Imagine a language with PVA/APV dominant word order and SV in intransitive clauses. We see that it's tightly PV and SV whereas both VA and AV are possible. We also know that P and S are both morphologically marked the same. From this we know that the language is ergative.

Now the question is: usually we talk not in terms of agent/patient but in terms of subject/object, so do I call this SVO/OSV order (S = P) or do I call this OVS/SOV order (S = A)? The former seems intuitive for an ergative language, but I cannot find any sources explicitly stating either way.

2 Answers 2


As mentioned I could not find any sources stating how to determine the subject in an ergative language. Since nobody else could provide them, I will go with what I already reverse-engineered out of existing grammars.

For example, Dyirbal is said to be OSV. When looking at an example it also is PAV. Hence S = A, making my example OVS/SOV. (Same argument can also be made e.g. for Basque SOV => APV.)

Now I will go forward with that, even though it is rather dissatisfactory, since it makes the concept of subject ill-defined in general and difficult to apply to ergative languages, since it is effectively defined as "whatever is considered the subject in English":

  1. syntax has no bearing on subjecthood: in nominative languages the agent of a simple transitive verb can omitted, whereas it is the patient in ergative languages.
  2. confusing behaviour with intransitives: in ergative languages we have the intransitive subject marked like the transitive patient, yet we still call the transitive agent the subject.
  3. semantics has no bearing on subjecthood: in English the patient can be promoted to subject by passive construction (whereas the antipassive construction of ergative languages has no effect on subjecthood).
  4. morphology has no bearing on subjecthood: in ergative languages the transitive subject is marked whereas in nominative languages it is unmarked.

I would much prefer to say that the subject is what is understood to co-refer if omitted:

  1. syntactically the subject would remain constant: in both ergative and nominative languages the subject could be omitted, but in the former it would be the patient and in the latter it would be the agent.
  2. consistent behaviour with intransitives: in ergative languages we have the intransitive subject marked like the transitive patient, and would indeed call the transitive patient the subject.
  3. semantics has no bearing on subjecthood, but antipassive in ergative languages would just like the passive in nominative languages delete the subject and promote the object - the difference being that the subject was patient in the former and agent in the latter.
  4. morphology would tend to correlate with subjecthood: both in ergative and nominative languages the subject of transitive verbs with default alignment would be the least marked case.

But as mentioned that does not seem the usual use, so I have to make do with that.

  • I think you're getting rather confused. In general, and for unmarked constructions (so not passive sentences) the subject is the most agent-like constituent and the object is the most patient-like consitutent. Nom/Acc and Erg/Abs are terms used to talk about two morphological patterns. Ergative languages frequently allow subjects to be left out, but that's kind of tangential.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 16, 2015 at 5:10
  • 1
    And in unergative verbs and passive constructions the most agent-like argument is the patient - which makes it quite jarring. My point is that the agent is already called "agent", and the concept of subject is not linguistically informative or consistent but a consequence from pressing languages into the corset of European grammatical concepts - which makes it difficult to examine languages that do not conform to this archetype.
    – user66554
    Jan 16, 2015 at 11:36

Strictly speaking, there is no fixed rule for "an ergative language". It seems that you are interested in the phenomenon of syntactic ergativity.

It refers to the situation where the S (subject of an intransitive verb) clusters with O (object of a transitive verb; your P), rather than with A. Then, S & O together show some behaviour typical of subjects (Aldridge and Polinsky, for instance, argue that it is crucial that S & O, but not A, can undergo A'-movement or specifically relativization (resp.)).

Dyirbal, which you mention, is indeed one striking example of such a language. However, other languages exhibit syntactic ergativity, including some other Australian languages and languages of the Americas.

See also my answer here for some elaboration.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.