Unknown term for Ergative Languages

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Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Oil In My Lamp »

Good morning everybody. I have a couple questions about ergative languages.

I would like to know how a person who speaks an ergative-absolutive language knows or marks the difference between "The bears danced." and "The bears were danced.", or "The walls painted." and "The walls were painted.". Besides when there is obvious contextual evidence, how does one know which is which? Is there marking on the verb, specific verbs, or another way?

Also, what is this called? I do not know the name of this concept to look it up.

Thanks for all of your answers,

[:D]
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Salmoneus »

Equivalently, how do YOU know the difference between "the man swam" and "the man swam [the channel, etc]"? Between "the man collapsed" and "the man collapsed [the walls, etc]"? Between "the man danced" and "the man danced [the bear, etc]"? "The man painted" and "the man painted [the house, etc]"?

To you, it seems like it's important to distinguish "the walls painted" and "the walls were painted", but not important to distinguish "the man painted" and "the man painted". But that's because you speak a language that makes one distinction, but not the other.


Of course, as with nominative languages, ergative languages can avoid ambiguity by explicitly marking valency or a related category. And, as with nominative languages, even where there is no explicit marking, there can be expectations about the number of arguments - in English, a verb with no overt object is usually, except where context makes very clear otherwise, interpreted as intransitive (that is, if I say "the man painted", you'll usually assume I mean he's making a painting, and will only think I mean he's painting the wall of my house if context makes that very clear). And as with nominative languages, again, an ergative language can use periphrastic constructions to make these distinctions where necessary (eg English expressions like "make a painting", "do some painting", etc.

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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Ser »

Oil In My Lamp wrote:
26 Mar 2020 16:41
I would like to know how a person who speaks an ergative-absolutive language knows or marks the difference between "The bears danced." and "The bears were danced.", or "The walls painted." and "The walls were painted.". Besides when there is obvious contextual evidence, how does one know which is which? Is there marking on the verb, specific verbs, or another way?

Also, what is this called? I do not know the name of this concept to look it up.

Thanks for all of your answers,
[:D]
If we take "dance" to be an intransitive verb that can't take objects, that is, "the bears danced" is possible but *the bears were danced is non-sensical, then all I can say about this is that the topic of ergativity and the passive/antipassive doesn't matter for intransitive verbs. You would typically just get some kind of absolutive marking in "the bears danced". (Maybe you'll say that "the bears were danced" means something similar to "the bears were convinced/asked/forced to dance", but that'd involve the topic of causativity as well, and I'll ignore it at least for now.)

The topic of ergative-absolutive languages is about the alignment of intransitive and transitive uses of verbs, as in "the farmer shot the thief", "the farmer (made a) shot" and "the thief got shot": what similarities can be noticed between the three? The marking for the farmer in "The farmer shot" is a lot like "The farmer shot the thief", appearing before the verb with no changes in "shot", which leads us to think that the intransitive subjects ("S", by convention) are like transitive subjects ("A", by convention), and so the notation "S = A" shows up. Meanwhile, if we want to use the transitive object ("O"), that is the thief, as the one and only argument, we need to transform the verb (shot -> got shot / was shot), so clearly we don't have an instance of S = O here.

Regarding your question "Is there marking on the verb, specific verbs, or another way?", the answer is yes. You can find all sorts of things in natural languages.

Some languages have an ergative case and an absolutive case, for example, Lezgian (I think). In this kind of ergative languages, "painted walls-ABS" could be one way of saying 'the walls were painted', where walls receives absolutive case and the verb sees no change in comparison to "painted sister-ERG walls-ABS" 'my sister painted the walls'.

Some languages have no nominal case at all, but use verbal agreement to mark ergativity, for example, Coast Tsimshian. In this sort of ergative languages, "painted-3PL.ABS walls" could be 'the walls were painted', where "-3PL.ABS" is an agreement suffix like the -an of Spanish brillan 'they shine'. Compare this with an imaginary "painted-3SG.ERG-3PL.ABS sister walls" 'my sister painted the walls', where the agreement suffixes (-3SG.ERG-3PL.ABS) (and probably verb-subject-object order) clarifies what painted what when both nouns are present. It is also possible that the verb only agrees for the subject: "painted-3SG sister walls", "painted-3PL walls".

