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The Äiwoo verb phrase: Syntactic ergativity without pivots1

  • ÅSHILD NÆSS (a1)

Formal models of syntax typically accord the structural position external to the verb's domain a privileged status in the overall syntactic makeup of a language, either by assuming that external arguments are always S or A, or by linking external argument position to syntactic pivothood. This paper demonstrates that the Oceanic language Äiwoo has an ergative verb phrase – i.e. A as the VP-internal argument and S/O as external arguments – but no corresponding S/O pivot. That is, the ergative structure of the verb phrase in Äiwoo does not entail any syntactically privileged status of the VP-external arguments; rather, it is simply a by-product of various diachronic developments. This situation shows that what has traditionally been perceived as fundamental differences in grammatical organisation – the difference between an accusative and an ergative pattern of VP structure – need not in fact be associated with any broader differences in syntactic or pragmatic structure. More importantly, it goes against the assumption that it is possible to assign universal functions to syntactic configurations. Instead, it can be seen as providing support for the view argued for by Evans & Levinson (2009: 444) that ‘most linguistic diversity is the product of historical cultural evolution operating on relatively independent traits’.

Corresponding author
Author's address: School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW 2308,
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The author would like to thank Bill Foley, Thomas Wier, and participants at the 12th International Conference on Austronesian Languages for helpful comments on earlier drafts, Eirik Welo for pointing me in the direction of Falk's analysis of subjects, Alex François for taking time during a lightning expedition to Temotu Province to fill the gap in my quantifier data, and two anonymous Journal of Linguistics referees for insightful comments on the prefinal version. None of these necessarily agree with all details of my analysis, and any errors or misconceptions are entirely my own responsibility. A list of abbreviations used in example glosses will be found in the appendix.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Stephen. Anderson 2005. Aspects of the theory of clitics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Terry. Crowley 2002. Serial verbs in Oceanic: A descriptive typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

John W. Du Bois 1985. Competing motivations. In John Haiman (ed.), Iconicity in syntax, 343366. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Martin. Haspelmath 2011. On S, A, P, T, and R as comparative concepts for alignment typology. Linguistic Typology 15.3, 535567.

John Lynch , Malcolm Ross & Terry Crowley . 2002. The Oceanic languages. Richmond: Curzon.

Åshild. Næss 2013. From Austronesian voice to Oceanic transitivity: Äiwoo as the ‘missing link’. Oceanic Linguistics 52.1, 106124.

Åshild Næss & Brenda H. Boerger . 2008. Reefs-Santa Cruz as Oceanic: Evidence from the verb complex. Oceanic Linguistics 47.1, 185212.

Stephen Wechsler & I Wayan Arka . 1998. Syntactic ergativity in Balinese: An argument structure based theory. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 16, 387441.

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Journal of Linguistics
  • ISSN: 0022-2267
  • EISSN: 1469-7742
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-linguistics
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