Ergativity avant la lettre

(LINGUIST List, Mar 21 2004)

Dear colleagues,

I am interested in obtaining information about early descriptions of ergative systems (i.e. descriptive works written before ergativity came to be seen as an independent case-marking strategy). This interest comes from my work on Kariri (or Kiriri), an ergative Macro-Jê language once spoken in northeast Brazil.

The most comprehensive description of Kariri (first published in 1699) is a grammar written by Luiz Mamiani (1652-1730), a Jesuit priest. Although he relies essentially on the classical, Greco-Latin grammatical tradition, Mamiani manages to describe Kariri ergativity in a very coherent (and, one may say, elegant and economic) fashion. He describes all transitive verbs as being intrinsically passive. These 'passive' verbs, as well as all intransitive verbs (which he calls 'neutral'), take a morphologically unmarked 'nominative' argument (what would be called the 'absolutive' argument in current jargon). In addition, all 'passive' verbs require an 'ablative of agent' (the ergative argument), marked by an adposition. By having transitive verbs treated as passive, everything else falls into place (including reflexivization and switch-reference, which follow a strictly absolutive pattern in Kariri).

I would appreciate it if you could provide me with any information on the solutions devised by other grammarians from that period (the first three centuries of colonization of the Americas) to describe ergativity. Was the 'passive approach' a common descriptive solution? Were there terminological innovations? Although my focus is on the indigenous languages of the Americas, I would certainly be interested in hearing about early descriptions of Basque and other ergative languages of the Old World as well.

Thanks in advance.



[PS. I'm aware that an approach similar to Mamiani's was adopted in some 20th-century theoretical treatments of ergativity, but at this point I'm especially interested in the pioneering descriptive work found in early grammars.]

Eduardo Rivail Ribeiro
Department of Linguistics (University of Chicago)
Museu Antropológico (Universidade Federal de Goiás)

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