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Morphosyntactic alignment

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Linguistic typology
Morphological typology
Analytic language
Synthetic language
Fusional language
Agglutinative language
Polysynthetic language
Oligosynthetic language
Morphosyntactic alignment
Theta role
Syntactic pivot
Nominative-accusative language
Ergative-absolutive language
Active language
Tripartite language
Time Manner Place
Place Manner Time
Subject Verb Object
Subject Object Verb
Verb Subject Object
Verb Object Subject
Object Subject Verb
Object Verb Subject
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In linguistics, morphosyntactic alignment is the system used to distinguish between the arguments of transitive verbs and intransitive verbs. The distinction can be made morphologically (with morphemes that mark case) or syntactically (by word order), or both.

Transitive verbs usually have two arguments, the agent and the patient (these correspond to subject and object in English). Intransitive verbs have a single argument, the experiencer (the subject).

In this regard, most languages group two of the arguments and leave the other apart in terms of distinction. That is, of the three possible arguments, two are treated the same, and the other is treated differently.

  1. Nominative-accusative languages group the experiencer and the agent, with the patient separate. That is, the subject of a transitive verb and the subject of an intransitive verb are treated alike, while the object of a transitive verb is treated differently. In a language with morphological case marking, the experiencer and agent are both marked with the nominative case, while the patient is marked with the accusative case. Languages without case marking identify the arguments through word order (for example, in Subject Verb Object languages the nominative argument precedes the verb while the accusative argument follows).
  2. Ergative-absolutive languages group the experiencer and the patient. The agent is marked with the ergative case, while the experiencer and patient are marked with the absolutive case.
  3. Active languages (or active-stative languages) group the experiencer either with the agent or with the patient, according to certain criteria which may be fixed arbitrarily for each verb, or chosen by the speaker on a semantic basis. These criteria are usually related to the degree of volition or control of the verbal action by the experiencer (note that agents of transitive verbs are always marked the same).

Some languages make no distinction whatsoever between agent, experiencer and patient, leaving the hearer to rely entirely on context and common sense to figure them out. Some others (tripartite languages) use a separate case or syntax for each argument (which may conventionally be called the nominative case, the intransitive case, and the absolutive case). Certain Iranian languages, such as Rushani, only distinguish transitivity, using a transitive case and an intransitive case.

Milewski's typology

Less widely known yet worth mention is a similar classification proposed in the 1960's by the Polish linguist Tadeusz Milewski. In this classification active and tripartite languages were omitted because they were little known at that time.

Milewski proposed a division of languages into 6 groups, based upon consideration of 4 main syntactic relationships; these were:
(1) the relationship of the experiencer</i> to the verb,
(2) the relationship of <i>the agent</i> to the verb,
(3) the relationship of <i>the patient</i> to the verb, and
(4) the relationship of <i>the nominal attribute</i> to the noun.
These criteria are interesting from a typological point of view because in many languages there is no difference between the sentence and the nominal phrase.

Milewski's typology can be employed when analyzing languages with case marking but can also be used with those which use a fixed word order or a specific form of incorporation. For simplicity, the table below classifies casual languages in which the nominal attribute is marked with the genitive case.

class 1 2 3 4 5 6
experiencer to verb a a a a a a
agent to verb a b a b a b
patient to verb b a b a b a
attribute to noun c c b b a a

The letters a, b, and c represent formal inflective markers specific to each language. For instance, "a" always represents the formal marker by which the experiencer is signified, called either the "nominative" or the "absolutive" depending upon whether this morpheme marks the agent of the action (as in nominative-accusative languages) or the patient (as in ergative-absolutive languages).

As the table shows:

  1. In languages of the 1st class, the experiencer and the agent are marked with the nominative case (the "a" marker) while the patient is marked with the accusative case (the "b" marker).
    This class is the most widely spread. Most nominative-accusative languages belong here.
  2. Languages of the 2nd class inflect differently. The experiencer is marked with the same morpheme as the <i>patient while the agent is marked with a distinct morpheme. In contrast to Class 1 languages, the "a" marker represents the absolutive while the "b" marker denotes the ergative (in Class 1 languages, the "a" marker denotes the nominative and the "b" marker the accusative).
    Most ergative-absolutive languages belong here.
  3. Languages of the 3rd class could belong to nominative-accusative languages, i.e. the nominative marks both the agent and the experiencer (the "a" marker). Class 3 languages do not, however, contain distinct markers/cases for the patient and nominal attributes, which together share the same marker, which denotes genitive (the "b" marker).
    Examples of languages of the 3rd class are Indonesian and Hopi.
    It is interesting that marking the patient with the genitive is quite frequent in Slavic languages even if the accusative is usually applied in them just like in other European languages.
  4. Languages of the 4th class could be considered ergative-absolutive languages insofar as they make no distinction between the experiencer and the patient, marking both with the absolutive (the "a" marker). Yet languages of this class are contrary to typical ergative-absolutive languages insofar as they mark both agent and nominal attribute as genitive (ergative-genitive, the "b" marker).
    Examples of Class 3 languages are the Inuktitut, Salishan languages, and Mayan languages.
  5. Languages of the 5th class use the genitive not only for the nominal attribute but also for the agent and the experiencer (the "a" marker). The other case, called the accusative, marks only the patient (the "b" marker).
    The only language of this class mentioned by Milewski is Nass (Niska, Nisga'a) of the Tsimshianic family.
  6. Languages of the 6th class use the genitive not only for the nominal attribute but also for the experiencer and the patient (the "a" marker"). The other case, the ergative, is used for the agent (the "b" marker).
    This group is not too numerous: Tsimshian, Tunica and Guarani belong here.

External links

es:Alineamiento morfosintáctico pl:Stosunki morfosyntaktyczne

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