Syntactic alignment and pivot constraints

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Syntactic alignment and pivot constraints

Post by gufferdk »

Hello everyone. I recently made a rather large reddit post about syntactic pivots and I reckoned I would post it here as well with some minot edits. Syntactic alignment is one of those things I think is really interesting, and often underexplored in many conlangs I've seen, so I wrote this post as a guide, primarily for people familiar with the basics of morphological alignment, but not syntactic alignment. I've never really been much active here (though I've kinda been wanting to change that) so hopefully this isn't something everyone here knows already. I have tried to give plenty of examples, and I encourage you to go read the sources for more information if you are curious. People who I have communicated with personally are mentioned with their reddit usernames.

A lot of the general information originally stems from Dixon’s 1994 Ergativity, which is a great book that I encourage everyone who hasn't already to read.

I will assume some familiarity with the basics of ergative case marking and the S/A/O notation for intransitive subject and transitive agent and patient respectively. Additionally I will be using subscripted i,j,k,l for tracking identity of arguments and subscripted 0 for null arguments.

Syntactic processes and operations can treat different syntactic roles differently. Just like with case marking, if we can find a something that treats S and A equally but different from O we can talk about accusative syntax, and if we find something that treats A≠S=O we can talk about ergative syntax. However there is no necessity for there to be such processes, it’s perfectly possible for a language to have no “pivot” as it is called. English does however have a such a pivot. Consider the following sentences where the same noun occurs twice and is omitted the second time (shown with brackets):

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John jumped and [he] ran away       Sᵢ V + [Sᵢ] V
John hit you and [he] ran away      Aᵢ V Oⱼ + [Sᵢ] V
John saw me and [he] hit you        Aᵢ V Oⱼ + [Aᵢ] V Oₖ

*John hit you and [you] ran away    Aᵢ V Oⱼ + [Sⱼ] V
*John hit you and I saw [him]       Aᵢ V Oⱼ + Aₖ V [Oᵢ]
*You saw John and I hit [him]       Aᵢ V Oⱼ + Aₖ V [Oⱼ]
There is clearly a pattern that to be omitted, for a sentence to be grammatical, the repeat NP must be either S or A in both clauses. We can therefore say that repeat NP-omission in English works in terms of an accusative pivot. If we want to omit a repeated underlying O anyways, as in sentence 4 above, we need to use a passive to move it to S and into the pivot, to get e.g. “You were hit by John and [you] ran away”, which is allowed, because now we have S₁=S₂.

In German this is the case as well, despite the fact that the verbal agreement should in theory deal with any potential ambiguity in many cases (u/Adarain, personal communication)

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 John schlug dich und rannte weg - “John hit you and [he] ran away”
*John schlug dich und ranntest weg - “John hit you and [you] ran away (ungrammatical)”
In Spanish on the other hand, both equivalent sentences are grammatical (u/Nankazz, personal communication):

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Juan te pegó y salió corriendo      Aᵢ Oⱼ V + [Sᵢ] V
Juan te pegó y saliste corriendo    Aᵢ Oⱼ V + [Sⱼ] V
Spanish does however still have a pivot, even though it’s significantly less prominent. Consider the following (u/presidentenfuncio, u/Ewioan; personal communication):

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Juan golpeó a Peter, quien/que salió corriendo
"John hit Peter, who ran away" 

Juan le golpeó y salió corriendo
"Johnᵢ hit himⱼ and [Johnᵢ/(heⱼ)] ran away"
In the first example, given as a translation of a hypothetical “John hit Peter and [Peter] ran away”, with O=S coreference, the pivot encourages circumlocution with an alternative, non-pivot-bound construction (a relative clause), and in the second, the pivot forces omission in case of John being S₂ and provides that as the default interpretation. Introducing an overt subject-NP in the second clause would block the A₁=S₂ interpretation. This default can be overridden given appropriate context though, if O₁ is strongly established as topic, e.g. in the context of an answer such as in the exchange “Where is Peter?” - “Oh, I don’t know, John hit him and [he] ran away” (note though that there may be variation between speakers and dialects and not everyone may consider the O₁=S₂ interpretation equally acceptable). A possible analysis for this suggested by u/YeahLinguisticsBitch is that Spanish underlyingly has a pivot that operates very similarly to the English one with regards to forcing omission, however in addition to this, Spanish allows having no overt subject when it's clear from context and the verbal agreement, leading to the much lower impact of the pivot.

