24 Oct 2009

Nipping the PIE ergative *-s theory right in the bud

Recently a commenter brought up the "PIE ergative theory" and this was woven into another idea about Indo-European's purported connection with North-West Caucasian in remote prehistory. I don't have a problem with the idea that PIE might have had contact with NWC (note: not a genetic relationship, just contact). If a form of Pre-Proto-Indo-European were in the steppelands of Western Asia circa 7000 BCE entering into Europe, this wouldn't be surprising at all and would even be expected. It's fair to say that this hunch is reasonable given what little we know at present about the linguistics of this time period and region. Allan Bomhard had theorized just such a contact in Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis (1996) but he could do little with it other than comparing some choice Proto-Circassian words with those of PIE. Nonetheless, some ideas, even those concerning protolanguages and prehistory, can be immediately rejected with available evidence.

The view that PIE case endings, nominative *-s and genitive *-ós, are somehow related by a magical ablaut and stemming from an ergative case came about from the fact that, based on the wealth of data from world languages that we now have, nominative cases which mark the subject of a sentence are supposed to be unmarked cases. The ergative theory seemed to help solve this problem for some since it provided a specific pathway for this unusual marking to develop. Yet it now has a strong disproof based on the very topological issues it was based on. Witness page 56 of Archaic Syntax in Indo-European - The spread of transitivity (2000) where the theory is artfully destroyed in a pair of brief sentences:
"Yet cross-linguistic analysis has pointed out that ergative marking affects first of all inanimates, and only later animates. The 'ergative' marking patterns of Proto-Indo-European therefore do not fit the noun hierarchy as proposed by Silverstein (1976) and therefore no longer support the traditional ergative hypothesis for Proto-Indo-European."
That's what I call cerebral zing. As some often do when they find themselves on the wrong side of Athena's heartless sword, they pick up the fragments of their precious theory, caress them, dote on them, even try to glue the shattered remains back together again in order to breath life back into them by whatever unnatural means necessary. Let's move on. This ergative theory is going nowhere and we're left with only what I've said all along: The PIE nominative comes from an encliticized version of *so, formerly an independent, uninflected definite article (later absorbed into the paradigm of *to- 'that' only to mark the animate nominative). Read Christa König who writes in Case in Africa (2008), p.180:
"A marked-nominative case can go back to a former preceding definite element, resulting in stress and vowel change in the head noun, and the nominative is marked by vowel change and vowel reduction. Evidence for this pathway comes from Berber languages."
She then goes on to explain a pattern that is precisely what I predict for Pre-PIE: "In some Berber languages, case is only encoded with definite nouns, in others with all nouns." A similar pattern is observable in Ancient Etruscan, a language whose nominative and accusative cases are unmarked for nouns but marked in definite postclitics, implying that an overt distinction between subject and object is only found in definite nouns. And let's face it, isn't it a lot less taxing on the brain to derive nominative *-s from pre-syncopated Mid IE animate definite article *sa (> PIE *so) than to try and turn the entire Indo-European case system on its head just to unravel the mysteries of this one suffix? Rest your weary heads, my stoic brethren, and heed Occam's Razor.

15 comments:

  1. Don't kill the messenger, Glen! Besing suppressing my comment, you changed my words. I didn't say "NWC" BUT "Hurrian" (or more properly, Hurro-Urartian).

    This idea is now supported by Allam Bomhard (you could ask him for more details), and DOESN'T include the genitive. BTW, do yiou seriously believe your quote to be a "refutation"? Come on, Glen!

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  2. "Besing[sic] suppressing my comment, you changed my words."

    Anyone with their own blog is hardly "suppressed" by another blogger. Be serious.

    In another's home, one obeys guest rules or one respectfully leaves. You must understand here and now that mutual commitment to accepting facts and recognizing them in the statements of others is the lifeblood of reasoning and debate. There are no enemies in the end save our common one, Dyslogic.

    "This idea is now supported by Allam[sic] Bomhard"

    Idle name-dropping. What are the facts Allan Bomhard's stated that you find pertinent to this debate? Indo-European circa 4000 BCE is by all facts remotely positioned from the Hurro-Urartian family. HU was surely situated in eastern Turkey near Lake Van and PIE in Eastern Europe.

    Bomhard (1996) cited Circassian roots from the Abkhaz-Adyghe (NWC) family in connection with possible Pre-IE borrowings which I found plausible and intriguing for many reasons. Hurro-Urartian contact with PIE itself however is completely unfeasible given the known historical realities of Anatolia, HU and PIE.

    "BTW, do yiou[sic] seriously believe your quote to be a 'refutation'? Come on, Glen!"

