Morphosyntactic alignment

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In linguistics, morphosyntactic alignment is the grammatical relationship between arguments—specifically, between the two arguments (in English, subject and object) of transitive verbs like the dog chased the cat, and the single argument of intransitive verbs like the cat ran away. English has a subject, which merges the more active argument of transitive verbs with the argument of intransitive verbs, leaving the object distinct; other languages may have different strategies, or, rarely, make no distinction at all. Distinctions may be made morphologically (through grammatical case or verbal agreement), syntactically (through word order), or both.

For example, in English, in the dog chased the cat (transitive verb, two arguments), and in the bird flew (intransitive verb, one argument), 'dog' and 'bird' are both subjects, which is shown by their appearance before the verb, while 'cat' is different, an object, coming after the verb. Not all languages treat 'dog' and 'bird' as equivalent the way English does: in some 'cat' and 'bird' will be equivalent, while 'dog' is different, and there are yet other systems.

Semantics and grammatical relations

Transitive verbs have two core arguments, labelled A (the more active or in-control) and O, which in a language like English are subject (A) and object (O). Intransitive verbs have a single core argument, labelled S, which in English (but not in all languages) is also a subject.

(The label P is sometimes used in place of O. Note that while the labels S, A, O, and P originally stood for "subject", "agent", "object", and "patient" respectively, the concepts of S, A, and O/P are distinct both from the traditional grammatical relations "subject" and "object", and from the thematic relations "agent" and "patient": an A or S need not be an agent or subject, an O need not be a patient, even in a language where they usually are.)

Generally, not all three of these labelled arguments (S, A, O) are distinct. In most languages, two are treated one way (such as the subject in English, which covers S and A) and the third is distinct (as the object in English, which covers O). That is, the labels are abstractions. They help illustrate the similarities and differences between languages, but are not real in all but a handful. There is no reality to S vs A in English, for example, only between S/A and O; in other languages, A will be realized, but not S vs O.

The best-known system is the English type, with a distinct O (object). These are called nominative–accusative languages, or just accusative languages, after the nominative and accusative cases, which are how A/S and O are distinguished in Latin. The best known of the other systems is the ergative system, named after the ergative case, which is how A is marked in many languages (such as Inuit and Basque) which distinguishes A from S/O. An example in English of a verb used in the ergative case is the verb "moved" in the two sentences “John moved the stone,” and “The stone moved.” In the first sentence, since the subject (A) (John) performs the verb upon the object (O) (the stone), the verb (moved) is transitive. In the second sentence, however, the stone becomes the subject (S), which performs the verb, and the object disappears, and thus, because the verb does not take a direct object, it is intransitive. Therefore, the verb "moved" is an ergative verb because it can be used both transitively and intransitively. [1] Yet other systems are found in many Native American languages and in the Philippines. Many Australian languages will sometimes be one, and sometimes another, depending on the situation.

The principal types, or alignments, so called because S is said to "align" with either A (as in English) or O (as in Inuit), summarized here. The distinction between the two most common systems is expanded upon in the next section. For further information, including the rarer systems, see the individual articles.

