From what I've read, a lot of languages that have nominative-accusative marking have only this type of marking. However, languages that have ergative-absolutive marking in some contexts typically also have nominative-accusative marking in other contexts. These are called "split ergative languages." (See the article in Wikipedia for more detail: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split_ergativity)

But a lot of people talk about "ergative languages." The article just cited states that "most of the so-called ergative languages are not pure but split-ergative."

Are there really any languages that have ergative marking but no nominative-accusative marking?

And why, in general, do people refer to split-ergative languages as "ergative languages"?

  • 4
    Because they are contrasting languages which have any kind of ergativity to languages which have no ergativity at all, like most European languages. Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 9:34
  • There's a little ergativity in English, in certain constructions. The -er/-ee suffix is one example, and the Gerund + of NP construction is another. This is not the same thing as what is called "unaccusative" or "unergative" verb types, which is a controversial technical term used in some theories but not most.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 17:14
  • Like syntax/morphology, which is a contrast between two ways to organize one's grammar and balance off, accusative/ergative is a contrast between two ways to organize one's verb arguments, and while some languages are almost all one way, there's always a little of the other.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 17:16

1 Answer 1


Edit: Since I got a downvote, I reworded my question to better reflect my original intent.

You are right in claiming that there is (very probably) no "pure" ergative language (although some, such as Dyirbal, come close).

But then also consider that there is possibly no true accusative languages as well. While English certainly aligns fundamentally, accusatively, there are some constructions that are sensitive to other distinctions than subject/object.

Past participles are one such example:

  • *The sung choir (A)
  • *The eaten glutton (Sa)
  • The fallen leaves (Sp)
  • The hunted rabbit (P)

Past participles can only ever refer to objects (P) or affected intransitive subjects (Sp).

This particular instance of alignment found in English participles (which some call "split intransitivity") is actually the way normal sentences work in languages such as Lakhota or Guaraní.

So the true answer is: there is no pure accusative/ergative/split-intransitive language, but linguists, as anyone, need labels for effective communication. That's why we use such convenient descriptions such as "ergative language".

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    English is not ergative; English is accusative. Accusative languages have and use a category Subject in every clause. Ergative languages do not have a category Subject; they don't organize their clauses that way. For further details, see here.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 17:10
  • Where did I say English was ergative? Also, alignment is not a property of clauses, but of constructions, see Bickel (2010)
    – Fryie
    Commented Jul 14, 2013 at 22:55
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    You said it wasn't accusative. It is.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 14, 2013 at 23:05
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    @jlawler, ‘ergative’ and ‘not accusative’ are not synonymous. There are other types of alignment than ergative-absolutive and nominative-accusative. Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 14:22
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    Yes, but they're all Austronesian. English has and uses grammatical relations Subject, in all clauses, and Direct Object, in transitive clauses only. A large number of the syntactic rules in the language refer to these categories, either because they only apply to subjects or direct objects, or because they have an exception for subjects or direct objects. It's integrated. That's all I'm talking about; that's the Accusative pattern. For further details, this is what I mean, repeated here from above.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 14:36

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