Some ergative languages, in fact probably more ergative languages than not, do both things at the same time, marking nouns and verbs, at least some of the time, for example, Basque and Inuktitut. Although as always, natural languages are more complicated than how I'm presenting them (Inuktitut treats transitive verbs as if they were intransitive if the direct object is indefinite, so in that language this topic involves transitives-with-definite-object vs. the other combinations, and furthermore the verbal agreement suffixes are fused with interrogativity or valency...).

There are presumably languages that rely on word order, using morphology only some of the time, but I don't know of any. We could imagine "walls painted" meaning 'the walls were painted' along with "sister painted walls" 'my sister painted the walls'.

So how do we say 'my sister painted' ('my sister did the painting'), you ask?

One way could be changing the verb (just like we changed "shot" -> "got shot" before), using the antipassive voice: "painted-ANTIPASS sister-ABS" 'my sister painted'. Another way, as you can see in my English rewordings ("the farmer made a shot", "my sister did the painting"), is to transform the original verb to an expression with a light verb meaning basic things like "do" or "give" or "bring" or "hit". 'My sister painted' could then literally be 'my sister gave paint', 'my sister hit (the) painting', and the like. Yet another way is to simply drop the full noun phrase, leaving verbal agreement as-is, as Coast Tsimshian does (in Coast Tsimshian, the equivalent of "painted-3SG.ERG sister" means 'my sister painted', contrasting with "painted-3PL.ABS walls" 'the walls were painted'). I'm sure there are other possibilities, perhaps switching the verb into an impersonal and adding 'my sister' with a preposition...

In my imaginary ergative language that uses word order, we could have "sister painted-ANTIPASS" for 'my sister painted'.

Note that "the bears danced" would still be different from "my sister painted". "Dance", we're assuming, is intransitive, but "paint" is transitive. So "the bears danced" would typically show the general pattern for intransitive verbs, with absolutive case in ergative languages ("danced bears-ABS", or "danced-3PL.ABS bears", etc.), but "my sister painted" would need the antipassive / the light verb construction / object dropping while retaining ergative marking, or some other change like that ("painted-ANTIPASS sister-ABS" / "did sister-ABS painting" / "painted sister-ERG").

By the way, it is entirely possible for ergative languages to have a passive voice. There may be a difference between "painted walls-ABS" and "painted-PASSIVE walls-ABS", perhaps the former implies that somebody carefully or legitimately did it, while the latter is more accidental or was done without permission, or something. Also, lots of ergative languages are actually split-ergative (that is, sometimes they're ergative-absolutive, sometimes nominative-accusative), so a passive is used in the situations where they are nominative-accusative.
Last edited by Ser on 26 Mar 2020 21:41, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Khemehekis »

Oil In My Lamp wrote:
26 Mar 2020 16:41
I would like to know how a person who speaks an ergative-absolutive language knows or marks the difference between "The bears danced." and "The bears were danced.", or "The walls painted." and "The walls were painted.". Besides when there is obvious contextual evidence, how does one know which is which? Is there marking on the verb, specific verbs, or another way?
Question: How could a bear be danced? How could a wall paint?
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Ser »

Khemehekis wrote:
26 Mar 2020 21:30
Question: How could a bear be danced? How could a wall paint?
I think he's asking how "the bears danced" is unambiguously distinguished from something that could look like "the bears" is the direct object. A sensical example would've been better, I gotta admit ("the king ate", "the king was eaten").
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by qwed117 »

So, in English, passive constructions differentiate between "Jim walked the dog", "Jim walked" and "the dog was walked [by Jim]".
In the transitive construction, there is an agent (Jim) and an object (the dog), meanwhile in the intransitive construction, there is only a subject, so when reducing the valency of the transitive construction we have to think about which transitive role is changing and what is happening in the corresponding intransitive construction.

