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Active language

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Active language

This article may contain information that is already published in another article on the same subject or may be repeating information already explained.

An active–stative language (active language for short), also commonly called a split intransitive language, is a language in which the sole argument ("subject") of an intransitive clause (often symbolized as S) is sometimes marked in the same way as an agent of a transitive verb (that is, like a subject such as "I" or "she" in English), and sometimes in the same way as a direct object (such as "me" or "her" in English). The case or agreement of this intransitive argument (S) depends on semantic or lexical criteria particular to each language. These criteria tend to be based on the degree of volition or control over the verbal action exercised by the participant. For example, if one tripped and fell, an active–stative language might require them to say the equivalent of "fell me"; saying "I fell" would mean that they had done it on purpose, such as taking a fall in boxing. Another possibility is empathy; for example, if someone's dog was run over by a car, they might say the equivalent of "died her"; to say "she died" would imply that they were not affected emotionally.

If the core arguments of a transitive clause are termed A (agent of a transitive verb) and O (object, or patient of a transitive verb), then active–stative languages can be described as languages which align intransitive S as S = O ("me fell") or S = A ("I fell") depending on the criteria described above.

Active–stative languages contrast with accusative languages such as English that generally align S as S = A, and to ergative languages that generally align S as S = O.


For most languages of this type, the case of the intransitive argument is lexically fixed for each verb, regardless of the actual degree of volition of the subject, but often corresponding to the most typical situation. For example, the argument of swim may always treated like the transitive subject (agent-like), and the argument of sleep like the transitive direct object (patient-like). In Dakota, arguments of active verbs such as to run are marked like transitive agents, as in accusative languages, while arguments of inactive verbs such as to stand are marked like transitive objects, as in ergative languages. In a language like this, if the subject of a verb like run or swallow is defined as agentive, it will be always marked so, even if the action of swallowing is involuntary. This subtype is sometimes known as split-S.

In other languages, the marking of the intransitive argument is decided by the speaker based on semantic considerations. That is, for any given intransitive verb the speaker may choose whether to mark the argument as agentive or patientive. In some of these languages, agentive marking encodes a degree of volition or control over the action, with the patientive used as the default case; in others, patientive marking encodes a lack of volition or control, suffering from or being otherwise affected by the action, or sympathy on the part of the speaker, with the agentive used as the default case. These subtypes are sometimes known as fluid-S.

Argument marking

If the language has morphological case, then the arguments of a transitive verb are marked using the agentive case for the subject and the patientive case for the object, while the argument of an intransitive verb may be marked as either.

Languages lacking case inflections may indicate case with different word orders, using adpositions, etc. For example, the patientive argument might precede the verb, while the agentive argument might follow.

Cross-linguistically, the agentive argument tends to be marked, and the patientive argument tends to be unmarked. That is, if one case is indicated by zero-inflection, it is often the patientive.


Active languages are a relatively new field of study; in other times active morphosyntactic alignment was not recognized as such, and was mostly treated as an interesting deviation from the standard alternatives (nominative–accusative and ergative–absolutive). Besides, active languages are few, and they often show complications and special cases ("pure" active alignment is an ideal). Therefore, the terminology used to describe them is rather flexible. Active languages are also termed active–stative or even nominative–absolutive. The terms agentive case and patientive case used above are descriptive but not standard; sometimes the terms active and inactive are used.

The names of the subtypes, split-S and fluid-S, come from the designation of the single argument of intransitive verbs as S. They were first used by R. M. W. Dixon in 1979.


