I've never heard of a natural language that has ergative-absolutive marking alone. From what I've read, languages with said marking also have nominative-accusative marking, with the choice or "split" between the two types of marking conditioned by some semantic or syntactic factor. For example, in some languages we see the following: Clauses whose subjects are most likely to be agents have nominative-accusative marking. So we have "I-nom. ate the pork-acc.." But clauses whose subjects are less likely to be agents have ergative-absolutive marking. So we have "The rock-erg. hit the car-abs."

But from what I've read, said split can be conditioned by factors other than the agency, including aspect! Though I know that aspect does condition such a split, but why does it do so? What's the semantic or cognitive logic behind this?

  • Can you give any references or example languages for aspect conditioning split-ergativity? Commented May 13, 2012 at 7:19
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    OK, a bit of looking and I'll (partly) answer myself. Languages of the Indo-Iranian group (within the weird and exotic Indo-European family) show this behaviour, with perfective clauses having ergative marking while imperfective aspect clauses take accusative marking. Commented May 13, 2012 at 7:25
  • Well, there's Hindi-Urdu: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split_ergativity. Commented May 13, 2012 at 7:36
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    @GastonÜmlaut: Indo-what? Is this some obscure family spoken under a rock in the Indus valley or something? But seriously, could you give an example of such a perfective clause with ergative marking?
    – Cerberus
    Commented May 13, 2012 at 8:06

2 Answers 2


Here's Jessica Coon's analysis of how split ergativity works in Chol, a Mayan language:

  1. The language has ergative/absolutive marking in simple (monoclausal) sentences.
  2. Ergative and genitive are marked identically.
  3. The subject of nominalizations is marked with ergative/genitive.
  4. Progressives are biclausal, and derived from nominalizations.

Thus, in a perfective sentence with one argument, the argument will be marked with the absolutive (by point 1). In a imperfective/progressive single-argument sentence, the argument will be marked with ergative/genitive (by 3 and 4). In sentences with two arguments, ergative/absolutive marking is observed for both perfectives and imperfectives.

The above analysis and underlying data are from an abstract (pdf); the author has several papers on the subject whose bibliographic information can be found in her CV (pdf).

So, at least in this language, the appearance of split ergativity is the result of a confluence of quite common linguistic traits (2, 3, and 4 above all occur independently of each other very often.)


I think the following chapter is a useful reference:

Hiroyuki Ura. 2007. "A Parametric Syntax Of Aspectually Conditioned Split-Ergativity". In: Ergativity: Emerging Issues, eds. Alana Johns, Diane Massam, and Juvenal Ndayiragije.

In some languages (e.g., Georgian, Hindi, Samoan, Nepali, etc.), where the ergative system coexists with the accusative one, the alternation between ergativity and accusativity is determined by aspectuality (cf. DeLancey 1981, Dixon 1994, and Ura 2000). In this paper, I will explore the syntactic mechanism of the aspectually conditioned split-ergativity and try to explicate the parameter settings which distinguish the languages with the aspectually conditioned split-ergativity from the ergative languages with no such split and from the accusative languages in general.

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