So, in nominative-accusative English, we start with "Jim walked the dog". If we want to convert "the dog" into the subject of sentence, we use a marked passive construction, by converting the verb in the unmarked active construction to the past participle and adding an auxiliary "to be" in the appropriate tense-aspect category, to get "the dog was walked". If we want to convert "Jim" into the subject of the sentence, (theoretically), we use an unmarked antipassive construction and simply remove the object, "the dog". There's certain English verbs, termed "ergative verbs", where there is no mandatory marking of passive construction. One example is "baked", for example "the cake baked", "Sarah baked" and "Sarah baked the cake" have no mandatory syntactic marking of semantic roles in the intransitive construction. Instead, the semantic role in the intransitive sentences is derived from context, rather than from syntactic roles.


Now, English, being relatively isolating, is a unique case, since there's only syntactic marking. In Latin, there's minimal syntactic marking (in other words, there's free word order), and a relatively significant amount of morphological marking. For example, we can have PETRUS PRECĀTIŌNEM CANĒBAT "Peter sang a prayer", PETRUS CANĒBAT "Peter sang" and PRECĀTIŌ CANĒBĀTUR "A prayer is sung". Being a nominative-accusative language, like English, a similar phenomenon happens. "Peter" has the same case between the two sentences, and to denote the promotion of the agent to the intransitive subject in the antipassive, the object is merely omitted, while in the promotion of the object to the intransitive subject in the passive, the object's case is converted from accusative to nominative, and the semantic role is marked on the verb (the passive conjugation). In Latin, from my understanding, verbs are also more strictly semantically marked for transitivity and intransitivity than in English, which makes it hard to find a corresponding "ergative verb", if any exists, I do not know.

Anyways, the key thing that you should be getting from this is that I've shown two different ways to distinguish alignments, morphologically and syntactically.

Now, what is an ergative language? It's one where the object of transitive verb is treated the same as the subject of a intransitive verb. So what would we expect in a hypothetical "ergative English", where that's only syntactically marked? Well, with our example earlier, of "Jim walked the dog", in a hypothetical "ergative English" would have a passive that's just "walked the dog". That's the only way to treat the subject of the intransitive verb and the object of the transitive verb the same! Passive constructions in a hypothetical ergative language are completely unmarked! Meanwhile, the antipassive is marked, so we'd expect "was walked Jim" to mean what nominative-accusative English would say as "Jim walked".

But it's weirder than that. Ergative languages aren't a monolith, but for the largest part, very very few languages are absolutely fully ergative. Most ergative-absolutive languages have a set of scenarios where ergative-absolutive alignments are used, and a set of scenarios nominative-accusative alignments are used, and are considered "Split-S languages". The "most fully ergative-absolutive language", Basque, is morphologically ergative-absolutive... and syntactically nominative-accusative. With all this in mind, there's a variety of ways for languages to deal with these grammatical constraints. Below is a PDF that describes passives (but not anti-passives) in ergative languages, especially Tongan. The key takeaway that I got from it is that transitivity is more strictly lexical in ergative languages than, at least, in English, and so sentences like the ones we tested are not possible to find.

http://www2.hawaii.edu/~yotsuka/pubs/Ch8.pdf
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Oil In My Lamp »

Here is another example. Perhaps it makes more sense:

The tree was felled.
The tree fell.

Would they both be written like below:
fell tree-DEF
fell tree-DEF


I have a hard time understanding ergative grammar.

As @salmoneus said, how do I know the difference between certain transitive and intransitive verbs? Context and memorization, as well as possible valency marking, is suitable to me as the answer to that. So, it also could be the answer to my question as well.

@ser and @khemehekis, I agree, I probably should have given better examples than that.

In order to translate English ergatively, I have been converting most active English sentences to passive form before translating them into my ergative conlang. Are there any pitfalls I should be aware of with this practice?
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Ser »

Oil In My Lamp wrote:
26 Mar 2020 22:24
The tree was felled.
The tree fell.

Would they both be written like below:
fell tree-DEF
fell tree-DEF
"To fell [a tree]" is a different verb from "to fall (down)". You could say "to fell" is a specialized causative of "to fall" (because the event of the tree falling down is being caused by someone). This is not exactly related to ergative-absolutive grammar, but valency in derivations.