    Yes. Heckling is a form of desperate self-deprecation when one lacks facts. I've already presented facts, as per above, and you've felt compelled to read them. Now you feel compelled to argue against them too. But do you feel equally committed to citing facts and references to support your views?

    Your only concern here should be to refute the crosslinguistic patterns I've already cited and to refute the alternative "definiteness-based" solution I've given that by all appearances is the more economical solution by far to explain the marked nominative case.

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  3. Notice: my earlier post contained some typing errors induced by this clumsy editor.

    "Idle name-dropping. What are the facts Allan Bomhard's stated that you find pertinent to this debate? Indo-European circa 4000 BCE is by all facts remotely positioned from the Hurro-Urartian family. HU was surely situated in eastern Turkey near Lake Van and PIE in Eastern Europe."

    Mr Arnaud Fournet, an amateur linguist, has written an article in partnership with Allan Bomhard defending a close relationship between PIE and Hurrian (he doesn't mention HU). This is 2009, not 1996!

    Although I haven't read that article (to be published somewhere), I presume the ergative marker is one of the arguments sought to defend that theory.

    Mr Fournet also consider Aegean languages (Eteocretan, Eteocypriot) to be close relatives of Hurrian.

    My own view is that HU is a close relative of Aegean (unlike Fournet's including Etruscan), which in turn would be part of the Vasco-Caucasian phylum.

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  4. "Mr Arnaud Fournet, an amateur linguist, has written an article in partnership with Allan Bomhard defending a close relationship between PIE and Hurrian (he doesn't mention HU). This is 2009, not 1996!"

    While we should be relieved that you know what year it is, your selection of materials and pompous remarks lack substance. Read Christidēs/Anastasios-Phoibos, A History of Ancient Greek: From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity (2007), p.175 which goes into more detail as to why the "Out-of-Anatolia Theory" is a dead one as of 2007. If scant anything has changed in a mere decade, it certainly hasn't changed in 24 months.

    "My own view is that HU is a close relative of Aegean (unlike Fournet's including Etruscan), which in turn would be part of the Vasco-Caucasian phylum."

    As you well know, I've assembled an Etruscan database which now houses 1416 lexemes. I've been cross-correlating information with other contemporaneous languages in ways that I'm certain most people on this planet haven't bothered to do, have the skills to do or have the passion and energy to do.

    Despite all that detailed work, I find nothing Hurrian about Etruscan. Hurrian for that matter is poorly understood to begin with, leading to many a crackpot using it to claim that just about any language they wish is related to it. Fortunately, poor methodology and ignorance of incontrovertible historical facts expose most charlatans quickly.

    Rather, if there happens to be anything plausibly Hurrian in the Aegean languages, it's only via Hittite when pre-Etruscan dialects were present in Western Turkey during the 2nd millenium BCE (as per Herodotus).

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  5. I see your own knowledge of Hurrian is limited, leading you to making improper jugdements on other people's theories.

    You'd better not to hurl insults like "crackpots" and "charlatans", Glen. In that way, you're going to make many enemies around the Internet.

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  6. Getting back to the original point, I see no inconvenient in accepting your theory to explain the PIE genitive and accusative cases, but not for the nominative.

    If, as I think, the nominative -s was originally an ergative *-sV, it would explain why it's only found in animates.

    The similarity with the HU ergative is an argument in favour of this theory.

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  7. Octavià,

    Facts often "make enemies" out of the insane but we should care less about their fleeting love. I'm not here for immature popularity contests and threats by lonely, insane people. I have plenty of friends offline, living and in the flesh. I'm only here on the net to share and search out cold-hearted facts without being caught up in someone else's bad day.

    Information is a mere click away on the net and if you were honestly knowlegeable in Hurrian than you'd have surely read Woodard, The Ancient Languages of Asia Minor (2008), p.94 which gives a clear summary of the Hurrian declensional system.

    Hurrian has two distinct case markers of note:
    - ergative
    (specifying agent of a transitive action)
    - genitive -ve
    (specifying possession)

    Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of PIE and Etruscan knows that neither of these languages has such endings nor is there a distinct ergative case for transitive agency separate from the genitive case of origin, belonging and possession. These genitive cases are only *secondarily* used for transitive agency but this is a moot characteristic given the universal tendency in accusative languages for the ergative function to be taken up by available oblique cases.

    Even Lemnian, related to Etruscan, shows the same unergative usage of the s-genitive (avis 'of the year/age', Hulaies 'of Hulaie', śialχveis 'of 60')

    To add, since neither PIE nor Etruscan are shown to have a true ergative case marker, and if they are related in turn, then there's no reason to reconstruct an ergative case in Indo-Aegean. As I've shown, a demonstrative postclitic suffices to explain the origin of the marked nominative in PIE. Rant all you want, threaten all you want. Facts are facts and they're beautiful.

