Nominative–absolutive language

A nominative–absolutive language, also called a marked nominative language, is a language with an unusual morphosyntactic alignment similar to, and often considered a subtype of, a nominative–accusative alignment. In a prototypical nominative–accusative language with a grammatical case system, like Latin, the object of a verb is marked for accusative case, and the subject of the verb may or may not be marked for nominative case.

The nominative, whether or not marked morphologically, is also used as the citation form of the noun. In a marked nominative system, on the other hand, it is the nominative case alone that is marked morphologically, and it is the unmarked accusative case that is used as the citation form of the noun. Because that resembles an absolutive case, it is often called a nominative–absolutive system.

Marked nominative languages are relatively rare. They are well-documented in only two regions of the world: in northeastern Africa, where they occur in several branches of the Cushitic and Omotic families of Afro-Asiatic, as well as in the Surmic and Nilotic languages of the Eastern Sudanic family; and in the southwestern United States and adjacent parts of Mexico, where they are characteristic of the Yuman family. Other languages interpreted by some authors as having a marked nominative system include other Afro-Asiatic languages such as some Berber tongues, Igbo, Aymara and Wappo.

Some earlier Germanic languages, such as Gothic and Old Norse, also used a marked nominative. The table below shows an abbreviated declension of Gothic dags, 'day', and Old Norse armr, 'arm' (note that Indo-European linguistic tradition uses the nominative as the citation form, whether marked or not) both of which show a marked nominative and an unmarked accusative:

Gothic Old Norse
Nominative dag-s arm-r
Accusative dag arm

Both of the above nominative markers descend from Proto-Indo-European */-s/ and are therefore cognate with other nominative forms such as Latin -us and Lithuanian -as. The accusative marker, however (*/-m/ in Proto-Indo-European), was lost entirely, producing a marked nominative. Most modern Germanic languages have merged the nominative and accusative cases, but Icelandic and Faroese preserve the nominative form -ur in masculine nouns.

In Yuman and many of the Cushitic languages, however, the nominative is not always marked, for reasons which are not known; there may, therefore, not be a strict case system but rather reflect discourse patterns or other non-semantic parameters. However, the Yuman language Havasupai is reported to have a purely syntactic case system, with a suffix marking all subjects of transitive and intransitive verbs but not of the copula; in the Nilotic language Datooga, the system is also reported to be purely syntactic.

As in many Nilotic languages, Datooga case is marked by tone. The absolutive case has the unpredictable tone of the citation form of the noun, but the nominative is marked by a characteristic tone that obliterates this lexical tone. The tone is high for words of three syllables or less; for words with four or more syllables, the ends of the word have high tone, with a low tone in the middle of the word.

The nominative is used for subjects following the verb; the absolutive with the copula, with subjects in focus position before the verb and in all other situations.

See also


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