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Amahuaca ergative as agreement with multiple heads


The mechanisms underlying ergative case assignment have long been debated, with inherent and dependent theories of ergative case emerging as two of the most prominent views. This paper presents novel data from the Panoan language Amahuaca, in which ergative case is sensitive to the position of the transitive subject. The interaction of movement and morphological case assignment in Amahuaca cannot easily be captured by current inherent or dependent case theories. Instead, I argue that a view of ergative case as exponing agreement with multiple functional heads (specifically v and T) is able to account for the Amahuaca data, while incorporating key insights from both inherent and dependent case theories of ergativity. I further demonstrate that this approach that takes case to be the exponence of multiple features is able to be extended to account for elements of the language’s case-sensitive switch-reference system as well as its focus-sensitive nominative marking. The Amahuaca data thus suggest that ergative case can be viewed as a feature bundle, rather than a single case feature, and that morphological ergative marking arises as the exponence of structural relationships between multiple heads and a nominal.

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  1. Examples are presented in the Amahuaca orthography, with approximate correspondences to IPA as follows: <a> = [a], <ch> = [tʃ], <h> = [ʔ], <i> = [i], <j> = [h], <k> = [k], <m> = [m]/[m], <n> = [n]/[n], <o> = [o], <p> = [p], <r> = [ɾ], <sh> = [ʃ], <t> = [t], <tz> = [ts], <u> = [ɨ], <v> = [w], <x> = [ç], <y> = [j], <z> = [s], <Vn> = [Ṽ], <VV> = [Vː]. The symbol <=> in examples indicates a phonological clitic boundary. These phonologically weak elements which “lean” on adjacent hosts are distinct from syntactic clitics. For more discussion of this issue, see fn. 12. The following abbreviations are used in glossing throughout: 1 = first person, 3 = third person, acc = accusative, C = complementizer, decl = declarative, dem = demonstrative, ds = different subject, emph = emphatic, erg = ergative, gen = genitive, int = interrogative, ipfv = imperfective, nom = nominative, perf = perfect, pl = plural, pres = present, pst = past, sg = singular, so = subject coreferential with object, ss = same subject, tr = transitive, yest = yesterday.

  2. There are, of course, many other views of ergative systems that have been proposed in the literature besides those outlined here. Overviews of a broader range of such analyses can be found in Johns (2000) and Deal (2015).

  3. In keeping with the DP hypothesis, I have modified the case rule to use DP where Baker (2015) uses NP. For the data considered here, this distinction does not affect the results.

  4. Previous work on Amahuaca includes descriptions of the phonology (Osborn 1948; Russell and Russell 1959; Hyde and Loos 1975), a dictionary (Hyde 1980), a transformational grammar (Russell 1965), a paper on reflexives (Hyde 1973), and a collection of papers by Sparing-Chávez largely reproduced in the form of a short grammar (Sparing-Chávez 2012). There is also discussion of Amahuaca in several comparative works on languages of the Panoan family, and most of these are based on data from published sources (though Loos 1973 does contain otherwise unpublished data on Amahuaca).

  5. In Section 7 I will show that the nominative case marker =x (though not the ergative =n) encodes focus in addition to case. I set this complication aside for the time being, and do not indicate focus in translations until Section 7.

  6. Additional work which mentions this pattern in Amahuaca includes Hyde (1980) and Sparing-Chávez (2012). It has also been discussed in comparative work on Panoan, which mentions a similar but distinct pattern in Chacobo (Loos 1973, 1999). With respect to the Amahuaca pattern, Sparing-Chávez (2012) notes that split ergativity is conditioned by the presence of overt aspect marking in the clause. She observes that when overt aspect marking is absent, ergative case surfaces. When overt aspect marking is present, however, she makes the generalization that only “pragmatically marked” subjects, which she shows only in initial position, receive nominative or ergative case marking. Here I refine the characterization of the Amahuaca pattern, demonstrating that even non-initial subjects receive ergative case marking, so long as they surface to the left of aspect marking. This pattern is different from the pattern of nominative marking, which does appear to be conditioned by information structure in a way consistent with Sparing-Chávez’s characterization, as discussed in Section 7.

  7. I set aside here those sentences involving extraposition to the far right, as there is a large prosodic break between the final mood clitic and the extraposed constituent. See fn. 20 for an example of such a construction.

  8. As an anonymous reviewer suggests, one partial generalization that could be made about the data is that when either argument DP surfaces with a clitic attached to it, the subject is unmarked. This pattern could perhaps arise if a DP that hosts a clitic is “invisible” for the purpose of case assignment. However, this generalization fails to account for the presence of ergative marking in (9c) and (9d), as well as in (10c) and (10d).