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  8. "Hurrian has two distinct case markers of note:
    - ergative -ž
    (specifying agent of a transitive action) [...]

    Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of PIE and Etruscan knows that neither of these languages has such endings nor is there a distinct ergative case for transitive agency separate from the genitive case of origin, belonging and possession.


    Wait a moment, my idea is that pre-PIE (or whatever name you want to use, even "Indo-Aegean") was an ergative language which used an ergative marker *-sV related to the Hurro-Urartian one.

    And also I've got no compelling reason to think PIE and Etruscan are close relatives.

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  9. Octavià: "Wait a moment, my idea is that pre-PIE [...] was an ergative language which used an ergative marker *-sV related to the Hurro-Urartian one."

    ... Which is wrong because, as I already explained, Proto-Indo-European, Etruscan and Lemnian all agree in a genitive suffix. THERE ARE NO ERGATIVE SUFFIXES IN THESE LANGUAGES.

    When you concoct facts that aren't there and then insist on them to "substantiate" your ignorance, then don't be surprised if people think you're not rational. I don't believe that civility should ever censor people from stating overtly that nonsense is nonsense when facts dictate so.

    Address these facts or leave because you're not being constructive here.

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  10. And restricting ourselves only to PIE and internal reconstruction of PIE, I've also already stated that a deictic postclitic (with added support from real-world languages which do the same) sufficiently explains the marked nominative in PIE without contorting the entire declensional system to eke out an ergative suffix so that you can fantasize about Hurrian links.

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  11. Octavià Alexandre: "If, as I think, the nominative -s was originally an ergative *-sV, it would explain why it's only found in animates. The similarity with the HU ergative is an argument in favour of this theory."

    Multiplication of hypotheses.
    Appeal to Hurro-Urartian is unwarranted and unnecessary.
    You're in obvious violation of Occam's Razor.

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  12. Glen, very interesting piece. I have a few questions that maybe you could answer:

    The PIE nominative comes from an encliticized version of *so, formerly an independent, uninflected definite article (later absorbed into the paradigm of *to- 'that' only to mark the animate nominative).

    Do you mean to say "definite article" here, or "demonstrative"? I'm not aware of languages developing demonstratives from articles rather than the other way around, although I'd be happy to be informed otherwise.

    Similarly, I'm not aware of a language where a formal definiteness distinction gives way to a lack of distinction. Do we know of such a thing? (The closest I can think of is loanwords and words in creoles which absorb their articles.)

    Finally, I remember reading (in Payne's Describing morphosyntax) that there's a tendency to mark only objects with a definite article, if definite nouns aren't always overtly marked. But the hypothesis you espouse says that only transitive agents and intransivite subjects had this definite *-so element. How does this hypothesis deal with that tendency?

    Thank you.

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  13. echristopherson: "Do you mean to say 'definite article' here, or 'demonstrative'?"

    Old IE *sa was a definite *article*, neutral in deixis, like English 'the'.


    "Similarly, I'm not aware of a language where a formal definiteness distinction gives way to a lack of distinction."

    Korean developed a nominative case marker out of a demonstrative in parallel fashion (see López-Couso/Seoane, Rethinking grammaticalization: New perspectives (2008), p.242).


    "Finally, I remember reading (in Payne's Describing morphosyntax) that there's a tendency to mark only objects with a definite article, if definite nouns aren't always overtly marked."

    I have no logical reason to trust a person's memory. Please provide a more accurate quote and reference to ensure its proper context.

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  14. Thanks for the information on Korean. From reading those pages, however, it looks like the nominative suffix there comes from a (resumptive?) subject pronoun which was formerly attached to the following verb; and although the same suffix is related to the demonstrative and personal pronouns, that doesn't mean it's descended from them; finally, it doesn't say that an article has the same form.

    This isn't to say that **sa couldn't have evolved in the same way as Korean i. I think it's an interesting idea.

    Finally, about definiteness marking on direct objects (Payne tends to call definiteness "identifiability"):
    Describing morphosyntax, p. 103

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  15. "[...] and although the same suffix is related to the demonstrative and personal pronouns, that doesn't mean it's descended from them [...]"

    Despite any focus-derailing suppositions, my reference has clearly shown that the Korean nominative case marker, stripped of any nuance of deixis or definiteness, is still etymologically traced back to a demonstrative. You may take it up with Koreanists.


    "Finally, about definiteness marking on direct objects (Payne tends to call definiteness 'identifiability'): Describing morphosyntax, p. 103"

    "Common phenomenon" doesn't mean "tendency" and nonetheless spoken Farsi marks definiteness in subjects with the suffix -e. It's in effect a reverse pattern of what I propose for PIE since *sa marked the animate definite subject while the suffix *-m marked the animate definite accusative.

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