In your conlang glosses there, it seems like you have zero-derivation between intransitive "to fall" and transitive "to fell", so you end up with "fall tree-DEF" effectively meaning both 'the tree is falling down' and 'the tree is getting felled' under your ergative syntax. Your ergative-absolutive syntax is correct there, but you may or may not want to do something about that zero-derivation of causative verbs.
In order to translate English ergatively, I have been converting most active English sentences to passive form before translating them into my ergative conlang. Are there any pitfalls I should be aware of with this practice?
I suppose it's alright, as long as you remember that you only do that when you have one argument and the verb is transitive. You wouldn't do that for "the bears danced" if "dance" is supposed to be intransitive.

Also, as far as the Naturalistic School of Conlanging goes, almost all if not all ergative languages are split-ergative. So if you aim at naturalism you should probably add some instances of nominative-accusative alignment. On the same line of thought, different languages differ in verb valency. For example, in Coast Tsimshian, "go to [a place]" is a transitive verb, and you can even say the equivalent of "I-go-it" to say 'I'm going there'. You don't have to always rely on English. (Most artlangers care about naturalism, but technically you don't have to...)
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Oil In My Lamp »

Ser wrote:
26 Mar 2020 23:11
I suppose it's alright, as long as you remember that you only do that when you have one argument and the verb is transitive. You wouldn't do that for "the bears danced" if "dance" is supposed to be intransitive.
I have an honest question. Why would I not use passivity for intransitive verbs? Wouldn't it look the same anyway? Like this:
Danced bears-DEF (the bears danced)
Instructed me (I instructed/I was instructed)
Ate king-DEF (the king ate/the king was eaten)



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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by qwed117 »

intransitive verbs are things like "sit". You don't "sit a chair", or a "sit a pose". The concept of passivization (a valency-decreasing operation that removes the subject of a transitive verb) doesn't apply to intransitive verbs
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Reyzadren »

^Not really. One can passivate an intransitive verb in triggerlangs because passivisation does not decrease valency there. (For example, my conlang has passive intransitive verbs.)
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Oil In My Lamp »

So, if I make use of split ergativity, a sentence like "I instructed" could be made Nom-Acc and "I was instructed." could be Erg-Abs?

Would this work?
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Oil In My Lamp »

Reyzadren wrote:
27 Mar 2020 01:19
^Not really. One can passivate an intransitive verb in triggerlangs because passivisation does not decrease valency there. (For example, my conlang has passive intransitive verbs.)
Hi Reyzadren,
What is a triggerlang?
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Ser »

Oil In My Lamp wrote:
27 Mar 2020 01:39
So, if I make use of split ergativity, a sentence like "I instructed" could be made Nom-Acc and "I was instructed." could be Erg-Abs?

Would this work?
So far, it appears that you're not interested in working out reliable ways to disambiguate the roles of nouns in one-argument sentences (e.g. "the king ate" and "the king was eaten"), so I hardly see any reason to bother calling this ergative-absolutive alignment at all. You seem to want to have an "S = A or O" type of alignment, where you can't tell what role a noun has in a sentence where the verb has only one argument.

("The king ate the boar" and "The boar ate the king" are nevertheless clearly different, right? I'm assuming you're aiming at "S = A or O" but "A is different from O".)

I don't think there is any term for that sort of alignment, but that shouldn't really stop you... Just be clear that it's not one of the canonical types of alignment.

Also, to correct myself from earlier, I guess "fell" can be used the way you do if it doesn't mean "the tree is falling down" when it has one argument in your conlang, but rather "the tree is being felled down, is being forced to go down". So in your conlang, "fell guard-DEF" (where "fell" is English "to fell" in the present tense) = 'the guard is pulling (people) down, forcing others to go down' (the S = A interpretation) and 'the guard is being pulled down, forced to go down' (the S = O interpretation). Just like your example of "instruct 1SG-DEF" = 'I teach, instruct (other people)' and 'I am instructed'.