Allowing such omission of repeat NPs regardless of their syntactic roles doesn’t require having disambiguating verbal agreement though (though it’s more common in languages with well-developed person agreement), for example Samoan allows free omission in many cases (Mosel & Hovdhaugen 1992, pp.704-17):

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Ona  ō       ane lea  'o   i'a             V Sᵢ
CONJ go(pl.) DIR that PRES fish(
'ua  'a'ai    i  matau.                  + V [Sᵢ] Xⱼ
PERF eat(pl.) LD hook(
Ona  sisi  lea  i  luga.                 + V (A₀) [Oᵢ] Xₖ
CONJ raise that LD up

“Then fish come along and [they] bite the hooks. Then (someone) pulls [them] up.”

Tū    atu loa  lea 'o    Sina              V Sᵢ
stand DIR then that PRES Sina
tago         'i le  lupe                 + V [Sᵢ] Xⱼ
take_hold_of LD ART pidgeon
titina                                   + V [Aᵢ] [Oⱼ]
togi 'i  fafo                            + V [Aᵢ] [Oⱼ] Xₖ
throw LD outside

“Sina stood up, [she] took hold of the pigeon, [she] strangled [it], then [she] threw [it] outside.”
Here we can see that there are both instances where S=S and S=A allows omission and where S=O does (and X=O as well, something English doesn’t allow either), and if you go digging further you’ll not find any cases where omission is prohibited on purely syntactic grounds. As such we find that Samoan has no pivot (at least within the terminology used by Dixon).

However, just like it is possible for a language to work in terms of an accusative (S=A) pivot, it’s also possible for a language to work in terms of an ergative (S=O) one. Languages with ergative pivots are rather rare, but Dyirbal is an example (Dixon 1994, pp.161-7):

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ŋuma       banaga-nʸu  miyanda-nʸu                  Sᵢ V + [Sᵢ] V
father.ABS return-NFUT laugh-NFUT
"father returned and [he] laughed"

ŋuma       banaga-nʸu  yabu-ŋgu   bura-n            Sᵢ V + [Oᵢ] Aⱼ V
father.ABS return-NFUT mother-ERG see-NFUT
"father returned and mother saw [him]"

ŋuma       yabu-ŋgu   bura-n   jaja-ŋgu  ŋamba-n    Oᵢ Aⱼ V + [Oᵢ] Aₖ V
father.ABS mother-ERG see-NFUT child-ERG hear-NFUT
"mother saw father and the child heard [him]"
However, like how English has problems when O=S/A but can resolve those problems by use of a passive, so does Dyirbal when A=S/O, and can resolve those by using an antipassive. This antipassive is compulsory, without it the linking and omission in these examples would be ungrammatical:

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ŋuma       banaga-nʸu  bural-ŋa-nʸu   yabu-gu             Sᵢ V + [S(<A)ᵢ] V X(<O)ⱼ
father.ABS return-NFUT see-ANTIP-NFUT mother-DAT
"father returned and [he] saw mother"

ŋuma       yabu-ŋgu   ŋamba-n   bural-ŋa-nʸu   yabu-gu    Oᵢ Aⱼ V + [S(<A)ᵢ] V X(<O)ⱼ
father.ABS mother-ERG hear-NFUT see-ANTIP-NFUT mother-DAT
"mother heard father and [he] saw her(mother)"
Just like it’s possible to have a mix of accusative and ergative in morphology, so is it possible to have a mixed pivot. For example, in Yidinʸ, most operations follow an ergative pivot, but repeat NP-omission specifically, what can be omitted follows the case marking of the NPs which is accusative for 1st and 2nd person and ergative for everything else. This means that omission of 1st and 2nd person requires S/A=S/A coreference like in English, but omission of anything else requires S/O=S/O coreference like in Dyirbal. This means that in some cases you cannot do any omission without an (anti)passive (e.g. “He hit me and (I/he) ran”) and in other cases there might be ambiguity (e.g. “I hit him and (I/he) ran”) (though there might be some other constraint I’m not aware of forcing a certain interpretation in those cases).

