Suppose that you have a language, let's say it's SVO, has a clause pattern in which the subject typically stands for an agent or experiencer and the object typically stands for a patient or stimulus, and in which neither NP is overtly marked for case.

Now suppose that the language has a different clause pattern in which the first argument in the clause takes an overtly marked case, let's call it "case-B," and the subject typically stands for a patient or stimulus while the object, which has no overt case-marking, typically stands for an agent or experiencer.

This second clause pattern is like the passive, except that there's no valency reduction, and the second argument must be an indefinite pronoun if its referent is to be unspecified.

My question is, is there a natural language with such a scheme?

  • I find it hard to test the languages I know against the requirements without further details. For instance, what happens to the verb in your second construction? Does it have to remain in exactly the same form? And what do you mean by no overt case-marking? Do you tolerate prepositions or do you admit only non-declensional bare NP/DP? Finally, how universal should this construction be possible (the reason I ask is that I want to test your requirements against anaphors in subject position)?
    – Olivier
    Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 12:42
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    In the second case, why would you call the first argument the subject and the second the object rather than vice versa? Semantically, it would make more sense the other way around. Is there some other criterion by which subject and object can be identified, e.g. verb agreement?
    – TKR
    Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 18:13
  • @ TKR: I'm not sure that the criteria for subject-hood are semantic. Recall English passives, like "The cat was run over," in which the subject stands for a patient. As for the syntactic properties of the subject, it would be deleted by EQUI and referenced by switch-reference marking. Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 18:56
  • @Olivier: Silly me, I didn't even think of these issues. But now that you mention it, the verb's form would be the same in both constructions, and no overt case-marking would mean that nouns not in case-B would have a zero-form case marking. Come to think of it, the subjects of these constructions could not be omitted for EQUI. As far as I can tell, there is no reason why this language couldn't have adpositions. Finally, I don't know what a "non-declensional NP/DP" is, and don't understand your last question. Consequently, I look forward to your next comment. Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 19:04
  • [Acehnese "Passive"](www.umich.edu/~jlawler/aceh.html) has some of these characteristics, except there's no overt case markers in the language.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 21:40

1 Answer 1


If I have understood your model correctly, it describes an ergative structure within many natural languages, dead or living.

E.g. Sumerian, Georgian, Basque and Tibetan all have the ergative patterns, where an agent of a transitive verb is marked, while the patiens of a transitive verb with a logical subject is not.

The subjects of nontransitive verbs in these languages, on the other hand, have no special markers.

  • 4
    Well, what I described is not an ergative/absolutive system. If it were, you'd have the subject marked with ergative case in the first pattern. Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 18:57
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    Not necessarily, there are many languages with split-ergativity. AFAIK Basque is more nominative/accusative in the past tense and ergative/absolutive in the others.
    – Eleshar
    Commented Oct 8, 2017 at 19:30
  • 1
    You may find Split ergativity an interesting read, James Grossman.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 22:29

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