Presumably, then, you could have a different verb for 'to fall' for accidental falls? As opposed to falls where the thing falling is being acted upon by someone (S = O)... (I've been trying to make it clear that "The tree is falling" and "The tree is being felled"/"He is felling the tree" involve different verbs, at least in some sense, at least so that you consider whether you want to have zero-derivation causatives or not, but I seem to not succeed at thinking of a way to make it clear enough...).
Oil In My Lamp wrote:
27 Mar 2020 02:10
What is a triggerlang?
Look up "Austronesian alignment". (And pay attention when they mention that the basic voices are "symmetric". That means that passive voice, or whatever similar term they use, doesn't really take arguments out, or at least not any more than the active voice...)

Man, I feel we're really swamping Oil In My Lamp with new concepts here. And I thought I was being naughty enough already by mentioning both ergativity with word-order and ergativity with verbal agreement (as opposed to the tradition of discussing ergativity with only noun cases...).
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Khemehekis »

Ser wrote:
26 Mar 2020 21:34
I think he's asking how "the bears danced" is unambiguously distinguished from something that could look like "the bears" is the direct object. A sensical example would've been better, I gotta admit ("the king ate", "the king was eaten").
Yeah, that could work. You might say "The king was eaten" if barbarians or anarchists overthrew a kingdom and played cannibal with its monarchy.
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Salmoneus »

Reyzadren wrote:
27 Mar 2020 01:19
^Not really. One can passivate an intransitive verb in triggerlangs because passivisation does not decrease valency there. (For example, my conlang has passive intransitive verbs.)
However, this is probably a good reason to avoid using the term "passivisation" to refer to symmetrical patient-focus 'voices' in Austronesian languages.
[another reason is that he patient-focus voice is often better considered the default voice, so it's more a case of these languages having 'activation' than 'passivisation'; and a third reason is that some Austronesian languages, particularly of the Indonesian-alignment subtype, have both a symmetrical patient-focus voice AND a valency-decreasing asymmetrical passive]

Since this is a terminological issue, and the terminology to describe Austronesian languages is not settled in linguistics, you certainly can call a symmetrical patient-focus voice a 'passive'... (and then have to add this caveat whenever anyone says anything about passives generally)... but it's probably more helpful not to do so.


EDIT: Oil... you probably want to just ignore this post! One thing at a time...

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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Salmoneus »

Oil In My Lamp wrote:
26 Mar 2020 22:24
Here is another example. Perhaps it makes more sense:

The tree was felled.
The tree fell.

Would they both be written like below:
fell tree-DEF
fell tree-DEF


I have a hard time understanding ergative grammar.

The answer is... they could be.

And here's an important question to ask whenever a conlanger finds that two things that are distinguished in English aren't distinguished in their conlang: why is that a problem?

"The tree fell" and "the tree was felled" both refer to the same physical event - the tree falling over. The only semantic difference is that the latter hints that someone is to blame, without saying who. How often is that hint needed? Remember, you still have the transitive distinct: "Bob felled the tree" (/"the tree was felled by Bob"). And if you DO sometimes need to say that someone's to blame for the tree falling over but you can't or don't want to say who, you can always just say "the tree was felled by someone".

That is, you could distinguish:
fell tree-DEF - the tree fell/was felled
fell tree-DEF Bob - the tree was felled by Bob
fell tree-DEF someone - the tree was felled by someone

What possibility is still semantically excluded?

--------------
---------------------

However, the other answer is: they don't have to be.

'To fall' and 'to fell' both describe the same event, but English has two different words for them. Etymologically, "to fell" is a causative form, a verb that was originally explicitly marked to increase valency. These days, this causative marking is no longer productive, but is still visible in the form of a small number of verb pairs - fall/fell, sit/set, lie/lay, rise/raise [footnote: the 'true' pair there is rise/rear; 'raise' is borrowed from the Norse form of the causative; but it doesn't matter for our purposes here].

Let's step back a step.

Every verb has, as it were, a number of "slots" around it that nouns can fill. For most verbs, there's either one slot or two slots. These slots aren't interchangeable; we can, as it were, give them different labels. And the verb then determines what semantic role a noun must play to be eligible to take a slot with a given label.

If a verb has one slot, we can call it S.
If a verb has two slots, we can call them A and O.

If we have a verb with two nouns, the 'marking' (on the noun, on the verb, or in word order) shows which is A and which is O.