Tongan splits the pivot in a different way, it has two different conjunctions, one with accusative behaviour and one with ergative (ibid. p.176):

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na'e tā'i 'a  Mele 'e  Hina mo                 kata      V Oᵢ Aⱼ + V [Sⱼ]
PST  hit  ABS Mary ERG Hina and_simultaneously laugh
"Hina hit Mary and [Hina] simultaneously laughed"

na'e tā'i 'a  Mele 'e  Hina 'o (and_as_a_result) kata    V Oᵢ Aⱼ + V [Sᵢ]
"Hina hit Mary and as a result [Mary] laughed"
The final possibility that can be found when looking at a specific operation is that it’s either completely outlawed, or is so strict in its syntactic requirements that it’s not possible to call it either accusative, ergative or mixed (this is the opposite of the option exemplified by Samoan, where the syntactic parameters were so lax (essentially non-existent) that an alignment couldn’t be defined). An example of repeat NP-omission partially following such a pattern can be seen in Jalcatec. Jalcatec has polypersonal verbal agreement, but has two different situations where these agreement markers may be omitted. While the triggering is arguably accusative in nature, with type one being triggered by S or A, and the latter by O, the omission only applies to S, never A or O. Further noteworthy is that the first type _only_ applies to semantically agentive S and only ever to S that come from inherently intransitive verbs. Jalcatec has four different passives and an antipassive it in theory could use to make A and O of transitive verbs into surface S and feed this S-only pivot, but that isn’t allowed. The first type is compulsory and occurs with verbs of motion and desire (Van Valin 1981 pp.372-3):

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xc-ach     to sajch-oj                  Sᵢ V + [Sᵢ]-V
ASP-2sgABS go play-IRR
"You went to play" (compare ungrammatical *[...] ha-sajchi "2sg-play")

ch-Ø-(y)-oche      naj   can̈alw-oj      Oᵢ-Aⱼ-V Aⱼ + [Sⱼ]-V
ASP-3ABS-3ERG-like CL/he dance-IRR
"He likes to dance" (compare ungrammatical *[...] s-can̈alwi "3-dance")

ch-Ø-(y)-oche      naj   s-col-lax-i    Oᵢ-Aⱼ-V Aⱼ + S(<O)ⱼ-V
ASP-3ABS-3ERG-like CL/he 3-help-PASS-E
"He likes to be helped" (compare ungrammatical *[...] col-lax-oj "help-PASS-IRR")
The second type is optional, and works with Ss coreferential to the O of verbs of causation. Unlike the other it does allow for omission of passive-derived S as well, but still not A or O (ibid. p.374):

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xc-in      y-iptze    naj   il-lax-oj    y-u  ya' doctor    Oᵢ Aⱼ-V Aⱼ [S(<O)ᵢ]-V X(<A)ₖ
ASP-1sgABS 3ERG-force CL/he see-PASS-IRR 3-by CL  doctor
"He forced me to be seen by the doctor"

So far I have primarily talked about omission of repeat NPs. This is not because pivot constraints is something that exclusively deals with such deletion, just that it provides a very convenient example of the different strategies available. Pivot constraints can apply to many different syntactic operations, and it’s possible for a language to have one type of pivot with one operation and a different or no pivot with a second operation. English, despite having a strong pivot on repeat NP-omission has a lot of operations with no constraints. Additionally, these different pivots can have different strengths (as we saw with English vs. Spanish it’s possible for two languages to have the same kind of pivot with the same operation, but still differ significantly in how and when the pivot actually applies and how strongly).

There may be implicational hierarchies between different kinds of pivots affecting different kinds of operations involved like with morphological ergativity (like how an ergative 1st person implies an ergative or unmarked 2nd and 3rd person but not the reverse), but if there are such I have not been able to find any in the litterature, and Dixon 1994 (p.177) notes that the subject requires further study and that “The limited data [...] do not immediately reveal any such rationale.” Certain types of constructions, e.g. resultatives do however show certain tendencies on various semantic grounds, which I will note when they are encountered.

