Ergativity is Still Alive in Kaingang Language from South Brazil-Part 3


In this part of the present survey, the goal is to clarify the distribution of the case markers in relation to the intransitive sentence. In fact, this series of articles represent an effort to indicate some relevant questions on Kaingang case-marking system.

In what follows, we will examine our sample in view of the theory proposed by Givón (2001), which states that the absolutive-ergative case-marking system is "governed by the principle of transitivity". Surely then, we can presume that the intransitive subject in Kaingang is marked only by zero (NO marking at all) and / or vỹ . That is to say, the agentive marker tóg is reserved for St. In our view, Kaingang is not an active language. In truth, studies have suggested that generally active systems are related to a pure / canonical case-marking system.

Kaingang: anatomy of a case-marking system

We have so far assumed as a working hypothesis that the postposition vỹ may be considered as a nominative marker since it opposes "subjects" to "objects" (morphologically zero-marked) in Kaingang. Further, we have seen that the postposition tóg tends to mark the St. In other words, tóg rarely follows an NP that is in Si function and never follows an NP that is in O function. Similarly, in Shokleng the postposition occurs in transitive sentences, and only occasionally occurs with intransitive verbs (see Henry, 1948: 199).

In this context, it is worthwhile noting that tóg may substitute the NP subject in some Kaingang sentences. These, however, are special cases. On the other hand, the postposition tỹ is the ergative case marker in the Kaingang complex sentences (sentences with multiple clauses) (see Wiesemann, 1986). Finally, it might also be added that the same postposition tỹ expresses instrumental case.

Equally important it is to observe once again that the object in Kaingang is always unmarked. So that the object may be identified by its position: it always precedes immediately the verb. With the result that the full NP subject never breaks the shell (OV), in short, the subject does not occur between the object and the verb.

The subject postposition vỹ as a nominative case marker: a hypothesis

If this approach is correct, it follows that the marker vỹ creates a dissension within an ergative system based upon tóg , because vỹ competes with the absolutive marker (zero) typically reserved for the subjects of the lexical intransitive verbs, and for the subjects of the transitive verbs of the split sentences in a classic ergative pattern. As already stated, a solution to this problem is to raise the possibility that Kaingang displays an "impure" tripartite system associated with word order S (O) V.

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We have seen that there are three competing nominal markers in our sample, namely: tóg vs. zero vs. vỹ . The relation among the case markers and transitivity is summarized in the following schema:

(a) Vt: tóg – SUBJ;
(b) Vt: zero – OBJ / SUBJ;
(c) Vt / Vi: vỹ – SUBJ / SUBJ.

That is, the alternation among (a) – (b) indicates that there is an ergative system in Kaingang. On the other hand, the alternation (a) – (c) does not permit to classify the language as a pure ergative type, for vỹ suggests a nominative system. Finally, the alternation (b) – (c) shows that there is variation in case-marking with intransitive verbs, to wit: marked nominative vs. absolutive (unmarked). Naturally, Kaingang never exhibits the doubly marked ergative-accusative alignment as we can see in a tripartite language like Nez Perce (Penutian) (see Bittner e Hale, 1996).

Vỹ and the intransitive sentence

Now that we have outlined the distribution of case markers and its relation to transitivity, let us see further evidences regarding the use of the postposition vỹ as a nominative marker. The examples bellow will show that the marker vỹ occurs predominantly with Si, irrespective of the kind of the intransitive verb. Accordingly, it will be shown that Kaingang is not an active language. Surely, the reason is that the language does not use a special postposition (agentive) to mark the active / volitional subjects.

In an equational sentence subject and complement are linked by the verb (copula); In fact, both NPs refer to the same person or thing (ie the two are "equated" or are "equative"). Note that in Kaingáng equational sentences display the following formula: S-Complement-V, as we see in sentences such as the following:

1) Krĩnkrĩr vỹ rĩr jẽ . Araguaí NOM-marker awake TO BE . The araguaí [a kind of bird] is awake [alive].

2) Nẽnẽ vỹ kẽj kãkã jẽ . Baby NOM-marker basket inside TO STAND . The baby stands inside the basket.

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3) Kãtãn vỹ kãrãn jẽ . Kãtãn NOM-marker sweaty TO BE . Kãtãn [personal name] is sweaty.

