Adverbs and variability in Kaqchikel Agent Focus

A reply to Erlewine (2016)


In many languages with ergative morphology, transitive subjects (i.e. ergatives) are unable to undergo A’-extraction. This extraction asymmetry is a common hallmark of “syntactic ergativity,” and is found in a range of typologically diverse languages (see e.g. Deal 2016; Polinsky 2017, and works cited there). In Kaqchikel, the A’-extraction of transitive subjects requires a special verb form, known in Mayanist literature as Agent Focus (AF). In a recent paper, Erlewine (2016) argues that the restriction on A’-extracting transitive subjects in Kaqchikel is the result of an Anti-Locality effect: transitive subjects are not permitted to extract because they are too close to C0. This analysis relies crucially on Erlewine’s proposal that transitive subjects undergo movement to Spec,IP while intransitive subjects remain low. For Erlewine, this derives the fact that transitive (ergative) subjects, but not intransitive (absolutive) subjects are subject to extraction restrictions. Furthermore, it makes the strong prediction that phrasal material intervening between IP and CP should obviate the need for AF in clauses with subject extraction. In this paper, we argue against the Anti-Locality analysis of ergative A’-extraction restrictions along two lines. First, we raise concerns with the proposal that transitive, but not intransitive subjects, move to Spec,IP. Our second, and main goal, is to show that there is variation in whether AF is observed in configurations with intervening phrasal material, with a primary focus on intervening adverbs. We propose an alternative account for the variation in whether AF is observed in the presence of adverbs and discuss consequences for accounts of ergative extraction asymmetries more generally.

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  1. 1.

    Abbreviations used in glosses are as follows: abs—absolutive; af—Agent Focus; ap—antipassive; caus—causative; comp—complementizer; cpl—completive; deic—deictic; erg—ergative; exst—existential; foc—focus; icpl—incompletive; irr—irrealis; mov—movement particle; nml—nominal; p—plural; part—particle; pass—passive; perf—perfect; pot—potential; prep—preposition; pron—pronoun; rel—relative clause marker; rn—relational noun; s—singular. In some cases we simplify glosses (e.g. not parsing out status suffixes), where not directly relevant to the discussion. Note that we have altered Erlewine’s examples to be in accordance with standard Kaqchikel orthography. Unattributed examples are from direct elicitation.

  2. 2.

    See also Murasugi and Saito (1995), Saito and Murasugi (1998), Bošković (1997), Pesetsky and Torrego (2001), Abels (2003) for related work on Anti-Locality.

  3. 3.

    Erlewine also discusses cases of multiple wh-movement, which we review in Sect. 6.

  4. 4.

    Note that ‘to valorize’ in Kaqchikel is an idiomatic construction that literally means ‘to give its day.’ We point this out because the construction occurs in many of the corpus examples we discuss.

  5. 5.

    The source for many of the naturally occurring examples is a Kaqchikel bible whose text the first author has extracted and cleaned (Wycliffe Bible Translators, Inc 2012, abbreviated ‘WBT’). This particular bible was translated by a team of native speakers of Kaqchikel, and the translation is extremely loose. The result is that the text, while clearly biblical in content, is similar to other Kaqchikel texts concerning the range of constructions one finds. We include these corpus forms as evidence that even in non-elicited environments, these alternations can be found. As also noted in the text, every construction discussed here has also been replicated in elicitation.

  6. 6.

    We parse out a null 3rd person singular absolutive morpheme in the examples in this paper for clarity, i.e. to make clear that the verb would show absolutive morphology here if the indexed argument were 1st or 2nd person. We do not make a theoretical commitment to the existence of a null morpheme.

  7. 7.

    Note that these case-based approaches are also compatible with existing analyses of verb initial word order in Mayan languages in which transitive subjects are taken to remain low. That subjects occupy a low position is proposed both in accounts in which the order of specifiers is parameterized (Aissen 1992), and in which a predicate fronts to a position above the subject (Coon 2010b; Clemens and Coon to appear). Erlewine (2016: fn. 20) suggests that Spec,IP is ordered to the right in Kaqchikel. Though feasible, we do not know of independent support for this account.

  8. 8.

