The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 2/17 - Jessica Coon

Speaker: Jessica Coon (Harvard)
Title: The role of Case in A-bar extraction asymmetries: Evidence from Mayan
Time: Thursday, February 17, 12:30pm
Location: 32-D461
(Collaborative work with Pedro Mateo Pedro and Omer Preminger.)

Many morphologically ergative languages display asymmetries in the extraction of core arguments, sometimes referred to as “syntactic ergativity”: while absolutive arguments (transitive objects and intransitive subjects) extract freely, ergative arguments (transitive subjects) cannot (see e.g. Dixon 1972, 1974; Manning 1996). This is the case in many languages of the Mayan family. In order to extract agents (for focus, question, or relativization), a special construction known as the “Agent Focus” (AF) must be used. These AF constructions have been described as syntactically and semantically transitive, because they contain two non-oblique DP arguments, but morphologically intransitive because the verb appears with only a single agreement marker and takes the intransitive status suffix (Aissen 1999; Stiebels 2006). Though AF constructions have been the topic of much recent work, there is no consensus on how to best analyze them. To complicate matters, in languages of the Q’anjob’alan branch of the Mayan family, the Agent Focus morphology has been extended to another domain: non-finite transitives. This construction is known in Mayanist circles as the “Crazy Antipassive”, and to this point it has remained unexplained.

In this paper we offer a proposal for (i) why some morphologically ergative languages exhibit extraction asymmetries, while others do not; and (ii) how the AF construction circumvents this problem. Through a comparison of Q’anjob’al and Chol we argue for an analysis which unifies the two environments which trigger AF morphology in Q’anjob’al. We propose further that the inability to extract ergative arguments does not reflect a problem with the ergative subject, but rather is a problem with how absolutive arguments are licensed in the clause. We argue that the AF morpheme -on circumvents this problem by assigning Case to internal arguments. We show how the appearance of intransitive verbal morphology is connected to this change in Case-assignment properties of these clauses.