Ergative-absolutive language

From Academic Kids

Linguistic typology
Morphological typology
Analytic language
Synthetic language
Fusional language
Agglutinative language
Polysynthetic language
Oligosynthetic language
Morphosyntactic alignment
Theta role
Syntactic pivot
Nominative-accusative language
Ergative-absolutive language
Active language
Tripartite language
Time Manner Place
Place Manner Time
Subject Verb Object
Subject Object Verb
Verb Subject Object
Verb Object Subject
Object Subject Verb
Object Verb Subject
edit (

An ergative-absolutive language (or just ergative language) is one that marks the subject of transitive verbs distinctly from the subject of intransitive verbs and the object of transitive verbs.

If the language has morphological case, then the verb arguments are marked thus:

  • The subject of a transitive verb is marked with a case conventionally known as "ergative".
  • The subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are both marked with a case called "absolutive".

If there's no case marking, the language can resort to word order (for example, the absolutive argument comes before the verb and the ergative argument comes after it). For instance, Abkhaz has no morphological ergative case, but its verbal agreement structure is ergative.

The term ergative-absolutive language is considered by some unsatisfactory, since there are very few languages without any patterns that exhibit nominative-accusative alignment. Instead, they posit, that one should only speak of ergative-absolutive systems, which languages employ to different degrees.

See morphosyntactic alignment for a more technical explanation and a comparison with nominative-accusative languages.



The only ergative-absolutive language in Europe is the language isolate Basque. Note the following examples:

Gizona etorri da. "The man has arrived."
Gizonak mutila ikusi du. "The man saw the boy."

In Basque, gizon is "man", mutil is "boy", and a suffixed -a shows the definite form ("the"). You will notice that gizon is different depending on whether it is the subject of a transitive or intransitive verb. The first form is in the absolutive case (marked by a null morpheme) and the second form is in the ergative case (marked by a suffixed -k).

Georgian also has an ergative alignment, but the subject is only marked with the ergative case for transitive verbs in the past tense (also known as the "aorist screeve"). It also important to note that the ergative case only exists for the third persons. Compare:

Katsi vashls chams. "The man is eating an apple."
Katsma vashli chama. "The man ate an apple."

Kats- is the root of the word "man". In the first sentence (present continuous tense) the subject 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:

Katsma daatsemina. "The man sneezed."

Although the verb sneeze is cleary 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" did use 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.

Other languages that employ an ergative-absolutive system are:

Split ergativity

Many languages classified as ergative in fact show split ergativity, whereby syntactic and/or morphological ergative pattern are conditioned by some part of the grammatical context (typically the persons of the verb arguments, or the tense/aspect of the verb). Hindi has an ergative construction in the past tense but accusative in the present. Dyirbal pronouns are morphologically nominative-accusative when the subject is first or second person, but ergative when the subject is a third person.

Traces of ergativity in English

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:

"John has retired." → "John is a retiree."
"John has escaped." → "John is an escapee."
"John is standing." → "John is a standee."

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:

"Mike employs Susie." → "Susie is an employee."
"Mike has inducted Susie." → "Susie is an inductee."
"Mike has appointed Susie" → "Susie is an appointee."

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 "-". 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.)

See also

da:Ergative sprog de:Ergativsprachen eo:Ergativa lingvo fr:Ergativit ja:能格と絶対格


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools