The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Syntax Square 3/6 - Omer Preminger

Speaker: Omer Preminger
Title: Syntactic Ergativity in Q’anjob’al
Date/Time: Tuesday, Mar 6, 1-2p
Location: 32-D461

(Full paper available at LingBuzz.)

Many morphologically ergative languages show asymmetries in the extraction of core arguments: while absolutive arguments (transitive objects and intransitive subjects) extract freely, ergative arguments (transitive subjects) cannot. This falls under the label “syntactic ergativity” (see e.g. Dixon 1972, 1994; Manning 1996).

Extraction asymmetries of this sort are found in many languages of the Mayan family, where in order to extract transitive subjects (for focus, wh-questions, or relativization), a special construction known as “Agent Focus” (AF) must be used (Aissen 1999; Stiebels 2006, Preminger 2011). In this talk — which presents collaborative work with Jessica Coon and Pedro Mateo Pedro — we offer a proposal for (i) why some morphologically ergative languages exhibit these extraction asymmetries, while others do not; and (ii) how the Mayan AF construction circumvents this problem.

We adopt recent proposals that ergative languages vary in the locus of absolutive case assignment (Aldridge 2004, 2008a; Legate 2002, 2008), and demonstrate that the same variation can be found within the Mayan family itself. Based primarily on comparative data from Q’anjob’al and Chol, we argue (contra previous accounts) that the inability to extract ergative arguments is not due to properties of the ergative argument itself, but rather comes about as the result of the locality conditions on absolutive case assignment in the relevant languages.

We show how the AF morpheme “-on” circumvents this problem in Q’anjob’al, by assigning structural case of its own to the internal argument. Evidence for this approach comes from reflexive and extended reflexive constructions, incorporated objects, nominalized embedded clauses, and the distribution of so-called “hierarchy effects” in related Mayan languages.