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THEORY: What is an active language?

From:daniel andreasson <daniel.andreasson@...>
Date:Tuesday, February 6, 2001, 1:14
Jörg wrote:

> > As you can see, I have a very vague definition of "active". I think the > > main thing that distinguishes active langs from ergative and accusative > > ones is that there is some kind of semantic reason for marking the S > > argument as either A or P. The most common ones being Control vs. non- > > control and event vs. state.
> I'd say, "event vs. state" is a bit weak. The verb "to fall", for > example, clearly refers to an event, but is its subject an A?
Well, I was being purposely vague there. I don't want to define A and P. In fact, if I could do without A and P, I would. The Chickasaw way of using I and II is _so_ much better, since you get rid of the connotations of Agent and Patient. My definition of an active language, is a language that has "active alignment". At least I think that's my definition. I mean, if some intransitive predicates get marked in way A and some itr predicates get marked in way B, that's when you have an active language. Then the fun part kicks in: you get to investigate why some predicates get A-marking and some get B-marking. Most of the time -- at least in my experience -- there seems to be a valid semantic reason, whatever it may be. Let me give you some examples: A) Georgian: if [+ control] then AGT. B) Central Pomo: if [+ control] then AGT -- UNLESS you are also significantly affected, then PAT. C) Eastern Pomo: if [+ control] then AGT -- unless the speaker also chooses to express *empathy* with you, then PAT. D) Guaraní: if [+ event] then AGT. E) Lakhota: if [+ performance/instigation/effect] that is NOT necessarily [+ control] then AGT. Etc, etc.
> > I don't know if my view on things really matters in this discussion > > (Marcus doesn't quite agree, having a narrower definition of "active"
> Which seems to include the absence of a case system ;-)
Okay, we get that now, I think. I would like to hear Marcus' comments on this one. I think Marcus has a point.
> > and Matt having a very broad definition (as it seems) and Jörg basing > > his definition more on animate vs. inanimate)
> Well, I'd rather say it is based on volition, which of course implies > animacy. But a non-volitional animate is still a P (or an INST, or > whatever) and not an A, at least as far I understand it. An inanimate > entity, in my personal model, can NEVER be an A, though. But I am not > so strict so say that anything that doesn't strictly adhere to this > model is not active.
This is the way Johanna Nichols thinks of active languages as well. Or rather, she says that this _usually_ is the case, not that it always has to be like that. She has a table of lots of criteria that often applies to active languages, but not always.
> Hence, I call languages where this holds "strictly > active", while "active" alone leaves some leeway for things that are not > allowed in a "strictly active" language, e.g. treating an inanimate > subject of an active verb (as in the sentence "The stone breaks the > window") as an A. I am not sure by myself where to draw the line > between "active" and a more general "split-S".
I think you have a good point here. And as I said before, split-S _could_ be thought of as a strictly syntactic alignment, but IME that is not usually the case, since there is some semantics to it. IME almost all active languages have some fluid predicates. I don't see the point in making a distinction between fluid-S and split-S as Dixon does. If anyone can explain that point, I'd be grateful. I think an important part is not to get hung up on Agents and Patients as semantic roles. The reasons for marking A and P differently for itr predicates vary too much, IME. [ Someone give me a digital kick in the butt if I write "IME" again... :) ]
> But one thing is certain: it doesn't matter whether the language uses > cases or verb agreement marking to distinguish A and P. If one says > "No, this is not active; the examples you gave are simply unergative > verbs/irregular forms/whatever" merely because the language marks nouns > for case, I cannot take that seriously.
Well, I agree. But agreement marking is _so_ much more common, due to its being the verb carrying the meaning and distributing the semantics to the arguments. All the active langs I've looked at are head-marking, except possibly Guaraní. (I don't know about Acehnese, the active alignment is expressed by pronominal clitics on the verb). Nonetheless, active alignment can still be expressed by case.
> > but at least you know what I think about active langs (at least > > for the moment, my view changes all the time).
> So does mine.
And probably mine too, when you and Marcus and Matt has replied once more... :)
> Heck, I don't really care whether a particular language is active or > not under theory XY.
I don't care about any theories at all. I still don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Prolly both.
> Every language has a somewhat different system. And I > have seen languages being labeled "active" where I asked, "Why?", and > others labeled "not active", where I asked, "Why not?" And when I > designed Nur-ellen, I didn't knew that there is a linguistic term for > such a system. It just sprang to my mind ans I liked it; hence I just > did it because it felt right to me.
Yup. That's what conlanging is all about. daniel, sleepy. Very, very sleepy... zzzz.... -- <> Daeselaidh goddi mis giall! <> <> <> Lwodadh giall! <> Daniel Andreasson <>