Here are some examples of other operations which may be subjected to pivot constraints:

Clause joining and embedding

English, despite having a relatively strong pivot acting on deletion across coördinated clauses is very free in what can actually be coördinated. Even two clauses with no overlapping NPs can be coördinated if they are sufficiently related, e.g. “John baked bread and Peter washed the floor” (Aᵢ V Oⱼ + Aₖ V Oₗ).

Some languages, for such an operation to be permissible, require that there is a shared NP and some of these impose a pivot constraint on this. For example, many Papuan languages allow the serialisation or compounding of different verb stems into a larger complex predicate, however for this to be allowed, there must be a coreferential S/A across them all (and in some, but not all, also a shared O). This is as far as I’m aware also the case in languages with serial verbs elsewhere in the world. Examples from Olson 1981 p.188 and Foley 1986 p.117:

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Barai: e   ije fu  a-nafa-fu-o       kan-ia   buvua  i
       man the 3sg child-PL-3sg-POSS kill-3pl cut_up eat
       "The man killed, cut up, and ate his children"
       (shared A and O)(Barai does allow other types as well)

Yimas: awt  ŋa-kra-yara-mp-i-warasa-ŋa-n
       fire SG.IMP-1pl-get-SEQ-DEP-return-give-PRES
       "Bring back fire for us (lit. "get fire and return and give us")
       (shared S/A, two different O)
Dyirbal, mentioned above as having a S/O pivot wrt. omission also has a strong S/O pivot when it comes to actually linking the clauses together as one unit under prosody (the identifying factor due to the absence of an overt correspondent to “and”). In Dyirbal two clauses cannot be coördinated without sharing a common NP in the S/O pivot.

It’s also possible to have a mixture of different coreferentiality constraints. An example are the “medial clause operators” in Panare which have quite different constraints (Dixon 1994 p.177, quoting Thomas Payne, whose original work I was unable to access):

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Operator  Translation              Constraints
-séjpe    "and then, in order to"  S₁/A₁ = S₂/A₂
-sé'ñape  "as a result"            S₁/O₁ = O₂
-ñépe     "and then/in order to"   S₁/O₁ = S₂/A₂
-pómën    "after/because"          S₁/A₁ = S₂/A₂
English, despite being very lax when it comes to coördination, is significantly more restrictive when it comes to certain types of subordination, particularly certain complement clauses, which require a NP shared with the main clause, and require that the shared NP is within an S/A pivot in the complement clause and a core argument of the main clause. “I went off to kill rabbits” (S₁=A₂), “The man told me to cook the meat”(O₁=A₂) and “I tried pressing the button to jump” (A₁=S₂) are fine, “*The man told me to a doctor look over [me]” (O₁=O₂) and “*I went off to stupid people hurt [me]” (S₁=O₂) are not because the pivot constraint on the coreferent is not satisfied, and to express them a passive must be used (e.g. “I went off to be hurt by stupid people” (S₁=S(<O)₂), or they must be reworded into a more permissive construction, (e.g. “The man told me to go so a doctor could look over me” (“so” isn’t subjected to constraints)).

In Dyirbal, as well as its close relative Wargamay, the S/O coreference constraint on both clauses applies to subordinates as well. If the coreferent is A in the subordinate clause, an antipassive must be used, situations where the coreferent is underlying A in the main clause are avoided and if they are elicited, speakers would produce two completely unlinked clauses with nothing but implied correlation (note that due to an interesting historical development the antipassive and intransitive inflections are identical) (Dixon 1981 pp.70-4):

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waybalaŋgu    ŋaɲa  giːgay ᶁalguɽugu ᶁalgilagu                   Aᵢ Oⱼ V + [S(<A)ⱼ] X(<O)ₖ V
white_man:ERG 1sg.O tell   meat:DAT  cook:PURP.ITR/ANTIP
"the white man told me to cook the meat"

ŋaɲa  ŋulaŋga ᶁaygay    | ɲuŋa    bungilagu         wugargiri    Aᵢ Oⱼ V | Sᵢ V
1sg.O 3sg.ERG hunt_away | 3sg.ABS lie_down:PURP.ITR sleepy:COM:ABS
"He sent me away. (Then) he could sleep."
For certain verbs that Dixon 1994 (pp.134-7) calls “secondary” such as must, can, begin, want, hope, etc., he notes that on semantic grounds we would expect them to work in terms of an S/A subject for coreferentiality in all natural languages, assuming they have such verbs. This requirement can be reconciled with a strong S/O pivot though, by for example expressing such concepts using verbal morphology, uninflecting particles, or making them intransitive verbs, essentially saying something along the lines of “it/you begin(s), you work” rather than “you begin to work”, satisfying both a universal {S, A} condition and a local S/O pivot.

