Ergativity, Agreement, and the Sumerian Verbal Complex


The Sumerian language, which was spoken in Early to Middle Bronze Age Mesopotamia and attested on cuneiform texts, displays a head-marking pattern in the verbal complex that is split-ergative based on aspect. In the imperfective aspect, subject cross-referencing is marked in the morphological slot following the verbal stem and object cross-referencing is marked preceding the verbal stem, shown in (1) and (2). In the perfective aspect, though, ergative cross-referencing is marked in the slot preceding the verbal stem, while \textit{absolutive} cross-referencing is marked following the verbal stem, shown in (3) and (4). Case marking on free nominals in the clause do not show this split, instead always seeming to follow an ergative-absolutive alignment. The split in the verbal complex is summarized in Table 1 below:

Table 1: Verbal complex alternations between imperfective and perfective clauses.
Imperfective Perfective
Transitive (1) T-Voice-Agro-Vstem-Agrs (3) T-Voice-Agrerg-Vstem-Agrabs
Intransitive (2) T-Voice-∅-Vstem-Agrs (4) T-Voice-∅-Vstem-Agrabs

In this talk, I argue on the basis of this split that Sumerian shows Aldridge (2005, 2008)'s \textit{T-type} ergative agreement pattern, in which a probe in T\textsuperscript{0} establishes an Agree relation with the absolutive nominal. This account explains the alternation in the interpretation of the pre-stem and post-stem morphological slots, as well as predicts the simplified verbal template found in non-finite verbs. This account also fits with the diachronic pathway of ergativity posited for Sumerian by Coghill and Deutscher (2002).

Aldridge, E. 2005. ‘Syntax and Typology of Ergativity.’ MS., Northwestern University.
Aldridge, E. 2008. ‘Generative Approaches to Ergativity.’ Language and Linguistics Compass, 2/5, 966–995.
Coghill, E., & Guy Deutscher. 2002. ‘The origin of ergativity in Sumerian, and the ‘inversion’ in pronominal agreement: a historical explanation based on Neo-Aramaic parallels. Orientalia, 71(3), 267–290.