Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 417–467 | Cite as

Ergativity and the complexity of extraction: a view from Mayan

  • Lauren Eby Clemens
  • Jessica Coon
  • Pedro Mateo Pedro
  • Adam Milton Morgan
  • Maria Polinsky
  • Gabrielle Tandet
  • Matthew Wagers


Researchers using different methods have converged on the result that subject relative clauses are easier to process than object relative clauses. Cross-linguistic evidence for the subject processing advantage (SPA) has come mostly from accusative languages, where the covariance of grammatical function and case prevents researchers from determining which of these two factors underlies the SPA. Languages with morphological ergativity allow for the separation of case and grammatical function, since the subject position is associated with two cases: absolutive (intransitive subjects) and ergative (transitive subjects). Prior experimental results on the processing of ergative languages suggest that grammatical function and surface case may be equally important in relative clause processing. On the one hand, as a syntactic subject, the ergative DP has a processing advantage over the absolutive object. On the other hand, the appearance of an ergative serves as a cue for the projection of the absolutive object, which gives processing preference to that object. This paper further tests these findings by examining the processing of relative clauses in Ch’ol and Q’anjob’al, two languages that mark ergativity via agreement on the predicate (head-marking). We address two main questions: (a) does the SPA hold in ergative languages? And (b) are case and agreement equally able to license grammatical functions, and if so, is this reflected in processing? With regard to (a), our results support the SPA, suggesting that it is present in both ergative and accusative languages. With respect to (b), we do not find evidence for a cueing effect associated with the ergative agreement marker. We conclude that dependent-marking is superior to head-marking in tracking grammatical function; in the absence of case cues, universal structural preferences such as the SPA become more pronounced. We also consider and reject a processing explanation for syntactic ergativity, according to which some languages categorically avoid A-bar movement of the ergative with a gap because it imposes a heavy processing load. Our results show that the processing of ergative gaps is not associated with greater cost than the processing of absolutive object gaps; this suggests that an explanation for syntactic ergativity should be sought outside processing.


Ergativity Mayan Head-marking Dependent-marking Processing Relative clauses Subject preference 



The authors of this paper are listed in alphabetical order. The work reported here was supported in part by the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies (Harvard), the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (Harvard), the National Heritage Language Research Center (UCLA), the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland Grant Z903702, the National Science Foundation Grant BCS-1144223 to Maria Polinsky, and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship 2012136967 to Adam M. Morgan. Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the United States Government, or the other agencies.

We would like to thank Judith Aissen, Caitlin Keenan, Janet Fodor, Annie Gagliardi, Itziar Laka, Beth Levin, Omer Preminger, Gregory Scontras, audiences at the 86th annual meeting of the LSA and WCCFL 31, three anonymous reviewers, and our editor Marcel den Dikken for helpful comments on this paper. Nicolás Arcos López, Olga Fedorova, Emily Raykhman, and Svetlana Tchistiakova deserve thanks for their help with technical aspects of this project. Finally, we are grateful to the following individuals and groups in Chiapas, Mexico and Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, Guatemala for their time, logistical support and hospitality: Diego Adalberto, Daniel Pedro Mateo, María Pedro, Pedro Gutiérrez Sánchez, the family of Nicolás Arcos López, Universidad Intercultural de Tabasco students and staff, Asociación de Mujeres Eulalenses para el Desarrollo Integral Pixan Konob’, the Municipality of Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, and the participants in our experiments.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lauren Eby Clemens
    • 1
  • Jessica Coon
    • 2
  • Pedro Mateo Pedro
    • 1
  • Adam Milton Morgan
    • 3
  • Maria Polinsky
    • 1
  • Gabrielle Tandet
    • 1
  • Matthew Wagers
    • 3
  1. 1.Harvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.McGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  3. 3.University of California at Santa CruzSanta CruzUSA

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