Review of: J. Coon, D. Massam, L. deMena Travis (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Ergativity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 1296 p. ISBN: 978-0-19-873937-1

Publication type Review
Source material for review J. Coon, D. Massam, L. deMena Travis (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Ergativity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 1
Status Published
Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Eötvös Loránd University
Journal nameVoprosy Jazykoznanija
EditionIssue 2


Publication date05.05.2019
Number of characters36416
100 rub.
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1 The 35 chapters of this volume, to which 53 scholars (including the three editors) contributed their expertise, in conjunction with the extensive bibliography (covering fully 100 pages), offer outstanding coverage of the problems presented by ergative alignment, in synchronic morphosyntax (across an impressive range of languages from all of the world’s populated continents), in diachrony, and also in acquisition and sentence processing. The last section of the volume (Part IV) contains sixteen chapters presenting a treasure trove of case studies of individual languages or language families, written by seasoned experts;1 but the thirty chapters that precede Part IV also feature a wealth of data from a smorgasbord of languages with ergative traits. Reading the whole volume cover to cover is a tour de force that probably very few users of the handbook (apart from its reviewers) will subject themselves to, and which is not in every way entirely satisfying (for reasons mentioned towards the end of this review). But for all linguists and other interested parties who want or need to familiarise themselves with or remind themselves of the hallmarks, explananda, explanations, open questions, and controversies associated with ergativity, this volume will from now on be their first port of call. The handbook is doing linguistics a tremendous service — and it also shows how far linguistics has come as a field, in its analytical depth and sophistication as well as the precision of the debates about matters on which consensus remains elusive. 1. A very laudable ingredient of Part IV is the chapter (written by Christa König) on ergativity in the languages of Africa — a continent that does not usually figure prominently (if at all) in the context of ergativity studies. (In truth, this is not without reason: König herself identifies only one ‘full-fledged ergative language’ on the continent (Shilluk), and mentions a handful of split-ergative languages.)
2 One thing that emerges perhaps most saliently from a perusal of the handbook is that it is highly unlikely that ergativity is a parameter that distinguishes between languages. It is a rare thing indeed for a LANGUAGE to have consistent ergative alignment in every aspect of its morphosyntax and information structure. Ergativity manifests itself in the case system (with the subject of transitive clauses getting a different case, the ‘ergative’, from the subject of intransitive clauses and the object of transitive clauses), in the agreement system (the head-marking counterpart to dependent marking in terms of case), in the syntax (accessibility hierarchy effects in the realm of Ā-dependencies; control; perhaps even word order), and in discourse — but rarely if ever in ALL these ways in one and the same language. Therefore, the locution ‘ergative language’ is probably best avoided in linguistic parlance.2 Yet, stating (as Léa Nash does in the opening paragraphs of her chapter 8, which presents a study of split ergativity in Georgian) that ‘ergative languages are never fully ergative’ (p. 175) may be too categorical — for instance, Laz (Kartvelian) is featured in the handbook as a language that is fully ergative (see p. 7 of the introduction, and section of Woolford’s chapter). 2. Geoffrey Haig’s chapter (p. 468) quotes Bickel [2011: 442] saying that ‘once popular expressions like “ergative language” are simply senseless’. 
3 Be that as it may, the discussion of ergativity splits at many points throughout the handbook certainly indicates that there are lots of split personalities in the ergative universe. Ellen Woolford’s chapter gives a very handy overview of the range of definitions given for ‘split ergativity’ in the literature (pp. 206–207), and answers the question of ‘whether the various types of ergative splits are present in syntax or are purely morphological’ by saying that ‘with the notable exception of person / animacy / NP splits’, most ergative splits are syntactic (p. 224).3 This dampens the prospects of the ‘TotalErg’ hypothesis (advanced in Itziar Laka’s chapter), which has it that ergativity does not split. It may very well be, however, that split ergativity is epiphenomenal, derivable from syntactic factors that are not just the privilege of ergative systems, as Jessica Coon and Omer Preminger argue in their chapter. Differential case marking is the key phrase here: so-called split ergativity is just a different name for ‘differential subject marking’, the companion to the ‘differential object marking’ patterns familiar from many languages that do not have ergative alignment patterns. Andrej Malchukov confirms in his chapter that the differential case-marking patterns exhibited by languages show a correlation with the role-indexing pattern that sets ergative–absolutive and nominative–accusative systems apart. But differential subject marking is not impossible in languages that usually mark all subjects (of finite clauses) as nominative, nor is differential object marking absent from languages with ergative alignment: the passive and antipassive diathesis alternations, respectively, instantiate these patterns. 3. Especially interesting in connection with syntactic ergativity splits is Woolford’s discussion of predicate-type-based split ergativity in Nepali (based on [Butt, Poudel 2007]), where individual-level (IL) transitive predicates have an ergative-marked subject whereas the subject of stage-level (SL) transtives is inative (p. 213). (On p. 214 Woolford notes that Nepali also has two different copulas for the IL and SL predicates — without drawing attention in this context to Spanish and Portuguese, which famously do, too.)
4 While passive and antipassive give each alignment system (nominative–accusative and ergative–absolutive) the differential marking pattern which is more typical of the other system, what makes the differential marking differential even more complicated is the fact that these voice alternations are both found across alignment types: as Maria Polinsky points out in her chapter on antipassive (see pp. 328–329), there are ergative systems with a passive; and there may be a basis for thinking that the antipassive is compatible with nominative–accusative alignment. I used more caution in my formulation of the second conjunct of the previous sentence than in the first, because I remain less than convinced, at least for the more familiar languages that Polinsky includes in her list (German, Romance, Slavic), that the case for them having a genuine antipassive is airtight. For instance, Postal’s [1977] argument for antipassivisation in French, based on unspecified object deletion in ‘faire-infinitive’ causative constructions, is far from conclusive: much depends on one’s outlook on the syntax of the case pattern of the Romance causative.

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