(†) = extinct language

South American languages

  • In Brazil, Bolivia, French Guiana, Paraguay, Peru: Tupì-Guaranì languages - Tupinambà (fluid-S, †), Tupi (†), northern Argentina, eastern Bolivia and southwestern Brazil by 7 million people), Siriono (eastern Bolivia), Camaiura or Kamayura (Split-S, Brazil);
  • Guaraní, a language spoken mainly in Paraguay, has been analyzed as a close-to-ideal active language of the fluid-S type. In Mesoamerica the Oto-Manguean languages Chocho and Amuzgo are active languages of the split-S type, with some verbs showing fluid-S alignment.
  • In Brazil(Upper Rio Negro): Arawak language Baniwa do Içana (fluid-S)
  • In South America and the Caribbean: many Arawakan languages (also Arahuacan, Arawakanas, Arahuacano, Maipurean, Maipuran, Maipureano, Maipúrean) are active languages of Split-S type, such as Waurá (Split-S, spoken in Brazil)

Central America/Mesoamerican languages

  • In Mexico: Popolocan branch of the Oto-Manguean languages - Chocho (also said Chocholtec, Chocholteco Chochotec, Chochon, or Ngigua, Split-S), Amuzgo, Chol (Mayan, Split-S)
  • In Panama & Colombia: Chibchan language Ikan (split-S)

North American languages

  • In USA: South & South-East - Gulf languages: Muskogee or Creek, Hichiti, Coasati, Choctaw (fluid-S on verbs and accusative marking on nouns), among them a subgroup of Muskogean languages such as Chickasaw (In South Central Oklahoma)
  • Central region of the US - Siouan languages, Omaha, Biloxi (†), Ofo (†), Osage, Winnebago, Crow (fluid-S), Ioway (split-S), Hidatsa, Dakota (split-S), Ponca, Tutelo, Assiniboine, Mandan (split-S); among a Sioux language Lakhota (split-S),
  • In Great Plains (east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada): Caddoan languages - Caddo, Wichita (ergative, accusative and S-split mixed type), Kitsai (also known as Kichai) (†), Arikara (Split-S; also known as Ree), Pawnee;
  • In Eastern North America: Iroquoian languages - Mohawk (Ontario, Quebec and northern New York), Seneca (Split-S; Western New York and the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario), Huron (called also as Wyandot, spoken in northeastern Oklahoma, Quebec), Oneida (spoken in Six Nations Reserve, Ontario; central New York and around Green Bay, Wisconsin), Onondaga (Split-S type, spoken in Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, and western New York), Susquehannock (†), Cayuga (spoken on Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, Ontario, by around 100 people), Tuscarora (southern Ontario, Tuscarora Reservation in northwestern New York, and eastern North Carolina), Nottoway (Virginia), Cherokee (Oklahoma, North Carolina);
  • In Louisiana: Tunica (or Tonica, or less common form Yuron), an extinct language isolate
  • In California: Pamoan languages - Eastern Pomo (fluid-S, Northern California), Central Pomo and Northern Pomo, Southeastern Pomo, Kashaya;
  • Western North America (In Canada, Alaska, Southern Rocky Mountains, Pacific shore of the US) – Na-dene languages - Haida, Tlingit, Eyak- extinct in 2008, Athapaskan, Slave
  • Chiracahua Apache and many other languages also show active alignment.

South and Southeast Asia


  • Georgian (spoken in the Caucasian nation of Georgia) is generally considered a split ergative language, but A. C. Harris has claimed that it shows active alignment in some verb paradigms (namely, that the ergative marker appears to apply to active-intransitive verbs; also stative experiencers take a different case marking and agreement pattern). However, even this is complicated by the existence of apparently inactive intransitive verbs taking such marking, such as the verb meaning 'to boil'. Other Kartvelian languages such Laz, Svan, and Old Georgian show similar systems, while the position of Mingrelian is more controversial.
  • Tsova-Tush, a Caucasian language is an active language. According to Holisky (1987), there are 31 intransitive verbs where the argument is always marked as patientive and which refer to uncontrollable states ("be hungry", "tremble", etc.), and 78 intransitive verbs with an agentive argument ("walk", "talk", "think"). These form a split-S subset of the verbs. The rest of the verbs form a fluid-S system; for instance, a single verb root can be interpreted as "slip" when used with a patientive argument, and as "slide" with an agentive argument.
  • Northeast Caucasian languages: Tabasaran.