Relativisation and, by extension, participles

Unlike English, where more or less anything can both be a relative clause and be relativised on, Wargamay imposes this double S/O pivot on relativisation as well (which follows a very similar structure to the above, just with different verbal morphology). If the S₁/O₁=S₂/O₂ constraint isn’t met, it must either be met by use of an antipassive, or an alternative strategy (e.g. splitting it into two unlinked correlated clauses) must be used. Dyirbal, mentioned earlier has a similar constraint of relativisation, though there it applies less strongly, and only the coreferential NP in the relative clause must be in the S/O pivot, the instance in the main clause can be any core argument or a non-directional oblique (Dixon 1994 p.169).

It is also possible to have an accusative, or even a mixed pivot on relativisation, either by prohibiting certain constructions, like the languages discussed above, or by having two different relativisation strategies. Persian has a bit of accusativity here, as pronoun retention, which is compulsory when relativising on obliques, is optional with O, but either unacceptable, or only marginally acceptable with S or A, which are instead relativised simply via gapping (see Comrie 1989 p.148 for examples).

Malagasy has a much pronounced pivot, and only allows relativising on S/A, relativising on underlying O or X must be handled by using the passive (moving underlying O to S) or circumstantial (moving underlying X to S) voices (ibid. p.159):

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ny  vehivavy izay nividy ny  vary ho an'ny  ankizy
the woman    REL  bought the rice for   the children
"the woman that bought the rice for the children"

ny  vary izay novidin'ny      vehivavy ho an'ny  ankizy
the rice REL  bought:PASS'the woman    for   the children
"the rice that was bought for the children by the woman"

ny ankizy    izay nividianan'ny   vehivavy ny  vary
the children REL  bought:CIRC'the woman    the rice
"the children who were bought rice by the woman"
Languages with mixed pivots on relativisation seem to be rare, ibid. p.158 mentions some weirdness with Tongan, but doesn’t go much into details, though one example seems to be Chukchi, where relativisation with the negative participle operates in terms of an S/O pivot (Chukchi, disregarding likely loans from Russian handles relativisation with participles, the non-negative participle operates somewhat like the English active participle), and relativisation on A with such a construction requires the further use of what Comrie analyses as a “de-ergativising prefix”, with partially antipassive-like behaviour, unlike the rest of the syntax which is structured along either accusative or pivotless lines (Comrie 1979):

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igər a-yoʔ-kə-lʔ-etə        enm-etə  mən-əlqə-mək                               {(A₀) [Oᵢ] V} Xᵢ Sⱼ-V-Sⱼ
now  NEG-reach-NEG-PTCP-ALL hill-ALL 1pl-go-1pl
"now let us go to the hill that (someone) didn't reach (~"to the non-reaching hill")

en-agat-kə-lʔ-a          qaa-k        ʔaaček-a  winret-ərkən-inet  ŋewəčqet-ti  {[S(<A)ᵢ] V X(<O)ⱼ} Aᵢ V Oₖ
DEERG-chase-NEG-PTCP-ERG reindeer-LOC youth-ERG help-PRS.I-3sg>3sg woman-ABS.PL
"the youth who does not chase the reindeer is helping the women"
Even languages where participles are not the primary relativisation strategy can still have pivots in them, in English the active participle works on S/A for example (though (partially) S=O labile verbs can obscure this to an extent, “the cooking man” and “the cooking vegetables” refer to quite different states (though the latter may not be equally acceptable to everyone). Participles with a resultative meaning are commonly associated with S/O, but I don’t know if this is just because they are generally strongly associated with semantic “affectedness”, which is a thing of some S, but largely by definition happens to be a feature of most O, but generally not A.

