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Ergative–absolutive language


An ergative–absolutive language, also simply called an ergative language, is a language in which the single argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb behaves like the object of a transitive verb, and differently from the agent of a transitive verb. This is in contrast to nominative–accusative languages, such as English and most other European languages, where the single argument of an intransitive verb (e.g. "She" in the sentence "She walks.") behaves grammatically like the agent of a transitive verb (e.g. "She" in the sentence "She finds it.") but differently from the object of a transitive verb (e.g. "her" in the sentence "She likes her.")

In ergative–absolutive languages with grammatical case, the case used for the single argument of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb is the absolutive, while the case used for the agent of a transitive verb is the ergative. In nominative–accusative languages, the case for the single argument of an intransitive verb and the agent of a transitive verb is the nominative while the case for the direct object of a transitive verb is the accusative.

Examples of ergative–absolutive languages include Basque, Georgian and Mayan. There is a variant, ergative accusative languages, such as Dyirbal, which functions ergatively with respect to nouns, but nominative-accusative with pronouns.

An ergative language maintains a syntactic or morphological equivalence (such as the same word order or grammatical case) for the object of a transitive verb and the single core argument of an intransitive verb, while treating the agent of a transitive verb differently.


Ergative–absolutive Nominative–accusative
A ERG NOM
S ABS NOM
O ABS ACC
Ergative language
Sentence: Martin etorri da.      Martinek Diego ikusi du.
Word: Martin etorri da      Martin-ek Diego ikusi du
Gloss: Martin-ABS has arrived      Martin-ERG Diego-ABS saw
Function: S VERBintrans      A O VERBtrans
Translation: "Martin has arrived."      "Martin saw Diego."
Accusative language
Sentence: Otoko ga tsuita.      Otoko ga kodomo o mita.
Words: otoko ga tsuita      otoko ga kodomo o mita
Gloss: man NOM arrived      man NOM child ACC saw
Function: S VERBintrans      A O VERBtrans
Translation: "The man arrived."      "The man saw the child."
Father returned.
father returned
S VERBintrans
Father returned, and father saw mother.
father returned and father saw mother
S VERBintrans CONJ A VERBtrans O
Father returned and saw mother.
father returned and ____ saw mother
S VERBintrans CONJ A VERBtrans O
Ŋuma banaganyu.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu
father-ABS returned
S VERBintrans
"Father returned."
Yabu ŋumaŋgu buṛan.
yabu-∅ ŋuma-ŋgu buṛan
mother-ABS father-ERG saw
O A VERBtrans
"Father saw mother."
Ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS mother-ERG saw
O A VERBtrans
"Mother saw father."
Ŋuma banaganyu, ŋuma yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu ŋuma-∅ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS returned father-ABS mother-ERG saw
S VERBintrans O A VERBtrans
"Father returned and mother saw father."
Ŋuma banaganyu, yabuŋgu buṛan.
ŋuma-∅ banaganyu ____ yabu-ŋgu buṛan
father-ABS returned (deleted) mother-ERG saw
S VERBintrans O A VERBtrans
"Father returned and was seen by mother."

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