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.


1 Answer 1


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.

  • +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?
    – user5306
    Apr 3, 2016 at 16:30
  • Would you please respond in your answer, which is easier to read than comments?
    – user5306
    Apr 3, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 18:00

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