Derivational and similar morphology

Various derivative morphology may also be sensitive to syntactic roles. The possibilities here are practically endless so I’ll limit myself to a couple of examples. In English the V→N derivational affix -er makes a verb into a noun that is either S (“jumper”) or A (“killer”), but not O of the verb demonstrating and accusative pattern. In Dyirbal there is an uninflecting particle, warra, which indicates that the S or O, but never the A of the verb is wrong or inappropriate, showing an ergative pattern.

One operation which seems to always show an S or O but not A pattern is pluractionality. There is however good semantic reasoning for this; with an intransitive verb there is only one NP to work with, and with a transitive verb like “dig” it’s completely possible for two men to dig one hole together, however the digging of two holes requires either one actor doing two separate actions or multiple actors working seperately.

Accessibility to various operations

In addition to relativisation, many intraclausal operations can also have pivots determine which NPs are accessible to them. Some languages impose pivot constraints on things such as questioning, various focussing operations including clefting and overt focus marking, specific negation, etc. For example Jalcatec and many other Mayan languages have an ergative pivot with regards to several such operations, for example questioning (Van Valin 1981 p.376):

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mac x-Ø-(y)-il        naj      O? V A
WH  ASP-3ABS-3ERG-see CL/he
"whom did he see?" (*"who saw him?")

mac Ø-'il-ni           ix      S(<A)? V X(<O)
"who saw her?" (*"whom did she see")
Switch reference

Rather than having to deal with the constraints imposed by pivots or the fickle of dealing with implicatures and assumptions there is another strategy available, one which conlangers often seem fond of broadly applying: throwing affixes at the problem. Some languages can mark on clauses (usually with verbal morphology) whether or not the subject changes between that clause and the next one with what is called “switch-reference marking”, however this then imposes the question of how “subject” is defined, and it can be defined in terms of syntactic roles. An example of switch-ref in action in Hua (Roberts 1997 p.130):

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ebgi-Ø-na            korihie
hit-SAME-3sg.ANTICSU ran.away.3sg
"heᵢ hit himⱼ and [heᵢ] ran away"

ebgi-ga-na               korihie
hit-3sg.DIFF-3sg.ANTICSU ran.away.3sg
"heᵢ hit himⱼ and [heⱼ] ran away"
All natlangs with switch-ref that follow a system based on syntactic roles rather than some other system based either partially or wholly on semantics and/or pragmatics have an S/A pivot. Whether there is some underlying reason that no languages with S/O switch-ref exists or whether it’s just a product of switch-ref being very strongly areal and S/O pivots being relatively rare and also geographically clustered, with no overlap is unknown, but there is no apparent a priori reason that such a thing shouldn’t be possible.

Preference for structuring discourse

Some languages prefer to structure their discourse around certain syntactic roles, preferring to keep the NP in the pivot the consistent topic throughout a discourse. English is one such language, and uses an accusative pivot for this. Consider a short text like this from Simple English Wikipedia which uses a total of three passives, two of which still have the demoted A present in the sentence to keep the topic veil in the S/A pivot:
Simple English Wikipedia wrote: A veil is a soft covering of all or part of the face. It has often been used by women in many cultures. It is often used by brides on their wedding day. It may have religious meaning, or it may be used for pleasure or dance. It is different from a mask because a mask is close-fitting, and often firm or hard, while a veil is soft and may fit loosely.
Rewriting the sentences to use active voice and thereby moving the topic out of the pivots leaves a text that while both parseable and grammatical feels oddly discoherent compared to the above text:
A veil is a soft covering of all or part of the face. Women in many cultures have often used it. Brides often use it on their wedding day. It may have religious meaning, or people may use it for pleasure or dance. It is different from a mask because a mask is close-fitting, and often firm or hard, while a veil is soft and may fit loosely.
Jalcatec, which despite having a significant S/O pivot in many other places prefers a similar strategy of ordering discourse in terms of S/A pivots. Dyirbal on the other hand prefers to keep the topic in an S/O pivot, which may often require a rather liberal application of antipassives, particularly when talking about humans, which are more likely to be A than O, the same way talking about an object like a veil in English which is more likely to be O than A may require a significant amount of passives. Note though that even languages with a preference for the syntactic roles of the topic vary quite a lot in how strictly they stick to it, and languages have a wealth of other options available to signal topicality and other related things.

