Ling 925: Seminar in Generative Grammar: Ergativity

Line No. 27815

12:30-1:20 MWF

Instructors: Dr. Pye and Dr. Rankin

            What would syntactic theory be like today if Noam Chomsky had been born a member of the Dyirbal tribe in Australia, or a Sioux or Mayan Indian, or a Basque? These languages employ an ergative or active/stative agreement or case system. Ergative phenomena pose a formidable challenge to current syntactic theory. Ergativity splits the core syntactic role of subject along lines of verb transitivity; ergative subjects are marked for transitive verbs and absolutive subjects are marked for intransitive verbs (Dixon 1979, 1994). The absolutive further unites the objects of transitive verbs with the subjects of intransitive verbs. Any theory which assumes a primary syntactic relation of subject is forced to add some mechanism specifically tailored to such ergative features. Such mechanisms, be they an ergative "parameter" (Murasugi 1992) or an "active" Agreement element (Chomsky 1995) are patently ad hoc. The ad hoc mechanisms of current syntactic theory do not predict where ergative splits can occur or place any constraints on ergative splitting. In this course we will examine ergativity, and other agreement systems, in the languages we know best: Mayan, Souian, Mixezoquean, and Australian. The ways in which languages can acquire or lose, or alter ergativity and/or active/stative features will also be considered. We will use this data to evaluate current syntactic theory.

            The seminar will consist of class discussions of the assigned readings. Each student will be responsible for leading the class discussion on a particular reading. In addition to the reading and class discussion each student is required to write a paper discussing some aspect of ergativity. The paper might examine, for example, the relation between finiteness and argument cross-referencing in a specific language. The seminar will be organized as a workshop. Students will present a preliminary version of their paper in class, and refine their concepts through class discussion. They will then be asked to present a final revision of their paper that incorporates suggestions from the class and the instructors.

Textbook: Dixon, R. M. W. 1994. Ergativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Jan. 23

Introduction to Ergativity


Jan. 26

Dixon 1979. Ergativity. Language 55.59-138.

Dixon 1994. Chaps. 1 & 2


Feb. 2

Dixon 1994. Chap. 3


Feb. 9

Dixon 1994. Chap. 4


Feb. 16

Dixon 1994. Chap. 5


Feb. 23

Dixon 1994. Chap. 6


Mar. 1

Dixon 1994. Chaps. 7 & 8


Mar. 8

Chomsky, N. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Woolford, Ellen. 2000. Ergative agreement systems. The University of Maryland Working Papers in Linguistics 10.157-191.


Mar. 15

Bittner & Hale, Kenneth. 1996. The structural determination of Case and Agreement. Linguistic Inquiry.


Mar. 22



Mar. 29

Larsen, T. W. 1987. The syntactic status of ergativity in Quiche. Lingua 71.33- 59.

Larsen, T. W. & Norman, W. M. 1979. Correlates of ergativity in Mayan Grammar. In Frans Plank (ed.), Ergativity: Towards a Theory of Grammatical Relations, pp. 347-370. London: Academic Press.


Apr. 5

Lengyel, T. E. 1978. Ergativity, aspect and related perplexities of Ixil-Maya. In N. C. England (ed.), Papers in Mayan Linguistics, pp. 78-91.

Ayres, G. 1981. On ergativity and aspect in Ixil. Journal of Mayan Linguistics 2.128-145.


Apr. 12

Bricker, V. R. 1981. The source of the ergative split in Yucatec Maya. Journal of Mayan Linguistics 2.83-127.

Danziger, E. 1996. Split intransitivity and active-inactive patterning in Mopan Maya. IJAL 62.369-415.


Apr. 19

Mithun, Marianne.1991. Active/agentive case marking and its motivations. Language 67:510-546.


Apr. 26



May 3

Pye, C. 1990. The Acquisition of Ergative Languages. Linguistics 28.1291-1330.

Narasimhan, B. 2004. Agent Case-Marking in Hindi Child Language. Proceedings of the BU Conference on Language Development.


May 10

Project presentations