But if a verb has only one slot, how do we know whether it's S, A or O?

The easiest way is to say that S, A and O all get different markings, so there can never be ambiguity. This is a classic tripartite alignment.

You can also get de facto tripartite alignments in some 'ergative' languages, where one system of marking (eg nominal case) is ergative-absolutive, but another system of marking (eg verbal agreement) is nominative-accusative. We still call these languages 'ergative', because "ergativity" is really often used as a blanket term for "not perfectly nominative-absolutive".

In most languages, S and A are marked the same way. This is nominative-accusative alignment.
In some languages, S and O are marked the same way. This is ergative-absolutive alignment.



So, to get back to your problem...
...if in a (pure) ergative-absolutive language you find a verb with only one noun attached, how do you know whether the noun is in the S slot or the O slot?

Well, that's the wrong way to see it. Because in a pure ergative-absolutive language, the semantics of the S slot are the same as the semantics of the O slot. In "the tree fell" and "the tree was felled", the tree is still doing exactly the same thing! In "the bear danced" and "the bear was danced", the bear is still doing exactly the same thing!

So really the question is: how do you know whether the verb has a non-overt second argument (in the A slot)?

And there are different possibilities.
The first is: you can't, but it doesn't matter. Really, who cares? If the other argument were important, the speaker wouldn't have chosen to make it non-overt!

The second is: there can't be a non-overt noun in the A slot, because this is illegal. All agents must be explicitly present. This is similar to how many transitive verbs in English very strongly demand an overt object - I can't just say "I enjoyed", I need to include an object. I can't easily say "I felled", either.

The third is: you can tell because it's marked on the verb. If the verb has "THIS VERB HAS TWO SLOTS!" attached to it as a marker, then when you see it with only one overt argument, you know that there must be a non-overt argument in the second slot.

Now, this marking can be done in on three 'levels':
- you could do it purely lexically. Every verb is then uniquely specified from birth, as it were, as having either one slot or two slots, and every time you see that verb you know how many slots it should have. In English, when you see "enjoy", you know there's meant to be two slots. When you see "fell", you know there's meant to be two slots. When you see "fall", you know there's meant to be one slot. You have to just learn which verbs are which.

- you could do it through derivation. If English intransitive/causative pairing was still around, it would be a derivational process: you'd take a verb in one category, and you'd attach a marker, and it would move it into the other category. But it wouldn't apply to all verbs, only ones where it made sense to have a pairing, and the semantics might be a little unpredictable sometimes, and there might be multiple different markers used with different verbs. English be- is another example of this process - again, it added an additional argument, but whereas causative ablaut adds an argument with agent/causer semantics, be- adds an argument with patient/recipient/location semantics. So fall > befall (fall on). It should also be said that these markers can go the other way, and reduce the number of slots a verb has.

- you could do it through inflexion. You could make it so that the marker that changes the number (and role) of slots was predictable, and could be added to any verb willy-nilly, without changing the core semantics at all. The English passive is a form of inflexional valency-alteration.


In order to translate English ergatively, I have been converting most active English sentences to passive form before translating them into my ergative conlang. Are there any pitfalls I should be aware of with this practice?
As Ser says, you can't form a passive of an intransitive - an intransitive only has one slot, and a passive creates a verb with only one slot, so it would be superfluous when attached to an intransitive. In English, you can sometimes form what LOOKS like the passive of an intransitive, but what it really is is the passive of a zero-derived bivalent verb. But because this is still a derivational process in English, the semantics end up unpredictable and weird - sometime the result is the passive of a causative (the bear was danced) and sometimes it's the passive of a transitive (the bear was eaten).

I'd also just say that not all bivalent verbs in English have the same semantic roles, so they needn't all be 'translated' into ergative languages the same way. In English "I like the pie", "I" is not really an agent, and "pie" is not really a patient, so you may well find an ergative language in which "I" is in the absolutive and "pie" is in the ergative.

Oil In My Lamp
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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Oil In My Lamp »

Ser wrote:
27 Mar 2020 02:29
Oil In My Lamp wrote:
27 Mar 2020 01:39
So, if I make use of split ergativity, a sentence like "I instructed" could be made Nom-Acc and "I was instructed." could be Erg-Abs?