Distribution of pivots and correlations with alignment of nominal morphology

As mentioned earlier, ergative pivots are rare. Ergative pivots to my knowledge occur primarily in Eastern Australia and Mayan languages, however there are some bits of syntactic ergativity to be found in the American and Far Eastern Russian Arctic, Amazonia, and some Polynesian languages at the very least. Additionally some languages with Austronesian voice systems such as Tagalog can reasonably be analysed as having underlyingly ergative pivots as well. All languages with some ergative syntax also have some morphological ergativity, however no natural languages are thoroughly ergative at both the morphological and syntactic levels.

Ergative languages do not have to have ergative syntax however, in fact a fair few languages with ergative case marking have entirely accusative pivots.

Languages entirely without pivots are also a mixed bunch however almost all languages that have semantically, rather than syntactically based role marking also have no pivots, as do most fluid-S (aka active-stative) languages. As mentioned earlier, languages which pack a lot of information into the verb via lots of agreement, etc. are also overrepresented in this category.

While not directly tied to the alignment of the morphology, it should be noted that languages with any significant prominence of ergative pivot constraints must have an antipassive or antipassive-like device to feed this pivot, due to the tendency of topical NPs to more commonly be A than O. A language with an accusative pivot doesn’t have quite the same requirement for a passive though, but it’s still more useful and common in such languages. This implication does not go the other way around though, it’s perfectly possible for a language to have a passive or antipassive or both without necessarily having a specific type of pivot.

A note on the relevance of syntactic roles

So far I have primarily talked about syntactic roles, but it is important to realise that syntactic roles are only an analytical tool which may be more or less useful in dealing with a specific system, and not universally applicable categories. Even in languages where they seem to have significant influence, they do not exist in a vacuum, and constraints on semantics or various other discourse structures may, and frequently do, operate alongside or in tandem with syntactic constraints, and even processes not subjected to constraints expressible in terms of syntactic roles. This can be further complicated by the fact that these syntactic roles often overlap partially with other potentially triggering factors. For example, a constraint that works in terms of semantic agency, topicality or some prominence factor may in a large number of sentences be indistinguishable from one that operates in terms of an S/A pivot. To properly investigate a natlang and similarly to thoroughly describe a conlang, one must evaluate a large number of sentences. While going into a deep and thorough description of all the parameters languages can include when deciding how to organise syntax would be a massive task, and would probably not fit in this post, nor several more, I will however try to just give a taste of one example of an alternative interesting strategy from Barai, Koiarian language spoken in Southeastern New Guinea.

I’ve already mentioned that serialising verbs in Barai requires that they share a common S/A NP, however other processes in Barai function in many other ways. Repeat NP-deletion and switch-reference works not in terms of a pivot, but in terms of “pragmatic prominence”, which is determined by various factors, primarily definiteness and givenness, but also placement on the animacy hierarchy and semantic roles. The first two example sentences below do not give a hint that this is the case because A and the “pragmatic peak” happen to be the same, because the man is a semantically agentive, established, definite referent and wins out over the non-agentive 1st person, however the latter two where the pragmatic peak is the O as the speaker is more prominent than a non-specific indefinite despite lacking semantic agency, it’s clear that the controlling factors are not describable in terms of S, A and O (Olson 1981 pp.101-3):

Code: Select all

e   ije fu-ka     na  kan-ie-na        (*fu)  va    ^Aᵢ Oⱼ V + [Sᵢ] V
man DEF 3sg-INTNS 1sg hit-1sg-SEQ.SAME (*3sg) go
"the man really hit me and then [he] left"

e   ije fu-ka     na  kan-ie-mo        na  va       ^Aᵢ Oⱼ V + Sⱼ V
man DEF 3sg-INTNS 1sg hit-1sg-SEQ.DIFF 1sg go
"the man really hit me and then I left"

na-ka     e-be      kan-ie-na        (*na)  va      ^Oᵢ Aⱼ V + [Sᵢ] V
1sg-INTNS man-INDEF hit-1sg-SEQ.SAME (*1sg) go
"some man really hit me and then [I] left"

na-ka     e-be      kan-ie-mo        fu  va         ^Oᵢ Aⱼ V + [Sⱼ] V
1sg-INTNS man-INDEF hit-1sg-SEQ.DIFF 3sg go
"some man really hit me and then he left"

