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Basque ergativity: murder is just transitive death

Luistxo Fernandez 2006/10/16 22:34
I'll try to explain ergative construction today. I owe this to Wheylona, american blogger in Donostia who's trying to learn Basque. Ergativity is a feature of Basque grammar that might be considered odd by speakers of surrounding European languages. However, it's a feature documented by other languages in the world (unrelated to Basque) like Georgian or Chechen, for instance.

OK. Well, ergativity is, as the Wikipedia puts it, this: an ergative language maintains an equivalence between the object of a transitive verb and the subject of an intransitive verb, while treating the agent of a transitive verb differently.

I have read strange examples of how this applies to everyday language. Steven Pinker, well known linguist with a brilliant Chomskyan book, The Language Instict, put it this way: as ergative languages mark the object of an transtitive action (I saw her) the same way as the subject of an intransitive action, therefore they say something like ran her, for she ran.

But both Wikipedia's definition and Pinker's example sound totally alien to me. Ergative construction must look really odd to everybody following that. So, I'll give an example of mine. Perhaps my own explanation will be as strange (and surely not as accurate) as those, but, I'll try anyway.

Wheylona happens to deal with dead bears in her Basque lessons... I'll use a dead parrot, instead. More geek and funny than dead bears, I guess.

It happens that, in Basque, to die and to kill are the same verb. Although there are synonims that do not coincide with both meaning, the most common form hil means both things. That's easy to explain if you speak an ergative language, because murder, at the end, is just transitive death. Or ergative death...

a) Loroa hil da - Parrot-the DIE has. The parrot's dead. More accurately, the parrot has died.

It's easy to transform the decease into a crime:

b) Loroa nik hil dut - Parrot-the I-erg.mark DIE I-have-it. I've killed the parrot.

c) Loroa John Cleesek hil du. Parrot-the John Cleese-erg.mark Die he-has-it. John Cleese has killed the parrot.

-k is the usual ergative marking case. It marks the agent ot the verb.

We may just reverse the actors of the drama:

d) Loroak John Cleese hil du - Parrot-the-erg.mark John Clese DIE he-has-it. The parrot has killed John Cleese.

In accusative language like the ones around us, they tell us, using their accusative logic, that in a) the parrot is the subject, and in c), it becomes the direct object. It is a dead parrot, but somehow, it raises like a zombie from its subject position to occupy a different grammatical niche.

In Basque there are no zombie parrots. The parrot is dead in a), and it's in the same inert and dead position in c), with no declension mark at all neither when it's the alleged subject (a) nor when the indoeuropean linguists declare it to be a direct object (c). What happens is that there's an agent of death now in c), John Cleese, who enters into the scene elegantly dressed in ergative. Why should the parrot have a different grammatical role now? Yet, that's how non-Basque europeans see this: the c)-parrot is not the same as the a)-parrot. Nonsense.

e) Nor hil da? Loroa. Who die has? Parrot-the. Who's dead? the parrot.

f) Nork hil du? John Cleesek. Who-erg.mark die has-it? John Cleese-erg.mark. Who killed him? John Cleese did!

So, what if the parrot committed suicide? Agent and object are the same then... That's easy and logic in Basque:

g) Loroak bere burua hil du. Parrot-the-erg.mark his head-the die he-has-it. The parrot killed his head, that is, the parrot killed himself.

Other Basque verbs also show this behaviour. Sartu: to enter, to put into.

h) Katua etxean sartu da. Cat-the house-the-in enter has. The cat entered into the house.

i) Katua etxean sartu du txakurrak. Cat-the house-the-in enter it-has-it dog-the-erg.mark: the dog has put the cat into the house.

The cat enters in both cases. You poor accusative-thinking indoeuropeans pretend to see a subject in one case, and an object in the other. We see an absolute cat in both cases; absolute being the name of the grammatical case... no mark at all, in contrast to ergative -k marking.

Is it all clear now?

etiketak: ,
David Marjanovi
David Marjanovi dio:
2007/05/31 10:47

A more fundamental difficulty is the word order. Take the following example:

Ah, that's just Chinese.

Chinese lacks relative pronouns, so...

yòng zìxingchē qù xiǎoxué de háizi

use self-go-cart GOTO school _ child

the child who goes to school by ( = using a) bike

From what little I've read about Basque, the attribute-marking particle de translates fine into -ko, as in Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea. The difference is just that Chinese lacks a genitive (or any other trace of case other than the existence of prepositions) and therefore uses it more often.

John Cowan
John Cowan dio:
2007/03/01 06:36

Thanks for the link.  Yes, my example is bizarre, but that's because fully general ergativity is bizarre to anglophones.  We have our own bizarre feature, and that's instrument-subject sentences like The hammer destroyed the doghouse as an alternative to John destroyed the doghouse with a hammer.

But if you translate my example Cthulhu ate John and died word for word into Basque (well, putting the words in the correct order, of course), who is it that died?

Luistxo dio:
2007/02/27 14:10

I found another bizarre explanation of ergativity here: how Basques are supposed to understand the phrase: Cthulhu ate him and died. IMO, there's no way to understand it in Basque, because that's not Basque, it's English.

Brendan dio:
2007/02/18 00:05

Actually, if you think about it, we can sort of use a pseudo ergative-absolutative construction in IE languages. It's probably easiest to see in Latin.

"The window broke" > Fenestra rupit.
"The boy broke the window" > Puer rupit fenestram. (accusative form).