  9. The verb ha glossed ‘’ is a general purpose transitive verb in Amahuaca. It can be used for a transitive action if the meaning of the verb can be recovered from context. In these sentences it is used to mean ‘kill’. The same pattern of case and aspect marking is found with this verb as with full lexical verbs like rutu ‘kill’.

  10. Here and in following schematic representations I leave out Mood, which invariably surfaces following T.

  11. While many languages have non-finite clauses which lack some or all of these projections, Amahuaca seems to lack such clauses. Where one might expect such non-finite clauses to arise, Amahuaca uses a rich system of finite switch-reference clauses, discussed in Section 6.

  12. Like many of the inflectional morphemes of Amahuaca, =mun is a phonologically weak element which cliticizes to the element it linearly follows. I assume, following Zwicky and Pullum (1983), that the positioning of morphophonological clitics in a sentence is syntactically governed. That is, these phonologically weak clitics form syntactically independent elements. As can be seen in (13), the amount of phonological material preceding =mun does not matter. Rather, the clitic’s placement is sensitive to syntactic constituency. Finally, note that morphophonological clitichood is distinct from syntactic clitichood (where syntactic clitics are often analyzed as an instance of D in the verbal complex; Kramer 2014). The relevant clitics in Amahuaca are not pronoun-like, ϕ-feature-encoding morphemes.

  13. This is consistent with Rizzi’s (1997) characterization of Force in his split CP model. For present purposes, I make the simplifying assumption that CP is not split in Amahuaca and accordingly speak simply of a CP projection. Further aspects of the C projection will be discussed in connection with information structure in Section 7.

  14. Note that the structure proposed in (16) violates the Final-Over-Final Condition (FOFC), which mandates that head final projections cannot dominate head initial projections within the same extended projection (Biberauer et al. 2014; Sheehan et al. 2017). In (16), the head final TP projection dominates the head initial AspP projection. If FOFC is derived as a constraint on rightward movement (Zeijlstra 2016) rather than stemming from Kayne’s (1994) Linear Correspondence Axiom or direct restrictions on headedness of projections, this is not an issue. The proposal for the Amahuaca structures involves no rightward movement, except for head movement between adjacent heads, which is permitted under Zeijlstra’s (2016) model. An alternative approach postulating a head-final Asp which undergoes movement to a medial position (presumably in at least some instances undergoing head movement as a complex head with the verb) faces the challenge of identifying the projection targeted by movement. If movement targeted a head-initial projection as its landing site, there would still need to be a head-initial projection between T and v, and so the FOFC violation would remain in place. Assuming a head initial AspP (together with Zeijlstra’s treatment of FOFC) therefore seems to be the most straightforward account, given the lack of evidence that Asp can ever occur further to the right. I refer the reader to Clem (2018) for a more detailed discussion of FOFC as it relates to this structure in Amahuaca.

  15. The sentence in (19b) is ungrammatical on the intended reading but is grammatical on the reading ‘The peccary is killing the man.’

  16. In Section 7 I discuss the fact that movement to Spec,CP is typically related to focus.

  17. Rightward extraposition in Amahuaca displays a similar pattern with respect to ergative case. Extraposition shows case connectivity, and it is impossible for the subject of a clause with a transitive main verb to surface in the unmarked form when it is extraposed.

  18. A further potential concern for a clausal bifurcation account from a typological perspective is the fact that the Amahuaca split is not a canonical TAM split. Variation between ergative marked A arguments and unmarked A arguments is present even within a single aspectual category. That is to say the same aspect categories appear in clauses with and without ergative marking on transitive subjects. Additionally, it is not the case that unmarked subjects occur with one set of (progressive) aspectual categories and marked subjects occur with another set of (completive) aspectual categories. Instead all overt aspect markers (imperfective, perfect, habitual) allow for the possibility of unmarked subjects. Coon (2013) notes, however, that an aspect split triggered by all aspect markers is, in principle, possible, so long as the aspect markers are expressed by auxiliaries.

  19. It is potentially worth noting here that this structure does not involve rightward extraposition of the subject, an operation which could potentially remove the subject (and object) from a case domain. There is evidence that rightward extraposition of the subject is possible in Amahuaca. In such structures the extraposed constituent appears to the right of the final tense and mood particles and can surface with ergative case, as demonstrated in (i).

