Voice, Transitivity, and Ergativity

Stephen C Carlson (scarlso1@osf1.gmu.edu)
Mon, 6 May 1996 15:15:39 -0400 (EDT)

Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>(2) The Inadequacy of our Descriptive Terms for Voice
>I may be a voice crying against a majority or a voice crying in the
>wilderness (but I am not the herald of any savior from the quandary I
>perceive in this matter!) but I've come to the conclusion that there is
>something dreadfully inadequate about the way we identify verbs as
>"transitive" and "intransitive" or "absolute" and "active," "middle," and
>"passive." The absurdity of the terms "deponent," "quasi-deponent," "middle
>deponent," "passive deponent" and "quasi-passive" OUGHT to indicate to us
>that something is wrong with our categories and our descriptive

Maybe this is the reason why I favor the five-case system over the
eight-case system for Greek, but I think it is very important to
reserve some terms of description that are completely dependent
on morphology and syntax, which the student can see immediately
in the text, rather than to incorporate its semantics.

Thus, I would say that "transitive" and "intransitive" are syntactic
statements. If there is a direct object it is transitive, etc. This
is not perfec --, sometimes for rhetorical reasons the object is omitted.

Also, I consider "voice" to a morhological concept. Verbs, then, are
active, middle, passive, or medio-passive.

The normal defintion of "deponent" is (middle/)passive in form but
active in meaning. This incorporates too much semantic knowledge.
I prefer to redefine it as verbs which lack the active voice

> I was told that a new way of looking at these
>issues in terms of a category termed "ergative" and "non-ergative" was to
>be found in a book which I believe Rod Decker referred to in response to a
>different enquiry on B-Greek, a work by B. Comrie on proto-Indo-European
>linguistics. I want to look at that, now that the semester is over and
>there's some time free at last from the press of semester-ending rush.

In ergative languages, the direct object of a transitive verb has the
same case marker as the subject of an intransitive verb. This case,
termed the ergative, has a case marker distinct from that of the
absolutive case for subjects of transitive verbs. Basque is the only
ergative language in Europe.

Stephen Carlson

Stephen C. Carlson, George Mason University School of Law, Patent Track, 4LE
scarlso1@osf1.gmu.edu              : Poetry speaks of aspirations, and songs
http://osf1.gmu.edu/~scarlso1/     : chant the words.  -- Shujing 2.35