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Optional ergative, agentivity and discourse prominence – Evidence from Yali (Trans-New Guinea)

  • Sonja Riesberg EMAIL logo
From the journal Linguistic Typology

Abstract

A phenomenon often termed “optional ergative marking” is found in a number of genetically unrelated languages. Yali, a Trans-New Guinea language spoken in West Papua, shows striking similarities to optional ergative systems as described in the literature. This paper focuses on the relation between agentivity and discourse prominence, and argues in favour of a systematic distinction between semantic and syntactic contexts as conditioning factors for optional ergative marking. It further provides new evidence for the close interplay of ergative marking and what has been termed “discourse prominence” in descriptions of some other languages and shows that in Yali, optional ergative marking operates on both the global and the local level of discourse.

Acknowledgments

The main research and field work reported in this paper was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation as part of the DoBeS documentation project “Documentation Summits in the Central Mountains of Papua” (2012-2016, AZ 85 892). During revision and finalization I have been generously supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) as a member of the “Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language” at the Australian National University, and by the German Research Foundation (DFG) within the SFB 1252 “Prominence in Language” at the University of Cologne.

An early version of this paper was presented at the 11th Meeting of the Association for Linguistic Typology in Albuquerque 2015, and I thank the audience for helpful comments and suggestions. I gratefully acknowledge the constructive criticism and detailed comments by three anonymous reviewers. The quality of the published paper has greatly benefited from their feedback. I am also grateful to Birgit Hellwig, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, Gertrud Schneider-Blum and Stefan Schnell for fruitful discussions on the topic and for useful comments on earlier drafts. Thanks to Katherine Walker for proofreading the manuscript and improving English grammar and style, and to Gabriele Schwiertz for help with Figure 1 and other phonetic issues. The responsibility for all remaining errors, including any remaining dangling participles, is of course mine.

Abbreviations

1

first person

2

second person

3

third person

adv

adverbial

ben

benefactive

dem

demonstrative

det

determiner

dir

directional

ds

different subject

erg

ergative

fut

future

gen

genitive

im

immediate

impfv

imperfective

inst

instrument

loc

locative

neg.ex

negative existential

nmlz

nominalizer

obj

object

p

plural

part

participle

pass

passive

pn

personal name

pfv

perfective

prior

prior (to the event denoted in the previous clause)

prog

progressive

prs

present

pst

past

real

realis

rel

relative

rem

remote

s

singular

say

quotative

sit

situational

ss

same subject

st

stative

sub

subordinator

top

topic

tr

transitional sound

vblz

verbalizer

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Received: 2017-04-30
Revised: 2017-11-20
Published Online: 2018-04-27
Published in Print: 2018-04-25

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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