    1. (i)
      figure ak

    Even if extraposition to a position that was not at the extreme right edge but instead was within TP were also possible, it is unclear why this type of extrapostion would not allow the copy of the extraposed element to count as a case competitor. This is because extraposition to the far right, as seen in (i), would have to be analyzed as allowing a copy of the extraposed element to enter into case competition within TP, given the ergative case marking on the extraposed subject.

  20. An additional undesirable feature of such an analysis is that positing crosslinguistic variability in what heads are relevant for dependent case domains results in a significantly less constrained theory.

  21. A question that arises is whether ergative case can surface if accusative case is not assigned. A testing ground for this would be with verbs that assign some case other than accusative, such as dative, to their objects. However, objects in Amahuaca consistently surface in a morphologically unmarked form. Note that both indirect and direct objects in Amahuaca are morphologically unmarked, as was shown in (30). This means that accusative and dative are syncretic. It is therefore not possible to tell from a morphological standpoint whether Amahuaca has monotransitive constructions with dative objects. Another testing ground would be with clausal complements. However, all dependent clauses in the language are switch-reference clauses, and it is unclear whether these clauses are ever truly complements to V, even with verbs like ‘say’.

  22. It is worth noting that there are no attested orders where the object remains on the vP edge while the subject moves to Spec,TP. This could potentially be derived by assuming that if T values its ϕ-probe by agreeing directly with a DP argument, it attracts both arguments. Given the wealth of crosslinguistic variation in the triggers and effects of object movement, the properties of Amahuaca object movement are of substantial interest and are the subject of ongoing work.

  23. For some precedents for the idea that TP is a phase (or more generally that movement to Spec,CP must move through Spec,TP), see Assmann et al. (2015), Deal (2016), and references therein.

  24. Even if vP has the same features as the head of the phrase, v, it does not c-command the subject DP (it dominates it), and will therefore not count as “closer” to T based on c-command.

  25. Julie Anne Legate (p.c.) has suggested an alternative analysis where ergative is uniformly assigned to transitive subjects but is not realized when the DP is in Spec,vP. Crucially such an analysis would need to account for why transitive subjects always surface with ergative case in perfective sentences, which lack overt aspect marking. The equidistance story presented here is able to account for why it is only in sentences with overt aspect marking that the transitive subject is able to remain in Spec,vP. Additionally, a morphological account that appealed to syntactic position directly would require that vocabulary items or impoverishment rules for D be able to refer to the external syntax of the DP. This information is not part of the feature content of D, and it is worth considering whether such non-local information should be able to affect vocabulary insertion.

  26. Specifying the category feature [D] as part of the vocabulary item predicts that ergative case should only be realized at the DP level, once per DP. This is the pattern found in Amahuaca where ergative case is a DP enclitic and where case cannot be marked on multiple elements within a single DP, as shown in (ii).

    1. (ii)
      figure aw

    This featural specification is also in line with the fact that the language lacks determiners, which would presumably be realized in D.

  27. Note that the sensitivity of same subject markers to the grammatical function of the reference clause subject—S versus A—or, similarly, to the transitivity of the reference clause, is a common feature in Panoan switch-reference systems. Valenzuela (2003) refers to this property as ‘participant agreement.’

  28. This pattern raises the interesting question of how such transmission of features between clauses is mediated—a matter which is outside the scope of the current work. I refer interested readers to Clem (2017) for a more detailed account of Amahuaca’s switch-reference system.

  29. The Amahuaca plural marker surfaces as a portmanteau exponing plural and case. The nominative form of the plural marker is -vaux and the ergative form is -vaun. The form -vo acts as the default form of the plural.

  30. A similar connection between case and information structure has been discussed for Tibeto-Burman languages that show “optional” ergative or “agentive” marking (Chelliah and Hyslop 2011). In some of the languages that show optional case marking it appears that both pragmatic and syntactic factors are at play in determining whether subjects receive agentive case marking. Note, though, that, unlike in Amahuaca, these patterns do not concern S arguments specifically. (They typically involve A arguments.)


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I am incredibly grateful to the members of the Amahuaca community for their collaboration. I would also like to thank Amy Rose Deal and Line Mikkelsen for their feedback on this project and audiences at UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, and MIT for helpful discussion. Additionally, this paper has benefited from the comments and suggestions of Julie Anne Legate and four anonymous reviewers. My fieldwork on Amahuaca was made possible by 2015, 2016, and 2017 Oswalt Endangered Language Grants. All errors are mine alone.

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Clem, E. Amahuaca ergative as agreement with multiple heads. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 37, 785–823 (2019).

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  • Ergativity
  • Amahuaca
  • Agree
  • Inherent Case
  • Dependent Case