  1. Nominative–accusative (or accusative) alignment treats the S argument of an intransitive verb like the A argument of transitive verbs, with the O argument distinct (S = A; O separate) (see nominative–accusative language). In a language with morphological case marking, an S and an A may both be unmarked or marked with the nominative case while the O is marked with an accusative case (or sometimes an oblique case used for dative or instrumental case roles also), as occurs with nominative -us and accusative -um in Latin: Julius venit "Julius came"; Julius Brutum vidit "Julius saw Brutus". Languages with nominative–accusative alignment can detransitivize transitive verbs by demoting the A argument and promoting the O to be an S (thus taking nominative case marking); it is called the passive voice. Most of the world's languages have accusative alignment.
    An uncommon subtype is called marked nominative or nominative–absolutive. In such languages, the subject of a verb is marked for nominative case, but the object is unmarked, as are citation forms and objects of prepositions. Such alignments are clearly documented only in northeastern Africa, particularly in the Cushitic languages, with and the southwestern United States and adjacent parts of Mexico, in the Yuman languages.
  2. Ergative–absolutive (or ergative) alignment treats an intransitive argument like a transitive O argument (S=O; A separate) (see ergative–absolutive language). An A may be marked with an ergative case (or sometimes an oblique case used also for the genitive or instrumental case roles) while the S argument of an intransitive verb and the O argument of a transitive verb are left unmarked or sometimes marked with an absolutive case. Ergative–absolutive languages can detransitivize transitive verbs by demoting the O and promoting the A to an S, thus taking the absolutive case, called the antipassive voice. About a sixth of the world's languages have ergative alignment. The best known are probably Inuit and Basque.
  3. Fluid (or semantic) alignment (see active–stative languages) treats the arguments of intransitive verbs like the A argument of transitives (like English) in some cases and like transitive O arguments (like Inuit) in other cases (Sa=A; So=O). For example, in Georgian, Mariamma imğera "Mary (-ma) sang", Mariam shares the same narrative case ending as in the transitive clause Mariamma c'erili dac'era "Mary (-ma) wrote the letter (-i)", while in Mariami iq'o Tbilisši revolutsiamde "Mary (-i) was in Tbilisi up to the revolution", Mariam shares the same case ending (-i) as the object of the transitive clause. Thus, the arguments of intransitive verbs are not uniform in its behavior.
    The reasons for treating intransitive arguments like A or like O usually have a semantic basis. The particular criteria vary from language to language and may be either fixed for each verb or chosen by the speaker according to the degree of volition, control, or suffering of the participant or to the degree of sympathy that the speaker has for the participant.
  4. Austronesian alignment, also called Philippine-type alignment, is found in the Austronesian languages of the Philippines, Borneo, Taiwan, and Madagascar. These languages have both accusative-type and ergative-type alignments in transitive verbs. They are traditionally (and misleadingly) called "active" and "passive" voice because the speaker can choose to use either one rather like active and passive voice in English. However, because they are not true voice, terms such as "agent trigger" or "actor focus" are increasingly used for the accusative type (S=A) and "patient trigger" or "undergoer focus" for the ergative type (S=O). (The terms with "trigger" may be preferred over those with "focus" because these are not focus systems either; morphological alignment has a long history of confused terminology). Patient-trigger alignment is the default in most of these languages. For either alignment, two core cases are used (unlike passive and antipassive voice, which have only one), but the same morphology is used for the "nominative" of the agent-trigger alignment and the "absolutive" of the patient-trigger alignment so there is a total of just three core cases: common S/A/O (usually called nominative, or less ambiguously direct), ergative A, and accusative O. Some Austronesianists argue that these languages have four alignments, with additional "voices" that mark a locative or benefactive with the direct case, but most maintain that these are not core arguments and thus not basic to the system.
  5. A very few languages make no distinction among agent, patient, and intransitive arguments, leaving the hearer to rely entirely on context and common sense to figure them out. This S/A/O case is called direct, as it sometimes is in Austronesian alignment.
  6. Some others, called tripartite languages, use a separate case or syntax for each argument, which are conventionally called the accusative case, the intransitive case, and the ergative case. The Nez Perce language is a notable example.
  7. Certain Iranian languages, such as Rushani, distinguish only transitivity (in the past tense), using a transitive case for both A and O, and an intransitive case for S. That is sometimes called a double-oblique system, as the transitive case is equivalent to the accusative in the non-past tense.

The direct, tripartite, and transitive alignment types are all quite rare. The alignment types other than Austronesian and Fluid can be shown graphically like this:


In addition, in some languages, both nominative (accusative and ergative) absolutive systems may be used, split between different grammatical contexts, called split ergativity. The split may sometimes be linked to animacy, as in many Australian Aboriginal languages, or to aspect, as in Mayan languages. A few Australian languages, such as Diyari, are split among accusative, ergative, and tripartite alignment, depending on animacy.

A popular idea, introduced in Anderson (1976),[2] is that some constructions universally favor accusative alignment while others are more flexible. In general, behavioral constructions (control, raising, relativization) are claimed to favor nominative–accusative alignment while coding constructions (especially case constructions) do not show any alignment preferences. This idea underlies early notions of ‘deep’ vs. ‘surface’ (or ‘syntactic’ vs. ‘morphological’) ergativity (e.g. Comrie 1978;[3] Dixon 1994[4]): many languages have surface ergativity only (ergative alignments only in their coding constructions, like case or agreement) but not in their behavioral constructions or at least not in all of them. Languages with deep ergativity (with ergative alignment in behavioral constructions) appear to be less common.

Ergative vs. accusative

Ergative languages contrast with nominative–accusative languages (such as English), which treat the objects of transitive verbs distinctly from other core arguments.

These different arguments can be symbolized as follows:

  • O = most patient-like argument of a transitive clause (also symbolized as P)
  • S = sole argument of an intransitive clause
  • A = most agent-like argument of a transitive clause

The S/A/O terminology avoids the use of terms like "subject" and "object", which are not stable concepts from language to language. Moreover, it avoids the terms "agent" and "patient", which are semantic roles that do not correspond consistently to particular arguments. For instance, the A might be an experiencer or a source, semantically, not just an agent.