Reconstructed languages

The reconstructed Pre-Proto-Indo-European language (not to be confused with the Proto-Indo-European language, its direct descendant) shows many features known to correlate with active alignment, among them the animate vs. inanimate distinction, related to the distinction between active and inactive or stative verb arguments. Even in its descendant languages there are traces of a morphological split between volitional and nonvolitional verbs, such as a pattern in verbs of perception and cognition where the argument takes an oblique case (called quirky subject), a relic of which can be seen in Middle English methinks, or in the distinction between see vs. look or hear vs. listen. Other possible relics from a structure in descendant languages of Indo-European include conceptualization of possession and extensive use of particles.


See also


  • Andréasson Daniel: Active languages, Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University
  • Bauer Brigitte L.M. 2000 Archaic Syntax in Indo- European: The Spread of Transitivity in Latin and French. Berlin /New York: de Gruyter
  • Blake Barry J. 1994: Survey of Case Marking: Active system, in: Blake B., Case, Cambridge University Press, 125-126
  • Benveniste Emile 1971: Origines de la Formations des Noms en Indoeuropéen. Paris: Adrien- Maissonneuve171-172 from Lehmann 1995: 17
  • Gamkrelidze Thomas V. / Ivanov Vjačeslav V. 1995 [1984]: Proto-Indo European as a Language of the Active Type, in Gamkrelidze Thomas V. / Ivanov Vjačeslav V.: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter, p. 233- 276
  • Gamkrelidze Thomas V. / Ivanov Vjačeslav V. 1995 [1984]: The grammatical syntagmatics of Proto-Indo European in typological perspective, in Gamkrelidze Thomas V. / Ivanov Vjačeslav V.: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter, p. 233- 276
  • Gante Christiane 2007: Objektkasus im Indogermanischen, Magisterarbeit an der Universitaet Hamburg, Grin Verlag 2008
  • Haas Mary R. 1946: A grammatical Sketch of Tunica, pp. 337–366 in Linguistic Structures of Native America, ed Harry Hoijer. New York: Viking, S.337-366, from Lehmann 1995
  • Harris A. 1981: Georgian syntax: a study in relational grammar. Cambridge University Press, from Blake B. 1994
  • Harris, A. 1985: Diachronic syntax. Orlando: Academic Press, from Blake B. 1994
  • Hoijer Harry 1946: Charicahua Apache, Linguistic Structures of Native America, ed Harry Hoijer. New York: Viking, S. 55-84
  • Holisky, Dee Ann. 1987. The case of the intransitive subject in Tsova-Tush (Batsbi). Lingua 71.103-32.
  • Ivanova Natalia 2008: Impersonal Constructions as a Residue of an Active Language, Magisterarbeit, University of Hamburg (not published but there is a copy of the work in Moscow Russian State Library and two copies in Hamburger Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Teilbibliothek Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, Teilbibliothek Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
  • Klimov, Georgij A. 1973: Očerk obščej teorii ergativnosti (Outline of a general theory of ergativity). Moscow: Nauka
  • Klimov, Georgij A. 1974: On the Character of Languages of Active Typology, in Linguistics 131: 11-25
  • Klimov, Georgij A. 1977: Tipologija Jazykov Aktivnogo Stroja. Moscow: Nauka
  • Klimov, Georgij A. 1983: On contentive Typology [Principy contensivnoj tipologii] Moscow: Nauka
  • Langemann, Katrin 2004 Morphologie und Syntax der Nominativ- und Akkusativkasus im Indogermanischen, Magisterarbeit an der Universitaet Hamburg
  • Lehmann Winfred P. 1995: Residues of Pre-Indo-European Active Structure and their Implications for the Relationships among the Dialects, Innsbruck
  • Lehmann, Winfred P. 1993: Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics. London: Routledge.
  • Lehmann, Winfred P. 2002: Pre-Indo-European (Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph 41).
  • Mithun 1991 : Active / agentive case marking and its motivation, in Language 67: 510-546, p. 513, 515-516, from Blake 1994 : 126
  • Seki, Lucy 1990. "Kamaiurá (Tupí-Guaraní) as an active–stative language."‭ In Doris L. Payne (ed.), Amazonian linguistics: Studies in lowland South American languages, 367-91. Austin: University of Texas Press.

External links

  • Active languages, by Daniel Andréasson, Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University
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