It is well-known that some ergative languages lack morphological case. If there is no case, where does their ergativity show up?

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    If it is well-known, how about some examples? Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 23:48
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    Do you know any ergative language that would not even mark case on pronouns? Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 1:13
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    @IvanKapitonov Abkhaz
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 1:56

2 Answers 2


Abkhaz is ergative and caseless. Verbs have slots that express their arguments by prefixes. An example of an intransitive verbs is с-цоит "I go" (the prefix in the first slot signals the subject's person, gender, and number).

Then there are bipersonal intransitive verbs, such as с-у-суеит "I hit you". The first slot signals the subject and the second slot the indirect object.

Finally, there are transitive verbs. In и-∅-з-боит "I see it" what is expressed in the first slot is the direct object. The subject is expressed in the third slot.

NPs are optionally adjoined to the verb and agree with it in person, gender, and number, thus allowing for free word order.

Circassian, another Northwest Caucasian language, has the same verb structure but since it has morphological case, the verb agrees with its arguments in person, case, gender, and number.

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    "bipersonal intransitive verbs"?!? Some linguistics seriously need to use more straightforward terminology.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 6:49
  • @curiousdannii This is how it's called (by Hewitt). It makes sense in the description of Northwest Caucasian languages.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 12:46
  • How do you mean "the verb agrees with its arguments in ... case"? Is it that Circassian has different series for some bound pronouns depending on that argument's case, while Abkhaz only marks it with the prefix order? Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 9:09
  • @IvanKapitonov In Circassian, the verb agrees in case with the NPs (if present) which inflect for case.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 13:58
  • Maybe an example is in order, because that just seems to me repeating what you said. Sorry, maybe I just have problems with the wording. So is it -у- vs -б- in the second person? Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 23:10

It may show in a number of things.

First of all, in agreement: if the language has bound pronouns, they will differentiate between A vs. S&P (where A is Agent, S is the Single argument of an intransitive and P is Patient).

Another thing is the syntactic ergativity in the wide sense, i.e., any clustering of morphosyntactic characteristics for A vs. S&P. This includes restrictions on relativization, topicalization and wh-movement of the ergative, binding and control priority of the absolutive, coordinate omission (girl-1 kissed-1 boy-2 and smiled-2), and even valency changing derivations (see Letuchiy on Adyghe; it's a language with case, though).

For the work on syntactic ergativity, see Manning's dissertation, Aldridge, and Polinsky, a.o.

Also, in a fixed word order language ergativity could manifest in word order (not that I heard of such, but logically possible).

  • Good answer, but A S and O stand for Agent, Single, and Other.
    – Moss
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 11:46
  • @Moss Thanks, fair point, I brushed that up. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 13:18

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