Parameterizing split ergativity in Mayan


The purpose of this paper is to explain the variation of Case alignment in the accusative side of the ergative split of Kaqchikel, Chol and Q’anjob’al (Mayan). In particular, I will address contrastive alignments found in their accusative side. In the accusative side of Kaqchikel, the intransitive subject and the transitive subject alike are cross-referenced by the absolutive morpheme (also known as the set B marker in Mayan linguistics). On the other hand, the object of a transitive verb is cross-referenced by the ergative morpheme (or the set A marker). In the accusative side of Chol and Q’anjob’al, by contrast, both the intransitive subject and the transitive subject are cross-referenced by the set A marker, while the set B marker cross-references the transitive object. This contrast is unexpected, given that these languages have a (nearly) identical biclausal structure for their accusative side, as I will claim building on Laka (2006) and Coon (2010a, 2013a): the aspectual predicate forms a biclausal structure with a nominalized clause. I will argue that the contrastive alignments found in Kaqchikel, Chol and Q’anjob’al follow from a parametric difference regarding the nominalization involved in the accusative side of these languages. It will be proposed that the Restriction on Nominalization (RON) holds for Kaqchikel, whereas it does not apply to Chol and Q’anjob’al: the nominalized verb must lack a syntactically projected external argument. The RON will be developed, based on a similar observation made for nominalizations in Greek and some Indo-European languages among others (Alexiadou 2001). As will be demonstrated, the presence or absence of the RON and the type of alignment patterns in the accusative side of the ergative split are causally connected.

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  1. 1.

    The following abbreviations will be used, based on the Leipzig glossing rules (some glosses are added): 1 = first person; 2 = second person; 3 = third person; A = set A (ergative/genitive) marker; AF = Agent Focus (morpheme); ANTIP = antipassive morpheme; B = set B (absolutive) marker; CAUS = causative suffix; CL = proper name clitic; DET = determiner; DM = dependent marker; INDF = indefinite article; INTR = intransitive status suffix; IPFV = imperfective aspect; NEG = negation; NMLZ = nominalizing suffix; PASS = passive (morpheme); PL = plural (suffix); PREP = preposition; PROG = progressive aspect; PFV = perfective aspect; RN = relational noun; RTV = root transitive status suffix; SG = singular; TR = transitive status suffix.

  2. 2.

    As England (1991) writes, “Kaqchikel is the language of the K’ichean branch that is perhaps the most insistent on SVO order today” (England 1991:472).

  3. 3.

    Clemens (2013) finds that verb-initial word order (with rising intonation) in simple sentences is understood as a polar question. Clemens also observes that the Patzún dialect of Kaqchikel allows VOS order as well as SVO order for transitive sentences in embedded contexts.

  4. 4.

    Conventionally, split ergativity is discussed for morphologically ergative languages rather than syntactically ergative languages, as Coon (2013b) correctly puts. We will follow this convention and focus on morphological (split) ergativity.

  5. 5.

    The alternation between y- and n- in Kaqchikel is governed by the presence or absence of an overt set B marker. The imperfective marker n- is used when a null set B marker (= ø) appears: i.e., when the morpheme cross-references third person singular. The imperfective marker y- is used elsewhere.

  6. 6.

    Although not only non-finite clauses but finite clauses may appear with the progressive marker ajin (and the embedding verb chäp ‘begin’), we will focus on the variant with nominalized non-finite clauses throughout the paper. The finite clause occurring with ajin and chäp displays a regular ergative alignment, as shown below: the bracketed form is a finite clause.

    1. (i)

    This further suggests that split ergativity in Kaqchikel results from structural differences associated with aspect. A particular restriction on nominalization that I will propose in Sect. 3 only applies to non-finite clauses, as they undergo nominalization. I thank an anonymous reviewer for the clarification.

  7. 7.

    All transitive verbs can be suffixed by -ïk, whereas intransitive verbs only in certain dialects can be nominalized with -ïk (Brown et al. 2006): it appears that only a subgroup of intransitive verbs can be suffixed by it even in these dialects. The intransitives that resist -ïk appear to be suffixed by Vn, though further research is necessary on this (see Imanishi and Mateo Pedro 2013 for relevant discussion). The other nominalizing suffix -oj may be suffixed to both transitive and intransitive verbs.

