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’.
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