Would this work?
So far, it appears that you're not interested in working out reliable ways to disambiguate the roles of nouns in one-argument sentences (e.g. "the king ate" and "the king was eaten"), so I hardly see any reason to bother calling this ergative-absolutive alignment at all. You seem to want to have an "S = A or O" type of alignment, where you can't tell what role a noun has in a sentence where the verb has only one argument.

("The king ate the boar" and "The boar ate the king" are nevertheless clearly different, right? I'm assuming you're aiming at "S = A or O" but "A is different from O".)

I don't think there is any term for that sort of alignment, but that shouldn't really stop you... Just be clear that it's not one of the canonical types of alignment.
I should apologize for my poorly worded response when I said:
Danced bears-DEF (the bears danced)
Instructed me (I instructed/I was instructed)
Ate king-DEF (the king ate/the king was eaten)
Rather than insisting on these translations being the case, I simply do not have distinctions between them yet, nor do I fully understand the answers yet. I am still trying to understand the methods and the concept of ergativity.

Ser wrote:
27 Mar 2020 02:29
Also, to correct myself from earlier, I guess "fell" can be used the way you do if it doesn't mean "the tree is falling down" when it has one argument in your conlang, but rather "the tree is being felled down, is being forced to go down". So in your conlang, "fell guard-DEF" (where "fell" is English "to fell" in the present tense) = 'the guard is pulling (people) down, forcing others to go down' (the S = A interpretation) and 'the guard is being pulled down, forced to go down' (the S = O interpretation). Just like your example of "instruct 1SG-DEF" = 'I teach, instruct (other people)' and 'I am instructed'.

Presumably, then, you could have a different verb for 'to fall' for accidental falls? As opposed to falls where the thing falling is being acted upon by someone (S = O)... (I've been trying to make it clear that "The tree is falling" and "The tree is being felled"/"He is felling the tree" involve different verbs, at least in some sense, at least so that you consider whether you want to have zero-derivation causatives or not, but I seem to not succeed at thinking of a way to make it clear enough...).
I think that I might still prefer a difference between causatives, volitives, and accidentals, or some combination/division of them. These seem to be the main differences between some of my examples. In other words, when these things are marked, a lot of ambiguity is gone already. (Even though I still would like a proper distinction.)
Ser wrote:
27 Mar 2020 02:29
Man, I feel we're really swamping Oil In My Lamp with new concepts here. And I thought I was being naughty enough already by mentioning both ergativity with word-order and ergativity with verbal agreement (as opposed to the tradition of discussing ergativity with only noun cases...).
I understood the risks when I asked the question. [:D] I appreciate all these responses!
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray.

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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Oil In My Lamp »

Salmoneus wrote:
27 Mar 2020 14:40
Oil In My Lamp wrote:
26 Mar 2020 22:24
Here is another example. Perhaps it makes more sense:

The tree was felled.
The tree fell.

Would they both be written like below:
fell tree-DEF
fell tree-DEF


I have a hard time understanding ergative grammar.

The answer is... they could be.

And here's an important question to ask whenever a conlanger finds that two things that are distinguished in English aren't distinguished in their conlang: why is that a problem?

"The tree fell" and "the tree was felled" both refer to the same physical event - the tree falling over. The only semantic difference is that the latter hints that someone is to blame, without saying who. How often is that hint needed? Remember, you still have the transitive distinct: "Bob felled the tree" (/"the tree was felled by Bob"). And if you DO sometimes need to say that someone's to blame for the tree falling over but you can't or don't want to say who, you can always just say "the tree was felled by someone".

That is, you could distinguish:
fell tree-DEF - the tree fell/was felled
fell tree-DEF Bob - the tree was felled by Bob
fell tree-DEF someone - the tree was felled by someone

What possibility is still semantically excluded?
I think I am starting to get a better understanding of this. I see that these things do not necessarily need to be differentiated.

Salmoneus wrote:
27 Mar 2020 14:40
So, to get back to your problem...
...if in a (pure) ergative-absolutive language you find a verb with only one noun attached, how do you know whether the noun is in the S slot or the O slot?