  8. 8.

    We will observe below that some nominalized forms with -ïk do not bear the set A marker.

  9. 9.

    The use of ri, which appears before the finite verb as seen in (25) and (64), is arguably a complementizer or relativizer (see also Brown et al. 2006 and Erlewine 2016).

  10. 10.

    For reasons unknown to me, the nominalized form with -ïk is degraded with the set A marker (i.e., ru-) in (25).

  11. 11.

    The prefix aj- is historically a gender marker for masculine, whereas x- is for feminine (I thank Jessica Coon for pointing this out to me). Jessica Coon (p.c.) has also informed me that gender markers in Mayan are generally incompatible with set A (= ergative and genitive) markers.

  12. 12.

    I thank David Pesetsky for bringing this work to my attention.

  13. 13.

    Note that one of my Kaqchikel consultants reported that (45) and (46) sound better than their reverse word order, but are still not good. For the consultant reporting the ungrammaticality of (45) and (46), the opposite holds: their reverse word order sounds better, but is still not good. Importantly, nominalized verbs behave on a par with verbs (but not nouns) in that they perfectly allow adverbs: (42)–(44). I leave a particular analysis of adverbs’ position in Kaqchikel nominals including nominalizations for further research.

  14. 14.

    In the dialect of Kaqchikel discussed by García Matzar and Rodríguez Guaján (1997), the vowel of the nominalizing suffix is tensed, unlike in the dialect of my consultants.

  15. 15.

    See Imanishi (2014) for certain differences between Kaqchikel and Chol/Q’anjob’al regarding a range of nominal properties of nominalized verbs in these languages.

  16. 16.

    The exact labels of the projections within a verbal domain are irrelevant—VP, VoiceP and vP are all extended projections of a verb in the sense of Grimshaw (1991).

  17. 17.

    It has been proposed by works such as Harley (2013) and Legate (2014) that VoiceP is higher than vP, an inverse of the hierarchical organization in (51). Based on the investigation of status suffixes of Mayan languages, by contrast, Coon et al. (2014) argue that the structure as shown in (51) is needed for these languages.

  18. 18.

    These status suffixes only appear in phrase-final position (Mateo Toledo 2008).

  19. 19.

    I do not attempt to provide an analysis of morphological realization of agreement morphemes, as it will go beyond the scope of the paper. For example, Preminger (2011, 2014) argues that set B markers (= absolutive morphemes) in some Mayan languages such as Kaqchikel, K’ichee’ and Tz’utujil (= the Kichean branch) are derived via clitic doubling of the full absolutive DP (see the references for details).

  20. 20.

    To be precise, Legate (2008) proposes a new view that there is no absolutive Case in the syntax. She argues that absolutive Case is a morphological default: a cover term for case that does not have a dedicated morphological form. In one type of languages called absolutive as a morphological default (ABS = DEF), as she proposes, “absolutive” Case is assigned by either T (= nominative) in intransitives or v (= accusative) in transitives in the syntax just as in familiar languages like English. In the morphology, however, nominative/accusative Case is realized as the null default in many ergative languages. Legate claims that this conflation of nominative and accusative into the default morphological case is the source of absolutive Case. In the other type of languages called absolutive as nominative (ABS = NOM) under Legate’s system, “absolutive” Case is the nominative uniformly assigned by T (or a higher functional head), as has been proposed by Murasugi (1992), Bittner and Hale (1996a,b), Ura (2000, 2001) among others.

  21. 21.

    There is further division when we consider non-verbal predicates. For example, the set B marker in some Mayan languages such as Q’eqchi’ (Berinstein 1985; DeChicchis 1989) and Q’anjob’al (Coon et al. 2014) is “high” in verbal predicates, whereas it is “low” in non-verbal predicates such as copular sentences—the set B marker follows the predicative noun.

  22. 22.

    The main purpose of Coon et al. (2014) is to explain a ban on extraction of the ergative subject in some Mayan languages, based on locality properties of absolutive Case assignment: in order to extract the ergative subject, these languages must employ special verbal morphology called Agent Focus morphology as a circumventing strategy.

  23. 23.