    More needs to be said about why the ergative cross-references the theme in the embedded form in (17a). Under the analysis in Imanishi (2014), this is taken as evidence that ergative is assigned as a default to the highest unlicensed argument in the lower phase. An alternative, compatible with the case-based account, would be that a- in (17a) is truly possessor agreement, and that the possessor controls a null subject internal to the nominalization, here the passive subject; see Coon (2010a), Coon and Carolan (2017).

  9. 9.

    A similar pattern is described for related K’ichee’ by Aissen (2011), who notes that ergative-extraction from a regular transitive clause is possible when the object is a bare non-referential NP.

  10. 10.

    Facts like these also cast doubt on the applicability to Mayan languages of other explanations for syntactic ergativity which tie the ban on extracting ergatives directly to properties of the ergative subject. Such accounts include the proposal that some ergative subjects are in fact PPs (Polinsky 2016), or that the ban on extraction may be attributed to case-discrimination on the A’-probe (Deal 2016).

  11. 11.

    Note that complementizers are not just optional in the APred construction, but generally optional with embedded CPs, as illustrated here for the verb -etamaj ‘know’.

    1. (36)
  12. 12.

    Note that while the resumptive pronouns in examples like (44) are preposed, they have not undergone A’-extraction. Kaqchikel allows subjects of all types to be preposed to a topic position, and pronouns are preferentially preposed. Such subjects never trigger AF unless marked with the focus particle, which indicates A’-extraction.

  13. 13.

    Having established that the APred construction involves resumption, and not A’-movement, the question of islands immediately arises. If resumption rescues island violations, then we would predict the APred construction should appear inside of islands with its pro subject bound by some higher A’-element, in contrast to the AF construction which requires a gap.

    The problem is that resumptive pronouns in Kaqchikel do not obviate island violations in general, and so we cannot differentiate the AF and APred constructions in such contexts. That is, the fact that (47) is ungrammatical means that we do not expect (48) with the APred construction to be better than an AF construction in the same context, even though it has a resumptive pronoun.

    1. (47)
    1. (48)

    We know that the APred construction involves a resumptive pronoun, but the precise distribution of resumptive pronouns elsewhere in Kaqchikel still requires further work. Note, though, that there are other cases where a resumptive pronoun construction alternates with a bona fide A’-construction (e.g. (42)–(43) above). We leave a fuller investigation of the distribution of resumptive pronouns in Kaqchikel to future work.

  14. 14.

    A reviewer asks whether jantäq ‘sometimes’ and jumul ‘always’ might be low in the structure, and thus would not render the subject sufficiently distant from CP to permit extraction. This is entirely plausible, and may also be connected to their inability to embed clauses. Note however that this alone does not explain why the other (potentially higher) adverbs show the variability we have identified here.

  15. 15.

    An anonymous reviewer asks whether additional tests for biclausality can be found to support the analysis presented here, for example, from the distribution of NPIs. At this point, we are unaware of other tests which would be applicable in the case of Kaqchikel. No NPIs have been described for Kaqchikel, and to the best of our knowledge, none exist. Similarly, Mayan languages generally lack A-movement, which might be expected to be clause-bound. Finally, as noted in Sect. 3.2, reflexives never appear in Agent Focus constructions, so we do not predict variation here.

  16. 16.

    Another possibility would be to appeal to the Principle of Minimal Compliance (Richards 1998), which has been used to explain the fact that the second movement in languages with multiple-wh-movement often need not meet grammatical conditions imposed on the first.


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We would like to thank Juan Ajsivinac, Gonzalo Ticun, Kanb’alam Batz, Ryan Bennett, Colin Brown, Lauren Clemens, Meaghan Fowlie, Henrison Hsieh, Hadas Kotek, Mitcho Erlewine, Justin Royer, Carlos Humberto Sactic, Byron Socorec, Lisa Travis, and Omer Preminger for helpful comments and discussion, as well as to audiences at NELS 46 and McGill for feedback. Special thanks to three anonymous reviewers and to Julie Anne Legate for detailed feedback at various stages of this work. Any errors are of course our own.

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Correspondence to Robert Henderson.

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This reply refers to the article available at doi:10.1007/s11049-015-9310-z

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Henderson, R., Coon, J. Adverbs and variability in Kaqchikel Agent Focus. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 36, 149–173 (2018).

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  • Agent Focus
  • A’-extraction
  • Ergativity
  • Anti-Locality
  • Agreement
  • Kaqchikel
  • Adverbs