Evolving Split Ergativity

If you're new to these arts, this is the place to ask "stupid" questions and get directions!
Post Reply
User avatar
BarnacleHeretic
rupestrian
rupestrian
Posts: 16
Joined: 17 Oct 2021 07:14

Evolving Split Ergativity

Post by BarnacleHeretic »

First time posting, I hope I'm not breaking any rules! lmk if I am.

I'm working on a (supposedly) naturalistic conlang where one of the goals I set for myself at the beginning was to have split ergativity, where clauses with a first or second person subject would be treated as nominative/accusative and clauses with a third person subject would be treated as ergative/absolutive. I planned to mark the object in the former with an accusative case, and to mark the subject of transitive clauses in the latter with an ergative case (never marking the subject of an intransitive verb).

I later decided the language would be SOV and fairly strictly head-final. I decided that my noun cases would be suffixes that evolved from postpositions, which in turn evolved from verbs. Due to this, I ran into what I think might be a problem. Due to the SOV word order, it makes sense to me that the postpositions that evolved from verbs would be placed after the object in a transitive clause, rather than between the subject and object, and would thus be likely to evolve into suffixes attached to the object. If so, it seems like it would make sense to either replace the ergative case with an absolutive case marking the object of transitive verbs and the subject of intransitive verbs, or to simply remove ergativity entirely from the language.

My question, then, is twofold. Firstly, is this even a problem? Or is there some reason that it would actually be perfectly naturalistic for an ergative case to evolve here, and somehow sneak its way past the object and onto the subject? Secondly, if this is indeed a problem, which of the two options seems more realistic? Does it seem plausible that a naturalistic language would mark an absolutive case and leave the ergative case unmarked, or should I, given the circumstances, give up on having ergativity in this language? (I wouldn't be all that heartbroken about that, at this point it no longer feels like a key feature of the language.)

I hope I was able to phrase this question in a way that wasn't too confusing, I'm not great with terminology.
Thanks!
User avatar
Creyeditor
MVP
MVP
Posts: 4438
Joined: 14 Aug 2012 19:32

Re: Evolving Split Ergativity

Post by Creyeditor »

Regarding your last question, languages with a marked absolutive case and an unmarked ergative case do exist. They are rare but Nias (Austronesian, Indonesia) is an example. So there is no problem here.
You should also keep in mimd that word order can change and words are not always fixed to one position forever. A postposition could develop from a verb and then change its position to appear after the agent. So 'sneaking' is definitly a thing. Or a certain class of verbs, which later develop into the ergative postpositions, could use SVO order in the older stage of your conlang. All other verbs would use SOV order throughout.
Of course, these are just some suggestions off the top of my head. Hope it helps.
Creyeditor
"Thoughts are free."
Produce, Analyze, Manipulate
1 :deu: 2 :eng: 3 :idn: 4 :fra: 4 :esp:
:con: Ook & Omlűt & Nautli languages & Sperenjas
[<3] Papuan languages, Morphophonology, Lexical Semantics [<3]
User avatar
Omzinesý
runic
runic
Posts: 3283
Joined: 27 Aug 2010 08:17
Location: nowhere [naʊhɪɚ]

Re: Evolving Split Ergativity

Post by Omzinesý »

Might be me not understanding your question, but it see no problem, at all.
Adpositions usually evolve from nonfinite verbs (in languages that have them). 'regarding', 'concerning' ... instead of regard 'regards' or 'concerns'.
Assuming the egrative argument evolves from a nonfinite clause/phrase, the verb/postposition appears in its end. The object is part of the main clause.

'John causing [it], Bill is being kissed.'


During grammaticalization processes, unstressed words can also move. An SOV lang would have 'I kissed Bill.' but when person agreement evolves 'Bill kissed-I.'
My meta-thread: viewtopic.php?f=6&t=5760
Salmoneus
MVP
MVP
Posts: 2500
Joined: 19 Sep 2011 19:37

Re: Evolving Split Ergativity

Post by Salmoneus »

BarnacleHeretic wrote: 17 Oct 2021 07:36 First time posting, I hope I'm not breaking any rules! lmk if I am.
I wouldn't worry, we're fairly laid back here.
My question, then, is twofold. Firstly, is this even a problem?
I think there are several ways to avoid a problem here...

a) word orders change. Indeed, I get the impression that changing word order is one of the most powerful forces leading to other changes in a language, such as suffixation (elements no longer make sense in their current function in their current location, so instead of changing their location the language reanalyses their function...). So a simple thing would be to go from SVO to SOV, have auxiliary verbs still stuck after the subject, a position they're not allowed in anymore, so have them reanalysed as case particles. [this wouldn't exlain nom-acc in SAP clauses, of course, but...]

b) clause orders can come from phrase orders. In particular, one common route to ergativity is having verbal noun phrases reanalysed as finite verb phrases - "my eating the cat" is reanalysed as subject-verb-object with a marked genitive/ergative. Again, changing word order could be a culprit here. Let's say you start out with finite (nom-acc) "I ate cat" (SVO) and non-finite "dog's cat-eating" (would be SOV if it were a finite clause, but it isn't). Then SVO shifts to SOV (I cat ate), and suddenly that non-finite nominal phrase has the same word order as a finite verb clause, so maybe it's reanalysed as one (and -'s becomes an ergative marker).

c) just because other cases come from verbs doesn't mean that core argument case markers have to. These cases often work differently from, and develop differently from (and at different times from) the various more peripheral cases.

d) the proto-case verbs (which verbs are you thinking of?) can just follow the subject all along, depending on your clause structure. Perhaps ergatives derive from topicalising constructions ("John regarding, cat ate" > John ate the cat) or from purposives ("John decided, cat eat" > John decided to eat the cat > John ate the cat)?
Or is there some reason that it would actually be perfectly naturalistic for an ergative case to evolve here, and somehow sneak its way past the object and onto the subject?
Would it even start after the object? I'm not sure what sort of verb you're thinking of, but to me it would seem more likely that the 'natural' position would be after the verb, not after the object! ["John the cat eat intended"]
Secondly, if this is indeed a problem, which of the two options seems more realistic? Does it seem plausible that a naturalistic language would mark an absolutive case and leave the ergative case unmarked, or should I, given the circumstances, give up on having ergativity in this language? (I wouldn't be all that heartbroken about that, at this point it no longer feels like a key feature of the language.)
It's unlikely that a language would have an unmarked ergative and marked absolutive, but it's not impossible. It does happen. And of course many languages don't have ergativity at all. So... up to you, really.
I hope I was able to phrase this question in a way that wasn't too confusing, I'm not great with terminology.
Seemed to make sense to me (unless I completely misunderstood, of course...)
User avatar
BarnacleHeretic
rupestrian
rupestrian
Posts: 16
Joined: 17 Oct 2021 07:14

Re: Evolving Split Ergativity

Post by BarnacleHeretic »

Thanks for the responses, they were super helpful! I'm so glad I found this place.
Post Reply