    There is simply a notational difference between (57) and the Mayan Absolutive Parameter (Coon et al. 2011, 2014). Voice in (57) corresponds to v in the latter.

  24. 24.

    It has been suggested by previous works such as Bok-Bennema (1991) that the inability of a transitive verb to assign Case is a defining character of ergative languages in opposition to accusative languages. However, a transitive verb in some ergative languages, such as low absolutive languages of Mayan, assigns Case just as in accusative languages (see also Aldridge 2004, 2008; Legate 2008).

  25. 25.

    In this respect, we depart from Coon et al. (2014): they argue that the object and the intransitive subject in high absolutive languages move to the edge of vP, from which they receive absolutive Case from Infl. This avoids the trapping of these elements inside the Spell-Out domain of vP.

  26. 26.

    This contrasts with English nominalizations where the agent may be not only introduced as the by-phrase but also genitive-marked, whereas the internal argument is introduced by of: e.g., Rome’s destruction of the city and the destruction of the city by Rome. The internal argument may also be genitive-marked (= passive nominals): the city’s destruction (see Alexiadou 2001 for relevant discussion). As will be shown in (64), by contrast, the agent of the nominalized verb in Kaqchikel appears as part of the relative clause modifying the nominalized clause. While I am unable to provide an analysis of why this difference arises in this paper, it is worth noting that languages differ as to how the (counterpart of) by-phrase appears, depending on the type of nominals, as pointed out by Alexiadou (2001) and the references therein.

  27. 27.

    Mateo Pedro (2009) argues that nominalization in Q’anjob’al and other Mayan languages requires the intransitivization of a verb, though I will propose a different analysis of Q’anjob’al in Sect. 3.1.

  28. 28.

    Another crucial aspect of Alexiadou’s analysis is that many nominative-accusative languages display an ergative pattern in the realm of nominalization in the sense that the subject of transitive nominalizations is distinctly marked (e.g., by), whereas the object of transitive nominalizations and the subject of intransitive nominalizations are marked the same way (e.g., of). As mentioned in Sect. 2.3, I contend that (at least) the ergative languages discussed in the paper are ergative throughout, and the split arises simply because of structural differences, following Laka (2006) and Coon (2010a, 2013a). I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.

  29. 29.

    Given that the external argument appears inside VoiceP, which is structurally lower than vP, in our analysis, the selection in question is non-local. I conjecture that v, which selects VoiceP, has some form of features that enable n to select the right type of VoiceP, although I leave a particular analysis of it for further research. I thank Julie Anne Legate for helpful discussion on this issue.

  30. 30.

    It is relevant to note that the transitive verb inside the relative clause (= b’än) need not carry a set A marker cross-referencing its subject (= ri a Juan) in this context, according to one of the consultants. Further work is necessary on this optionality.

  31. 31.

    In some instances, the unergative verb atin ‘bathe’ may carry a set A marker, which appears to suggest that an external argument appears within the nominalized clause: e.g., w-atin-ïk. However, I suspect that this use involves a simple noun but not a nominalization; it does not contain argument structure (Grimshaw 1990). In fact, w-atin-ïk may be interpreted as ‘my shower.’ Alternatively, the base of w-atin-ïk could be analyzed as undergoing causativization in the sense of Levin and Rappaport Hovav (1995) and hence acting as a transitive verb just like a transitive use of bathe in English. In this case, the set A marker found in w-atin-ïk cross-references the internal argument. It could thus be translated as ‘bathing me.’ I leave it for further research why atin behaves differently from other unergative verbs in this respect.

  32. 32.

    I thank Julie Anne Legate for helpful discussion on this point.

  33. 33.

    In Coon’s analysis, transitive v, which is optionally realized by the suffix in root transitives (when no overt absolutive morphology is present), assigns absolutive Case to the object in a nominalized clause.

  34. 34.

    Coon posits a layered nominal projection for nominalized verbs in which there is a control relation between the subject and PRO: the subject appears in a high position of the nominal projection (i.e., Spec-PossP) and PRO occupies a Spec-vP because v requires a subject under Coon’s analysis. She argues for the highly articulated projection of a nominal domain in order to capture the parallelism between DP and CP in terms of word order (see Coon 2010a, 2013a for details.). While I assume the structure in (72) for consistency with the analysis of Kaqchikel, nothing hinges on this choice.