However, we can also use a pseudo ergative-absolutive form for this same sentence:
> Fenestra puero rupit. (ergative form). Puero "boy" is in ablative case, so literally it says, "the window broke by/from the boy".

mariska dio:
2007/02/10 23:54

Thank you for your interesting and educational posting on Basque ergativity. For an self-inflicted project have been trying to get a basic idea of Basque grammar.  It’s hard for me, as an English-speaking American, to get my head around Basque. Your examples with the dead parrot, and the other Monty Python references, made me chuckle.

peadar macgearailt
peadar macgearailt dio:
2007/01/23 17:08

hi guys


as a person about to emigrate to St Just Ibarre and starting on the road to learning the tongue of the basque nation any tips of a good home study lingual format tapes CD's etc

as you can see i am irish gaeilge speaking and english but living in the territory would like to merge into the culture




peadar eoin macgearailt 


Luistxo dio:
2006/12/01 10:48

The problem with your example, I think, is the past tense, harder to master than present tense forms. Tri-personal form agreement as in genizkizuen not a problem. My daughter produces didazu quite well, but instead of the all-the-way-round correct zenidan past form, I've heard her say didazun, with a final -n that she interprets (I guess) as a past tense form. From there, children tend to go to zidazun, another reguralised form (not heard from Lili so far)... Zenidan or genizkizuen sound like cult forms, and I doubt if they can be produced very spontaneously.

homo oeconomicus
homo oeconomicus dio:
2006/11/29 18:50

Yep, Austin TX. My daughter Riyo (almost five) was a monolingual Japanese speaker until about three and a half. She's pretty fluent in English now (thanks to preschool), but what's fascinating is that when she gets excited or upset she sometimes uses Japanese word order when speaking English: "Yesterday grandma bought me skirt I want to wear today!"

What I don't understand is how little Basque kids can master the verbs. How old do you have to be to spontaneously (and correctly) produce something like "liburuak erakutsi genizkizuen"?

Luistxo dio:
2006/11/22 20:55

Learning Basque from Austin, Texas? Wow! I deal with a monolingual Basque every day, my daughter Lili. Poor lexic yet, but correct word order and ergative construction (she turned 3 on october).

Luistxo dio:
2006/10/23 15:02

That's a good joke, yes. I knew it, but I dind't recall for this post... I knew Wheylona finally last friday. She came to our house. Internet does not isolate people, it connects people.

Nedra dio:
2006/10/22 01:36

I'm clearly going to have to actually start leaning more Basque than: kaixo, agur, lanak and the numbers 1-7 before I will truly understand your and Wheylona's comments, but they do whet my appetite. When I came to Spain, I thought I'd also learn Basque, Catalan and Gallego, but didn't allow for the fact that I would actually have to work for a living and not have unlimited time.

I leave you with a silly joke that always makes me laugh, and is tangentally related to your example. You can tell it in English or Spanish, but one line has got to be in Spanish, as you will see.

So, a woman is in a pet shop looking around when she sees this lovely parrot. She thinks to herself, "Why that would be a lovely pet. It's low maintenance and can also keep you company."

It's quite a posh pet shop, though, and she's worried it might be a little out of her price range. So, she turns to the young girl working there and asks, "¿Es cara la cacatua?"

The salesgirl looks a little alarmed and replies, "I'm so sorry, ma'am, but I don't speak Basque!"

Rhys dio:
2006/10/17 19:34

It kind of makes sense and seems logical really.

Not that I even tried to understand it, but in your Sustatu article about Welsh blogging, my name appeared as Rhysek and Rhys Wynnek, and this explains why.

Good luck to Wheylona in her efforts to become fluent.  She might take inspiration form fellow American bloggers who have learnt Welsh: <a href="">Zoe</a>, <a href="">Robert</a> (Robert is Welsh but learnt after moving to the USA), <a href="">Janis</a>, <a href="">Sarah</a>,<a href="">Tom</a> and <a href="">Chris</a> who's actually moved to Wales and started a degree course studying Welsh.

homo oeconomicus
homo oeconomicus dio:
2006/11/22 02:50

Excuse the comment on the very old thread (an internet month is how many dog years? <g>), but as someone studying Basque, I can tell you the ergativity is by far not the most difficult part of studying the language. Ergativity is quirky, like a weird uncle who always makes jokes, but it's nevertheless understandable. A more fundamental difficulty is the word order. Take the following example:

[1]Bizikletan [2]eskolara [3]joaten den [4]mutila.

In English (and Spanish), the order would be the opposite:

[4]The boy [3]who goes [2]to school [1]by bike.

The opposite: let that sink in... What that means is that to learn to produce that kind of construction, you have to learn to think backwards! <cue scary movie music>.

Incidentally, this kind of construction is called left-branching, since the relative clause comes before (i.e., to the left) of the head, or noun(-phrase) it is modifying. Left-branching languages are not that unusual, either, although to the left-branching Basques surrounded on all sides by right-branching Indo-Europeans, it might seem like they are all alone in the world. Japanese, for one, has very similar word order to Basque (left-branching, post-positions): [1]Jitensha de [2]gakko ni [3]kayou [4]otoko no ko. In fact, if all Basques weren't already bilingual in an Indo-European language (how I would like to meet a monolingual Basque!), Japanese might be easier for them to learn than Spanish or French.

Anyway, just to say that ergativity is the least of the Basque-learner's troubles, especially when it's described as engagingly as you did in this post. <g>

Nedra dio:
2006/10/24 00:49

I agree. In fact, before she came to Spain, I had only met Wheylona once. It's a friend-of-a-friend thing. But now I feel like we really know each other and she's coming down to Mad this weekend for a big birthday bash I'm having. We have to control the computers, not vice versa.

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Luistxo works in CodeSyntax, tweets as @Luistxo and tries to manage the automated newssite Niagarank. This Cemetery is part of a distributed multilingual blog (?!). These are the Basque and Spanish versions:

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