Source: p 195, Understanding Syntax (4 ed, 2014) by Prof. Maggie Tallerman PhD in Linguistics (U. Hull)

ERGATIVE is the case of A – the subject of transitive verbs. ABSOLUTIVE is the case of both S and O, the subject of intransitive verbs and the object of transitive verbs.

I understand the definitions above, but what motivated linguists to choose these terms to describe the above cases for this Morphosyntactic Alignment? I am conjecturing the word choice not to be random, and know that 'ergative' originates from Greek and 'absolutive' from the Latin absolvere.


As stated in the Intro Syntax textbook, the statement is biased; or, if you prefer, it's a category error.

In a case system that uses Ergative and Absolutive case names, there is no such thing as a "subject" or "object". It's precisely equivalent to the statement

  • OBJECT is the case of A – the absolutive of transitive verbs. SUBJECT is the case of both A and E, the absolutive of intransitive verbs and the ergative of transitive verbs.

In other words, ergative/absolutive systems don't normally have a category "subject", just as
nominative/accusative systems don't normally have a useful category "absolutive". Every clause has a subject in one system, and every clause has an absolutive in the other; and in both systems there are specialized cases that occur only with transitive verbs.

As for the etymologies, ergative comes from the same Greek root as energy; with transitive verbs, the ergative is normally the agent (prototypically human), and in many languages this is generalized to a mark of agency or volitionality with various verb classes and constructions.

Absolutive, on the other hand, is a generalized replacement for many other earlier names, including nominative, for the most common, default case in an ergative/absolutive system, which, besides being theoretically "the unmarked case", is often actually unmarked. Some preferred nominative because in split-ergative systems like most Pama-Nyungan languages, where the nouns use an ergative/absolutive system while the pronouns use a nominative/accusative one, the same morpheme often shows up as both absolutive with nouns and nominative with pronouns.

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  • +1. Thank you. 1. To which book do you refer with the Intro Ling textbook? The one stated in my OP? 2. Will you please explain why absolutive was chosen a generalized replacement for many other earlier names? What is absolutive about this case? In what meaning is this case absolutive? Does its etymology connect with its meaning here? – Accounting Apr 3 '16 at 16:30
  • Would you please respond in your answer, which is easier to read than comments? – Accounting Apr 3 '16 at 16:30
  • You say subject' and object' have no meaning in an ergative system, then you proceed to say what they mean in such a system. If they don't mean anything, how can you tell us what they mean? This is puzzling. – Greg Lee Apr 3 '16 at 17:03
  • Sorry; I didn't recheck the title. It sounded like an intro ling book. Greg, I meant that the sentence quoted and the one I matched with it are equally category mistakes. Neither is particularly helpful in understanding how an ergative system works. – jlawler Apr 3 '16 at 18:00

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