Applying this to your conlang

For a thorough description, one would have to go through for each potentially pivot-sensitive operation and consider its behaviour under all possible patterns of coreferentiality (at least for operations applying to joined or embedded clauses:

Code: Select all

No coreferential NPs
S₁=A₂, S₁=O₂
A₁=S₂, O₁=S₂
A₁=A₂, A₁=O₂, O₁=A₂, O₁=O₂
A₁=A₂ & O₁=O₂, A₁=O₂ & O₁=A₂
(and possibly also patterns involving obliques)
Order is important even for coördination, for example an intransitive clause followed by a transitive clause with only one overt case-marked core NP should be unambiguous as to the role of the omitted NP, however in a transitive clause followed by an intransitive clause with its core NP omitted, without a constraint of some type there would be ambiguity about the identity of the omitted NP (this can lead to some interesting strategies, for example Chalamal resolves it by moving the S to the left of the transitive clause and doing the omission in the transitive clause instead (Dixon 1994 p.180 quoting Kibrik).

Ideally each possibility should be considered with multiple sentences, with varying semantic and pragmatic factors to cover both the full range of constraints and possibilities (as noted earlier, S/A syntacitic roles, semantic agentivity and pragmatic prominence often, but crucially not always overlap and can all have influence), as well as the extent to which the pivot applies, in which ways, and what strategies are used to avoid violation of constraints, whether these strategies are usage of voice-systems or similar devices, usage of alternative coding strategies or simple avoidance or attempted circumlocution.

Going through this thorough process of considerations and decisions may be a daunting task, and while it would probably be in its place if you are going for making a masterpiece with a grammar counting several hundred pages (Olson 1981 spends several hundred pages just detailing different accessibility and clause-linking processes and constraints in just one natlang), less can certainly help give your conlang a special and unique feel and flavour. When beginning on a new conlang try to think about what kind of constraints you want to impose on things, for example whether you want really strict pivots and what alignment, want to mess around with very lax or no pivot constraints, or perhaps play around with constraints in terms of semantics or pragmatics instead. As a little exercise, try translating some simple combinations of sentences, such as the ones given in the very first example.

Feel free to ask if there is something that’s confusing you, I’ll try to answer to the best of my ability.

  • Comrie, B.
    - 1979: Degrees of Ergativity: Some Chukchee evidence, pp.219-40 in Plank, F. (ed.) Ergativity Towards a Theory of Grammatical Relations, Academic Press (link)
    - 1989: Language Universals and Linguistic Typology (2nd edition), Blackwell (link)
  • Dixon, R. M. W.
    - 1981: Wargamay in Dixon, R. M. W. & Blake, B. J. 1981 (eds.) Handbook of Australian Languages vol.2, John Benjamins B. W. (link)
    - 1994: Ergativity, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 69, Cambridge University Press (link)
  • Foley, W. A 1986: The Papuan Languages of New Guinea, Cambridge University Press (link)
  • Mosel, U. & Hovdhaugen, E. 1992: Samoan Reference Grammar, Scandinavian University Press (link)
  • Olson, M. L 1981: Barai clause junctures: toward a functional theory of interclausal relations Ph.D. thesis, The Australian National Univeristy (link)
  • Roberts, J. R. 1997: Switch-reference in Papua New Guinea, a Preliminary Survey, pp.101-241 in Pawley, A. (ed.): Papers in Papuan linguistics No.3, Pacific Linguistics A-87 (link)
  • Van Valin, R. D., Jr. 1981: Grammatical Relations In Ergative Languages, Studies In Languages 5.3 361-394 (link)
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Re: Syntactic alignment and pivot constraints

Post by Omzinesý »

There aren't too many thorough posts here.
My meta-thread: viewtopic.php?f=6&t=5760
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