ergative vs absolutive languages

So in English, and other nominative-accusative languages, we have three main semantic roles a noun phrase can play in a clause, namely:

  • the subject of an intransitive verb ("she walks")
  • the subject of a transitive verb ("she kicks him")
  • the object of a transitive verb (“she kicks him”)

Obviously in ergative-absolutive languages they have these too, but the difference is, the sole argument of an intransitive verb is declined in the same case as the object of a transitive verb (the absolutive case), rather than a subject like in English (not that modern English has declinations, but we do have strict word order doing the same thing). So in Basque, with the nouns in the unmarked absolutive case bolded:

  • Martin etorri da. (Martin has arrived.)
  • Martinek Diego ikusi du. (Martin has seen Diego.)

In nominative-accusative languages, generally the least-marked case (if there are declinations) will be the nominative case (the subjects). In ergative-absolutive languages, the absolutive case is generally instead the least-marked one.

Some languages feature split ergativity, i.e. use nominative-accusative alignments in some constructions but ergative-absolutive in others (e.g. nouns vs pronouns, or maybe depending on the verb tense or aspect…).

Some examples of ergative-absolutive languages include Basque, Hindi, Kurdish, Georgian, Tibetan, Greenlandic and the Mayan languages. Some of these are split, like the Mayan language Chol (ergative-absolutive with the perfective aspect, nominative-accusative with the imperfective).