The World and Acquiring Ergativity

Two books came, one yesterday on Ergativity and one today by Richard Haass who is seen a lot on Morning Joe. I’ve started both and am enjoying same.
Haass’ task is to bring us up to date on history since the Treaty of Westphalia, which brought the idea of “countries” into the world. A later section deals with major areas of the world and another one with major challenges facing us. The last, of greatest interest to me, treats broad elements of governance like sovereignty, alliances, war, etc.
Haass divides the time from Westphalia into 4 segments, the first lasting almost 300 years, bringing us up to WW I. Then we cover the period up to WW II, then the Cold War period and then the last 30 years.

The linguistic book is quite dense and it covers a topic of little interest to anyone outside of specialists and language/grammar nuts like me. Essentially, ergativity is “practiced” by a minority of languages, some you might recognize, like Basque and Hindi-Urdu. Since I study Urdu I’ve had to deal with ergativity but I did not know I was dealing with it. It reminds me a Kofi Agawu recounting a Twi-speaking student telling him she had not known she spoke a tone language until he pointed it out. No Urdu speaker is aware he speaks an ergative language.
Basically, it just means the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are “seen” to partake of a similar nature so that they are marked similarly. Think neuter nouns in Latin being of the same form whether the subject or the object of the verb.
Got it?
Neither do I.


  1. 伟思礼 says:

    Ergativity was less than a week in my graduate-level linguistics program. Was it oversimplified, or is the book too long? 🙂

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      That is too long to cover the few languages that use it and too short to explain it. I’ll let you know when I have a handle on it.

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