Linguistics Ergativity
Jessica Coon, Maayan Adar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0132


Ergativity refers to a system of marking grammatical relations in which intransitive subjects pattern together with transitive objects (“absolutive”), and differently from transitive subjects (“ergatives”). This ergative alignment pattern may be manifest, for example, in terms of morphological case marking on nominals, or patterns of agreement on the predicate. This contrasts with the more commonly discussed nominative-accusative–type alignment, in which both transitive and intransitive subjects pattern alike (“nominative”), and differently from transitive objects (“accusative”). This article uses the common abbreviations “A” for transitive subject, or most agent-like nominal; “P” for transitive object, or most patient-like nominal; and “S” for the single argument of an intransitive. While counts vary, some surveys estimate that ergativity occurs as a major alignment type in approximately one-quarter of the world’s languages (see General Overviews). However, as many authors have noted, it often does not make sense to speak in terms of ergative languages but instead in terms of ergative patterns or constructions. This is because ergative languages are frequently “split”: they show ergative in some portion of the grammar but nominative-accusative patterning in another (see Split Ergativity). Even canonically nominative-accusative languages may show ergativity in some constructions, such as nominalizations. Work on ergativity has increased steadily over the years as more research has been conducted on ergative languages, many of which are underdocumented. Important questions arise as to the notion of “subject” in an ergative system, since transitive subjects are treated differently from intransitive subjects, at least at a morphological level. Some morphologically ergative languages also display patterns of Syntactic Ergativity, in which some syntactic operations, for example A-bar extraction, is sensitive to the distinction between ergative and absolutive arguments. Other morphologically ergative languages appear to make no syntactic division between A versus S/P arguments, raising further questions about degrees of ergativity. Other research focuses on the existence of a single “ergativity parameter”; as more languages are investigated, many researchers have converged on the idea that “ergativity” is not a single unitary phenomenon with one underlying source but may instead be better characterized as a pattern arising by various mechanisms.

General Overviews

The sources in this section provide important overviews on a range of characteristics of ergative patterns. Topics surveyed include description and distribution of alignment patterns; morphological versus syntactic ergativity; case marking and verb agreement; split ergativity; connection to passives and historical development; and nominalization. Comrie 1978 and Dixon 1979 are two of the most frequently cited articles on ergativity. Both present overviews of the phenomena under investigation and survey data from a range of languages. Dixon 1994 is an expansion of Dixon 1979, bringing in additional data and generalizations. Moravcsik 1978 examines cross-linguistic distribution of ergative and nonergative patterns within languages, while Nichols 1993 looks at the geographical distribution of different alignment types in the world’s languages. McGregor 2009 provides a more recent survey, focusing on case marking patterns on nominals. While these articles avoid any specific theoretical framework, discussion of the semantic or functional basis of ergativity is present in many. The two articles in The world atlas of language structures online (WALS), Siewierska 2011 and Comrie 2011, provide basic cross-linguistic overviews.

  • Comrie, Bernard. 1978. Ergativity. In Syntactic typology: Studies in the phenomenology of language. Edited by Winfred P. Lehmann, 329–394. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

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    Important and frequently cited early article which provides one of the first general overviews of the phenomenon of ergativity. Examples from a number of different language families are provided.

  • Comrie, Bernard. 2011. Alignment of case marking of full noun phrases. In The world atlas of language structures online. Edited by Matthew S. Dryer and Martin Haspelmath. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library.

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    Chapters 98 and 99 offer an overview of morphological case patterns in nominals; includes discussion of ergative alignment.

  • Dixon, Robert M. W. 1979. Ergativity. Language 55:59–138.

    DOI: 10.2307/412519E-mail Citation »

    A canonical and frequently cited work on ergativity. Provides a data-rich and detailed survey of a wide range of topics in ergativity and presents a number of generalizations and trends found within ergative systems (see also Universals). Available online.

  • Dixon, Robert M. W. 1994. Ergativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511611896E-mail Citation »

    An important book developed from the Dixon 1979 article, providing additional updates and details. Discusses historical, semantic, and discourse-based motivations for ergativity and problems posed for theoretical work on ergativity.

  • McGregor, William B. 2009. Typology of ergativity. Language and Linguistics Compass 3:480–508.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00118.xE-mail Citation »

    Survey article with a special focus on patterns of morphological case marking on nominals. In addition to overview of basic topics, also discusses historical source of ergative case markers. Available online by subscription.

  • Moravcsik, Edith A. 1978. On the distribution of ergative and accusative patterns. Lingua 45:233–279.

    DOI: 10.1016/0024-3841(78)90026-8E-mail Citation »

    Surveys a number of languages and offers generalizations about the distribution of ergative and nominative patterns (see also Split Ergativity). Claims that no ergative system is ergative through-and-through. Available online by subscription.

  • Nichols, Johanna. 1993. Ergativity and linguistic geography. Australian Journal of Linguistics 13:39–89.

    DOI: 10.1080/07268609308599489E-mail Citation »

    Article examining the geographic distribution of ergativity, noting the uneven representation of certain alignment types in certain regions (see Languages by Region). Notes a close connection between ergative and active-stative alignments, which is proposed to be a transitional stage between ergative and nominative-accusative systems. Available online by subscription.

  • Siewierska, Anna. 2011. Alignment of verbal person marking. In The world atlas of language structures online. Edited by Matthew S. Dryer and Martin Haspelmath. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library.

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    Chapter 100 offers an overview of alignment type in terms of agreement on the predicate; includes discussion of ergative alignment.

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