Journal of Linguistics

The Äiwoo verb phrase: Syntactic ergativity without pivots   1


University of Newcastle, Australia


Formal models of syntax typically accord the structural position external to the verb's domain a privileged status in the overall syntactic makeup of a language, either by assuming that external arguments are always S or A, or by linking external argument position to syntactic pivothood. This paper demonstrates that the Oceanic language Äiwoo has an ergative verb phrase – i.e. A as the VP-internal argument and S/O as external arguments – but no corresponding S/O pivot. That is, the ergative structure of the verb phrase in Äiwoo does not entail any syntactically privileged status of the VP-external arguments; rather, it is simply a by-product of various diachronic developments. This situation shows that what has traditionally been perceived as fundamental differences in grammatical organisation – the difference between an accusative and an ergative pattern of VP structure – need not in fact be associated with any broader differences in syntactic or pragmatic structure. More importantly, it goes against the assumption that it is possible to assign universal functions to syntactic configurations. Instead, it can be seen as providing support for the view argued for by Evans & Levinson (2009: 444) that ‘most linguistic diversity is the product of historical cultural evolution operating on relatively independent traits’.

(Received December 19 2012)

(Revised August 19 2013)

(Online publication February 24 2014)


Author's address: School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia


[1]  The author would like to thank Bill Foley, Thomas Wier, and participants at the 12th International Conference on Austronesian Languages for helpful comments on earlier drafts, Eirik Welo for pointing me in the direction of Falk's analysis of subjects, Alex François for taking time during a lightning expedition to Temotu Province to fill the gap in my quantifier data, and two anonymous Journal of Linguistics referees for insightful comments on the prefinal version. None of these necessarily agree with all details of my analysis, and any errors or misconceptions are entirely my own responsibility. A list of abbreviations used in example glosses will be found in the appendix.