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date: 20 June 2019

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers how a discourse profile may provide a key piece of the puzzle for explaining the distribution of ergative grammatical structures within and across the world’s languages. The ergative discourse profile, isomorphic to the ergative-absolutive pattern of syntactic alignment, is found in a typologically diverse array of languages including ergative, accusative, and active. Speakers tend to follow soft constraints limiting the Quantity and Role of new and lexical noun phrases within the clause. Evidence for the universality of the ergative discourse profile is examined from typology, child language, and diachrony. A conflicting discourse pressure for topicality motivates accusativity, giving rise to competing motivations. As one recurrent resolution of competing demands, ergativity represents an evolutionarily stable strategy realized in grammar. While discourse-pragmatic and cognitive motivations contribute crucially to a functional explanation of ergativity, additional factors must include semantics of verbs, constructions, aspects, and splits; inherited morphosyntax; and more.

Keywords: ergativity, ergative discourse profile, Quantity Constraint, Role Constraint, soft constraints, adaptive selection, absolutive zero, word order, universals

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