A direct-inverse language, Wikipedia claims, is one which

involve[s] different grammar for transitive predications according to the relative positions of their "subject" and their "object" on a person hierarchy, which, in turn, is some combination of saliency and animacy specific to a given language.

First person generally outranks second person, and these two outrank non-speech participant arguments. When the subject outranks to the object, the verbs are generally unmarked. Thus, in a language with free word order, without case marking, and without the marking of verbal arguments on the verb, one would expect the gloss

1SG 2SG killed

to translate as

"I killed you."

The gloss of

1SG 2SG killed.INV,

with "killed" morphologically marked for an "inverse voice" of sorts, would, in turn, correspond to the non-prototypical situation in which the lower ranking argument acts on the higher ranking one. In this case, the expected translation would be

"You killed me."

All the literature I've seen investigates languages in which the inverse morphology appears on the verb. Nonetheless, inverse marking on the verbal arguments seems at least conceptually sound to me. In a hypothetical language with this sort of alignment, there would exist an "inverse case" slapped onto, let's say, the subject if it is lower ranking than the object. In such a language the former gloss would remain as it is, but the latter would be as follows:

1SG 2SG.INV killed.

Why is the "inverse alignment" typologically absent? Is there something incoherent about the very idea, is it an accidental gap, or is it a result of broader typological tendencies found among the direct-inverse languages?

  • I think part of the reason this is hard to look up is because it wouldn't be described as "inverse on the pronoun," but rather "an ergative case only on agents lower than the patient on the animacy hierarchy" or "Direct Object Marking/ accusative case only on patients higher ranked on the animacy heirarchy than agents." Dec 9, 2019 at 17:16
  • Thank you for the answer! This explains why I was having a hard time looking it up. Still, I am really baffled a system like that does not a more convenient label. Characterizing it as "direct alignment when agents rank higher and ergative alignment when agents rank lower" really misses the central generalization, which is: mark the marked agent, i.e. use marking only when the animacy hierarchy does not predict semantic roles. I guess this sort of alignment pattern just... feels very natural and intuitive to me and I'm quite surprised I never encountered it in a natural language. Dec 15, 2019 at 7:18
  • I think I saw a bit on languages that work like that in R. M. W. Dixon's Ergativity, but I won't be able to get my hands on my copy for a few hours. The main thing I can tell you is that focusing too much on "alignment" will make you miss all the wild variation in languages that are described as "ergative." Dec 16, 2019 at 16:07
  • In section 3.4 of Ergativity, Dixon talks about a few examples of languages that only mark ergative case on agents that are not prototypically the most likely, but it is not on an alignment system (he cites an example which is basically "dog man bites" and "man-ERG dog bites." In section 4.2, he goes over hierarchies, but only uses examples of ergative languages that refer to absolute place in the hierarchy. Dec 17, 2019 at 6:45
  • Thanks a ton! I'll have a look at Dixon's book. Dec 17, 2019 at 13:06


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