  35. 35.

    While the set A marker on nominalized transitives of Chol (and Q’anjob’al) could be analyzed as (inherent) ergative assigned by transitive v (see Sect. 2.4.3 for details), I propose that set A markers such as the ones in (60) are genitive assigned by the D of the nominalized clause for consistency with the analysis of nominalized intransitives. For this purpose, I posit that n selects for transitive v with no inherent ergative Case in the case of nominalized transitives.

  36. 36.

    This analysis can capture the fact that a preposition does not appear in non-perfective clauses of Chol, in contrast to Kaqchikel. As will be argued below, the function of the preposition chi found in progressive sentences of Kaqchikel is to Case-license its complement. The absence of a preposition in non-perfective sentences of Chol follows if choñkol Case-licenses its complement (= a nominalized clause).

  37. 37.

    I suspect that the set A marker appears on D1 after Case assignment and is pronounced together with the relational noun perhaps because it is a bound morpheme. However, I leave an analysis of how and where the agreement morpheme is realized in the structure for further research, as it will go beyond the scope of the paper (see Imanishi 2014 for relevant discussion).

  38. 38.

    A word is in order regarding the thematic structure of aspectual predicates found in the accusative side of Kaqchikel and Chol. The aspectual predicate choñkol found in sentences such as (60) does not assign an agentive θ-role to the subject, while its Kaqchikel counterpart ajin, which embeds a non-finite nominalized clause and a regular nominal, does: choñkol in examples such as (60) arguably assigns a theme θ-role to the nominalized clause. However, one also has to assume that Chol has another class of choñkol which has an agentive θ-role. This type of choñkol is necessary to explain constructions called B-Constructions (Coon 2010a, 2013a). These constructions require an agentive/volitional interpretation of the subject, just as in the Kaqchikel progressive sentences formed with ajin and a nominalized clause (see the references for more discussion).

  39. 39.

    I assume that there is another class of ajin in the language which assigns a non-agentive/volitional θ-role to its argument. This type of ajin is necessary to capture the meaning of sentences such as (97). I also assume that what type of phrases each class of ajin selects for is defined by their subcategorization (see fn. 46 for more discussion).

  40. 40.

    Here I do not assume a movement analysis of control such as Hornstein (1999).

  41. 41.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this line of analysis.

  42. 42.

    The question might arise as to whether the θ-criterion is violated if an external θ-role of the nominalized verb in Kaqchikel as well as that of the verb in relative clauses of Polynesian languages is not assigned to any DP. While I cannot provide a definitive answer to this issue at the moment, there may be at least two possibilities. One option would be to adopt a weakened θ-criterion similar to the one proposed by Williams (1987) in which unassigned θ-roles are tolerated. Alternatively, one would allow semantic control to pass the external θ-role of the embedded verb to its controller (= the matrix subject) in one way or another. In this case, too, we would need some form of a relaxed θ-criterion, which permits a single DP to bear more than one θ-role. This form of the θ-criterion has been deemed necessary by works such as Manzini and Roussou (2000) (see also Chomsky 1986).

  43. 43.

    Unlike in Kaqchikel, unaccusative verbs in Chol may be nominalized and display the same alignment pattern as unergative verbs in non-perfective sentences (Coon 2010a, 2013a). This could be captured by assuming that the type of semantic control proposed for the accusative side of Kaqchikel is not at work in non-perfective sentences of Chol (see below for relevant discussion).

  44. 44.

    I am grateful to Julie Anne Legate for helpful discussion.

  45. 45.

    When ajin embeds a finite clause as in (93a), I assume that semantic control is not involved. Given that the finite verb n-ø-tzaq in (93a) agrees in person and number with the subject unlike in nominalized intransitive clauses such as (91), I suggest that pro appears in the embedded clause and receives a theme θ-role from tzaq (see fn. 6 for the example with overt agreement): this seems a reasonable option since Mayan languages are pro-drop languages. In (93a), pro is simply co-referential with the overt subject that independently receives a θ-role in the matrix clause.

  46. 46.

