I found a language of Celebes island in Indonesia, its name is Mongondow (mog). It has a Phillipine's Alignment morphosyntactic which it has combination of Accusative and Ergative languages. The word ordering is Verb-initial type (either VOS or VSO). The Phillipine's Alignment works like this:

V+patient trigger _ ERG-Noun _ ABS-Noun (V_S_O);

V+actor trigger _ OBL-Noun _ ABS-Noun (V_O_S);

V+actor trigger _ ABS-Noun (V_S);

V+patient trigger _ ABS-Noun (V_O).

There are three noun cases in the language: Absolutive, Ergative, and Oblique. Nouns are marked for Absolutive and Oblique with separate word, while Ergative Nouns is unmarked. (Pronouns have Irregular Marking patterns).

At first, I think the unmarked Nouns are Absolutive, because in other languages I found the Absolutives usually are unmarked. However in this language I found that the unmarked Nouns fit more as Ergatives while the Marked Nouns which at first I thought as Ergatives fit more as Absolutive. I am still hesitate, is it okay that Ergative case be unmarked?

  • The abbreviations you use are not transparent. Without actual data, any discussion depends on individual understandings of ERG-Noun, actor trigger, and other non-terminal theoretical categories. There should be tests for all of these; you can't just work from a definition worked out in theory.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 21:08
  • When you ask if the ergative case can be unmarked, are you asking if it can be unmarked in languages in general or just in Mongondow? Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 21:09

2 Answers 2


It's not clear what you mean when you ask if it is okay. If that is how the language works, then that's how it works. I assume that what you're really asking is whether it okay to analyze some null case as ERG.

It is well known that it is difficult to decide whether Austronesian languages have ergative alignment or accusative alignment because their incredibly rich voice systems make it difficult to tell what is the "basic" transitive clause. We need to know what the basic transitive clause looks like because that is what we compare to the intransitive clause to determine whether the pattern at hand looks ergative or not.

You give two options for the basic transitive clause.

(1) V+patient trigger _ ERG-Noun _ ABS-Noun (V_S_O);

(2) V+actor trigger _ OBL-Noun _ ABS-Noun (V_O_S);

Say we take (1) as basic. Then the alignment looks ergative because S in actor voice intransitive get marked with the same case as O in (1). If (1) is the basic transitive clause, then what is going on in (2)? We have to analyze it as some sort of antipassive, where O has been demoted and appears in an oblique, while S gets the same case as actor voice intransitive because (2) is actually intransitive itself in virtue of being an antipassive.

What if we take (2) as the basic transitive clause? Then the alignment looks accusative because the A argument gets marked with the same case actor voice intransitive subjects. This would mean that what you call OBL here is actually an accusative case. If we take this path, then what must we say about (1). Well, we have to say that it is a passive clause. The thematic object has been promoted to subject of an intransitive verb, which is what it bears the same case as a normal intransitive subject. What you're call ERG would then have to to be the oblique agent.

So what can the morphology tell us (In particular, what can the fact that your ERG above is unmarked tell us)? I think we have to pick our poison. It is typologically rare for ergative to be the unmarked case. At the same time, it is also typologically rare for oblique arguments, like the demoted agent of a passive, to be morphologically unmarked. Whether we decide (1) or (2) is the basic transitive clause, we're in a pickle. I really can't say anything more without looking at more data.

NOTE: You could always just reject this dichotomy and say that this language is neither ergative nor accusative, but has a tripartite case systems where the A case is morphologically unmarked. I think this is typologically rare, but I don't know as much about these kinds of systems.


It is quite common cross-linguistically to have ergativity marked optionally. McGregor (2010) talks about this in impressive cross-linguistic detail, arguing that while in some language ergativity may be obligatory, in other languages it can be used optionally. This optionality is not entirely arbitrary, and there are commonalities cross-lingustically. These include a tendency for ergativity to be more common in past tense costructions, with animate or human subjects or to indicate a high level of volitionality. Other articles in the Lingua special that McGregor's paper appeared in also discuss optional ergativity in specific languages.

McGregor. 2010. Optional ergative case marking systems in a typological-semiotic perspective. Lingua 120:7. pp: 1610-1636

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