I've been reading about the Native American language isolate Washo, and looking at the Universals Archive. If an ergative language is SOV, the object and subject affixes will be prefixes and the main or only alternative order will be OSV. But why is the prefix order osV rather than soV? If the subject and object prefixes are reductions of independent pronouns (and in Washo, they seem to be), one would anticipate soV from SOV.

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    Please give genetic information about Washo in your question. Please also say what sources you have consulted on the language and where your data comes from. Do you have reason to believe that the osv morphology developed at a stage in the language when the word order was SOV? It could correspond to an earlier stage (e.g. SVO, with leftward movement of object pronouns). Note that in general, pronouns and DPs needn't occupy the same positions, as many languages with clitic pronouns demonstrate.
    – Aaron
    Sep 21, 2011 at 21:33
  • @Aaron - Washo is a Native American language, an isolate in the Hokan group - and yes, I know that not the original meaning of "isolate". My knowledge of Washo comes from Jacobsen's Beginning Washo and the Washo Project website (some people don't have access to JSTOR). I was using Washo as an example of an SOV language with osV prefix order. Oct 6, 2011 at 19:26
  • Just out of curiosity: how important is word order in Washo? Does it have any grammatical meaning like in English?
    – kamil-s
    Feb 24, 2012 at 19:04
  • In what phrase would such agreement prefixes be generated? vP? IP? Could it be a case of strong agreement features necessitating the raising of the object to specIP? This would predict an OSV surface order. Of course, this would require some rule allowing the subject to raise to specCP to obtain the observed SOV surface order.
    – acattle
    Dec 18, 2012 at 16:24

1 Answer 1


You make a number of assertions that appear to be unfounded/misguided:

  • The only possible alternative to an Ergative SOV language is OSV.
    • This is a highly unlikely assertion considering that OSV, OVS, and VOS languages together are attested in <5% of the world's languages.
    • Also, the idea that Ergative/Nominative distinctions would be tied to constituent order is at the very least, confusing.

So what you've asserted about the language is that:

  1. The verb is marked using prefixes (head-marking), and;
  2. These prefixes convey the role of the arguments to be Ergative/Absolutive.
  3. The clause constituent order would be either SOV or OSV.
  4. The affixes are reductions of grammatical pronouns which were, at some point in the past, realised by full lexical items.

From this, I would draw the conclusions:

  • The verb is so marked because the Subject argument is always obligatory (or a pro-drop, which you have not specified), whereas the Object argument is not always present, as in the case of single-argument predicates.
  • If word order was important, then in this case, the fact that the verb is final would mean that the arguments of the verb would appear to its left. This means that the Subject would be said after the Object, resulting in the o-s-V construction.
  • As for the language now becomeing SOV, I have no explanation (as well as very little familiarity with the language itself). However, I will say that the "unmarked" order in the world's languages (where word order is significant) appears to be one where the Subject precedes the Object: English (SVO), French (SOV), Irish (VSO).
    • This is probably, again, for pragmatic reasons; the Subject is the most salient argument in the predicate, it needs to be expressed, whereas the Object, and sometimes even the process, can be inferred from context.
  • I don't fully understand why you say the subject would be said after the object.
    – acattle
    Dec 18, 2012 at 16:12
  • Yeah, I clearly check this often enough. Sorry, let me clarify: I've assumed the assertions that the OP posted are correct.
    – jimsug
    Apr 9, 2013 at 23:22

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