Well, that's the wrong way to see it. Because in a pure ergative-absolutive language, the semantics of the S slot are the same as the semantics of the O slot. In "the tree fell" and "the tree was felled", the tree is still doing exactly the same thing! In "the bear danced" and "the bear was danced", the bear is still doing exactly the same thing!
It seems that I do not need to worry so much about English 'subject' and 'object' but rather agent and patient. In my tree example, both instances show the tree to be the receiver of the action. So, rather than using subject and object/nominative and accusative as my criteria, I should focus on whether or not the intransitive subject is the patient or not.

I read a paper that helped me (together with the answers you guys gave) to understand the ergative construction.
Ergativity and Transivity by Ellen Woolford
http://people.umass.edu/ellenw/Woolford ... tivity.pdf
I am neither advocating nor rejecting her theory, but her explanations helped a lot anyway.


I also read a short paper that suggests that Algonquian languages are ergative in nature. Whether they truly are or are not, I found the parallels it drew to other ergative constructions to also be helpful.
Are Algonquian Languages Ergative by John Hewson
https://ojs.library.carleton.ca/index.p ... ew/945/829

Salmoneus wrote:
27 Mar 2020 14:40
I'd also just say that not all bivalent verbs in English have the same semantic roles, so they needn't all be 'translated' into ergative languages the same way. In English "I like the pie", "I" is not really an agent, and "pie" is not really a patient, so you may well find an ergative language in which "I" is in the absolutive and "pie" is in the ergative.
That gives me something to think about. I know that Spanish does this a different way with "me gusta este trabajo" meaning literally "this job pleases me".
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray.

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Re: Unknown term for Ergative Languages

Post by Salmoneus »

Oil In My Lamp wrote:
28 Mar 2020 00:05

It seems that I do not need to worry so much about English 'subject' and 'object' but rather agent and patient. In my tree example, both instances show the tree to be the receiver of the action. So, rather than using subject and object/nominative and accusative as my criteria, I should focus on whether or not the intransitive subject is the patient or not.
Close, but not quite. If the verb is genuinely intransitive - rather than merely univalent - then it cannot have a patient.

In true 'ergative-absolutive' languages, the subject of an intransitive is always treated the same way, regardless of its semantics.

However, there are forms of "split ergativity" - most typically the "active" alignments found in some native american languages - where patient-like subjects and agent-like subjects are indeed treated differently (basically, S=A (nom-acc) when S is semantically sufficiently agentlike, but S=O (erg-abs) when S is semantically sufficiently patientlike).
Salmoneus wrote:
27 Mar 2020 14:40
I'd also just say that not all bivalent verbs in English have the same semantic roles, so they needn't all be 'translated' into ergative languages the same way. In English "I like the pie", "I" is not really an agent, and "pie" is not really a patient, so you may well find an ergative language in which "I" is in the absolutive and "pie" is in the ergative.
That gives me something to think about. I know that Spanish does this a different way with "me gusta este trabajo" meaning literally "this job pleases me".
Indeed; in European languages it's very common for verbs of liking to have the assessor as the indirect object, and the assessee as the subject.

Similarly, in older European languages it used to be common for verbs of possession (often identical to the copula, or to a verb of position) to have the possessee as the subject and the possessor as the indirect object or as an oblique. This fell out of use across Europe from the fall of Rome onward, with the rise of the 'have' construction, but modern Irish maintains the older syntax still: tá bhur gcloig agaibh, "we have your clocks" (I think?) - lit. "your clocks are with us", where "tá" originated as the verb 'to stand' (though has long since lost that literal meaning).

[the same idea of using a positional verb in this way is also a common way of dealing with verbs of assessing: "that doesn't sit well with me", etc]


More exotically, many languages treat verbs of perception differently as well - because again, these aren't semantically transitive (when I see the cat, I'm not actually doing something to the cat... - if anything, the cat is doing something to me!)


So my point there isn't that you need to do things differently from English, but just that it's worth bearing in mind that different languages try to force the infinitely-varied semantics of their verbs into a set structure of syntax, and they don't all do it the same way...

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