Thus, in the structures above with the intransitive verb (copula) jẽ , all three arguments (Si) receive the nominative postposition vỹ .

Now, observe that also functions as copula (see Mansur Guérios 1942: 128). Consider the following example:

4) Kãtãn vỹ kaga nĩ . Kãtãn NOM-marker sick TO BE . Kãtãn is sick.

Thus, the single argument ( Kãtãn ) in (4) is followed by the nominative marker.

Besides that, there are Kaingang sentences in which the V is the only element of predication, as we can see from the examples such as the following:

5) Kẽj vỹ jẽ . Basket NOM-marker TO BE . There is a basket.

6) Minká fi vỹ nĩ . Minká FEM-marker NOM-marker TO BE . Minká [personal name] is [there].

7) Kẽgrẽnh vỹ jẽ . Irara NOM-marker TO BE . There is an irara [a little mammal that eats honey].

As we can see, in sentences of this type the nominative marker vỹ is still present.

On the other hand, in (8) and (9) the marker vỹ could be omitted:

8) Pépo tánh vẽ . Frog NOM-Zero green TO BE . The frog is green.

9) Ka fej kusũg vẽ . Flower NOM-Zero red TO BE . The flower is red.

With respect to (8) and (9), with constituent order SV, the full NP subjects ( pépo , ka fej ) can occur without the marker vỹ , if the copula is vẽ .

Let us turn finally to the full lexical intransitive verbs (Vi). As already noted, there are two classes of intransitive verbs: stative (neutral) (also known as unaccusative) and active (also known as unergative). It should be noted, however, that there are alternative classifications to this fundamental distinction. In general, ACTIVE predicates (verbs) describe willed or volitional acts and involuntary bodily processes, whereas STATIVE predicates involve states of existing and happening, and non-volitional acts. Recall that active languages ​​use a special marker (agentive) to identify the agentive / volitional subject.

The following are instances of stative verbs:

10) Rã vỹ ga kar kri rarĩn tĩ . Sun NOM-marker earth all above TO SHINE HAB-asp . The sun shines everywhere.

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11) Goj vỹ var mũ . River NOM-marker TO FILL PROGR-asp . The river is filling [now].

As is clear from the examples in (10) and (11), in stative structures the Si is marked by the nominative postposition vỹ .

Now, let us see how the Kaingang subject marking behaves in relation to active predicates. Consider the sentences bellow:

12) Krĩnkrĩr vỹ krẽg tĩ . Araguaí NOM-marker TO LAY [eggs] HAB-asp . The araguaí lays [eggs].

13) Pipỹm vỹ tẽ tĩ . Pavó NOM-marker TO FLY HAB-asp . The pavó [a kind of bird] flies.

14) Monh vỹ rãrĩr mĩ kanhir . Ox NOM-marker sun on TO PLAY . The ox plays on sunlight.

Clearly then, in constructions with active predicates the subject case-marking is still nominative. In other words, there is no special marker (active / agentive) used to identify the active Si in Kaingang.

The conclusion that we can draw from the description attempted here is that Kaingang is not an active ergative language since it displays the same nominative marker ( vỹ ) in all kinds of intransitive constructions. To clarify further, with intransitive verbs the sole participant (the only argument S / Si) do not receive the same agentive marker as the subject of transitive verbs. In a word, this seems to be the behavior in regular ergative patterns.

To sum up, Givón's statement (2001) that the likelihood of the ergative marking is higher when the agent is at the top of the transitivity hierarchy is accurate at least in Kaingang simple clauses with word order S (O) V. Besides, the data in this series appear to confirm that the unity of the absolutive grouping (Si / O = Zero) is not a necessary feature of ergative languages ​​(see also Givón, 2001).

The next article deals with Kaingang verbal morphology and ergative agreement.


Bittner, Maria; Hale, Ken. 1996. The structural determination of Case and Agreement. Linguistic Inquiry 27, 1: 1-68.

Givón, T. 2001. Syntax. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Henry, Jules. 1948. The Kaingang language. IJAL xiv, no. 3: 194-204.

Wiesemann, Ursula. 1986. The pronoun systems of some Je and Macro-Je languages. — [ed.] Pronominal Systems. Tübingen: Gunter Narr. p. 359-380.

Source by Marco A. Bomfoco


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