12:00pm, February 10
Ergative case and the Transitive Subject
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Many languages are described as displaying a form of case marking,
the ergative, which exclusively targets transitive subjects. But what
is a transitive subject? In this talk I present a set of case
patterns from Nez Perce (Penutian; Columbia River Plateau) which
demonstrate the intricacies of transitivity and its intersection with
subjecthood in ergative case systems. Ergative case in Nez Perce
appears only in clauses with two participants (see (1)-(2)), but not
all two-participant clauses are eligible (see (3)). I show that two-
participant clauses in Nez Perce may count as intransitive for
different syntactic and semantic reasons. What is common among the
grammatical conditions that prevent two-participant clauses from
counting as transitive is that they prevent the object from
participating in object agreement. When object agreement disappears,
ergative case is unavailable. This suggests that ergative case on a
subject is unavoidably dependent on the grammar of the object. In
addition, the subject's own syntactic properties must be taken into
account: if the subject does not participate in subject agreement,
for instance when the verb is causativized, ergative case is once
again unavailable (see (4)). The generalization about the
distribution of ergative case in Nez Perce seems to require reference
to both subject agreement and object agreement: the transitive
subject is the agreeing subject of a clause where the object also
agrees. This generalization is interesting in that it shows that the
factors underlying ergative case can be captured without any
reference to a syntactic primitive or feature [ergative]; rather,
ergative case can be captured directly as a spell-out form of the
agreement system. This suggests that abstract ergative Case may be in
general dispensable in the analysis of natural languages.
(1) Ergative case for transitive subject
pit'in-im paa-yaX-na picpic-ne
girl-erg 3/3-find-perf cat-obj
'The girl found the cat'
(2) One participant: no ergative
'The cat is sleeping.'
(3) No ergative: why?
a. pit'in hi-yaaX-na picpic
girl 3subj-find-perf cat
'The girl found her cat.'
b. 'iceyeeye hii-p-teetu picpic
coyote 3subj-eat-hab cat
'Coyotes eat cats.'
(4) Causative: no ergative for lower subject
Harold-nim pee-sepe-wemsi-se sik'em Lini-ne/ *-nim
Harold-erg 3/3-cause-borrow-imperf horse L-obj/-*erg
Harold is letting Lindy borrow a horse.