The relationship between ergative and accusative systems can be schematically represented as the following:

  Ergative–absolutive Nominative–accusative
O same different
S same same
A different same

The following Basque examples demonstrate ergative–absolutive case marking system:

Ergative Language
Sentence: Gizona etorri da.      Gizonak mutila ikusi du.
Words: gizona-∅ etorri da      gizona-k mutila-∅ ikusi du
Gloss: has arrived boy-ABS saw
Function: S VERBintrans      A O VERBtrans
Translation: 'The man has arrived.'      'The man saw the boy.'

In Basque, gizona is "the man" and mutila is "the boy". In a sentence like mutila gizonak ikusi du, you know who's seeing whom because -k is always added to the one doing the seeing. So this means 'the man saw the boy'. To say 'the boy saw the man', just add the "-k" to the boy: mutilak gizona ikusi du.

With a verb like etorri "come" there's no need to tell "who's coming whom", so no -k is ever added. "The boy came" is 'mutila etorri da'.

To contrast with a nominative–accusative language, Japanese marks nouns with a different case marking:

Accusative Language
Sentence: Kodomo ga tsuita.      Otoko ga kodomo o mita.
Words: kodomo ga tsuita      otoko ga kodomo o mita
Gloss: child NOM arrived      man NOM child ACC saw
Function: S VERBintrans      A O VERBtrans
Translation: 'The child arrived.'      'The man saw the child.'

In this language, in the sentence "man saw child", the one doing the seeing (man) may be marked with ga, which works like Basque "-k" (and the one who is seen may be marked with o). However, in the sentences like the child arrived, where there's no need of telling "who arrived whom", there may be a ga. This is unlike Basque, where "-k" is completely forbidden in such sentences.

See also


  1. "Ergative". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Anderson, Stephen. (1976). On the notion of subject in ergative languages. In C. Li. (Ed.), Subject and topic (pp. 1–24). New York: Academic Press.
  3. Comrie, Bernard. (1978). Ergativity. In W. P. Lehmann (Ed.), Syntactic typology: Studies in the phenomenology of language (pp. 329–394). Austin: University of Texas Press.
  4. Dixon, R. M. W. (1994). Ergativity. Cambridge University Press.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Stephen. (1976). On the notion of subject in ergative languages. In C. Li. (Ed.), Subject and topic (pp. 1–24). New York: Academic Press.
  • Anderson, Stephen R. (1985). Inflectional morphology. In T. Shopen (Ed.), Language typology and syntactic description: Grammatical categories and the lexicon (Vol. 3, pp. 150–201). Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
  • Comrie, Bernard. (1978). Ergativity. In W. P. Lehmann (Ed.), Syntactic typology: Studies in the phenomenology of language (pp. 329–394). Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (1979). Ergativity. Language, 55 (1), 59–138. (Revised as Dixon 1994).
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (Ed.) (1987). Studies in ergativity. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (1994). Ergativity. Cambridge University Press.
  • Foley, William; & Van Valin, Robert. (1984). Functional syntax and universal grammar. Cambridge University Press.
  • Kroeger, Paul. (1993). Phrase structure and grammatical relations in Tagalog. Stanford: CSLI.
  • Mallinson, Graham; & Blake, Barry J. (1981). Agent and patient marking. Language typology: Cross-linguistic studies in syntax (Chap. 2, pp. 39–120). North-Holland linguistic series. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company.
  • Patri, Sylvain (2007), L'alignement syntaxique dans les langues indo-européennes d'Anatolie, (StBoT 49), Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, ISBN 978-3-447-05612-0
  • Plank, Frans. (Ed.). (1979). Ergativity: Towards a theory of grammatical relations. London: Academic Press.
  • Schachter, Paul. (1976). The subject in Philippine languages: Actor, topic, actor–topic, or none of the above. In C. Li. (Ed.), Subject and topic (pp. 491–518). New York: Academic Press.
  • Schachter, Paul. (1977). Reference-related and role-related properties of subjects. In P. Cole & J. Sadock (Eds.), Syntax and semantics: Grammatical relations (Vol. 8, pp. 279–306). New York: Academic Press.

External links

  • WALS Alignment of Case Marking of Full Noun Phrases
  • Case Marking and Ergativity: an article on Jiwarli with a clear explanation of nominative–accusative, ergative–absolutive and tripartite systems