    As I suggested in fn. 39, the type of ajin found in (97) assigns a non-agentive/volitional θ-role to its argument. As pointed out by Julie Anne Legate, the present analysis would predict that this type of ajin can occur with nominalized unaccusatives unlike in examples such as (92) and (94). Given that this type of ajin does not take an agentive argument, it will not require an agentive θ-role inside the nominalization. A preliminary investigation suggests that the unaccusative example as shown below is degraded, though it is not completely ungrammatical.

    1. (ii)

    I posit that the variant of ajin with a non-agentive/volitional θ-role can only select for a simple noun, but not a nominalized verb, whereas the one with an agentive/volitional θ-role can select for both types of nouns. However, this issue deserves further investigation. Related to this, the alignment pattern found in example (ii) resembles the one found in the accusative side of Chol and Q’anjob’al. According to Law et al. (2006), while two alignment types of the accusative side involving nominalization (= the Kaqchikel-type and the Chol/Q’anjob’al-type) do not coexist in many Mayan languages, they do in several languages as part of language change (see also Robertson 1980): Poqomchi is one of these languages. The Kaqchikel-type alignment where nominalization and a preposition are found is an archaic pattern, which was extant in Common Mayan (Robertson 1980; Law et al. 2006). As Law et al. suggest, by contrast, the Chol/Q’anjob’al-type alignment innovated in that it lost the preposition and the marking of the subject on the aspectual predicate (= raising in their term).

  47. 47.

    My Kaqchikel consultants do not accept nominalized patterns as in (100). This is presumably because of dialectal differences.

  48. 48.

    The present analysis would predict that the external argument cannot appear inside the nominalized verb in (100) due to the RON: the example with a set A marker cross-referencing the external argument on the nominalized verb should be ungrammatical. However, as pointed out above, nominalizations with the antipassive morpheme are not available in the dialect of Kaqchikel examined in the paper. Thus, investigation of the prediction must await further research on other dialects of Kaqchikel. I thank Julie Anne Legate for pointing this out.

  49. 49.

    A similar type of nominalization can be found in other Mayan languages such as Tz’utujil (Dayley 1985), K’ichee’ (Larsen 1988; Can Pixabaj 2009) and Chol (Coon 2010a, 2013a).

  50. 50.

    In Kaqchikel, number agreement and especially plural agreement may be optional for inanimate nouns; plural agreement appears to be sometimes optional for some animate nouns as well in Kaqchikel (see England 2011 for optional plural agreement in some Eastern Mayan languages).

  51. 51.

    For instance, Massam (2001, 2009) observes that the transitive subject in sentences involving pseudo noun incorporation of the object in Niuean (= an ergative language) bears the absolutive marker, but not the ergative marker, just as in intransitive sentences.

  52. 52.

    One of the peculiar properties of pseudo noun incorporation in Niuean is that the incorporated material can be phrasal: e.g., nouns may be modified by adjectives (Massam 2001). In contrast, regular incorporated nouns in other languages may not be phrasal but must be a head (Baker 1988, 2009).

  53. 53.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for helpful discussion.


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I am indebted to my Kaqchikel consultants, Alberto Sipac Aju, Ana López de Mateo and Anacleto Catú, for their assistance with my fieldwork research and patience, without which this research would have been impossible. I am very grateful to the anonymous reviewers for NLLT, Jessica Coon, Sabine Iatridou, Hideki Kishimoto, Julie Anne Legate, Pedro Mateo Pedro, David Pesetsky, Masha Polinsky and Norvin Richards for their invaluable feedback and helpful suggestions. Special thanks to Julie Anne Legate for her editorial assistance and numerous helpful suggestions. I would also like to thank the audiences at WCCFL 32, the colloquia at Keio University and Kobe University, and Morphology and Lexicon Forum at Konan University. Unless otherwise noted, the Kaqchikel data are drawn from my field notes. Any shortcomings or errors in the data or analysis are my own. This research has been funded by MIT’s Ken Hale Fund for Fieldwork Research, the JSPS Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists (B) (No.15K16752) and the JSPS Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists (18K12388).

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Imanishi, Y. Parameterizing split ergativity in Mayan. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 38, 151–200 (2020).

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  • Split ergativity
  • Nominalization
  • Case
  • Parameter
  • Comparative syntax