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Ergative case

Two major case systems found in languages are the nominative-accusative and the ergative-absolutive. The ergative-absolutive system is the inverse of the nominative-accusative system, and Ergative case is assigned to:

1. The subject of a transitive verb.

as opposed to the absolutive case which is assigned to:

1. The subject of an intransitive verb.
2. The object of a transitive verb.

To illustrate, first consider German:

Der Mann ist gekommen. "The man arrived."
Der Mann hat den Knaben gesehen. "The man saw the boy."

In both of these, der Mann stands in the "der" or "nominative" case, while der Knabe stands instead in the "den" or "accusative" case. This kind of system is called a "nominative-accusative" system, or an "accusative" system for short. This is the kind of system English has, insofar as it has anything.

Now consider Basque:

Gizona etorri da. "The man has arrived."
Gizonak mutila ikusi du. "The man saw the boy."

In Basque, gizon is "man", mutil is "boy", and a suffix -a is "the". Notice that gizon is different depending on whether it is the subject of a transitive or intransitive verb. The first form is the absolutive case and the second form is the ergative case.

English does show a trace of ergativity. With an intransitive verb, adding the suffix "-ee" to the verb produces a label for the person performing the action:

"John has retired." --> "John is a retiree."
"John has escaped." --> "John is an escapee."
"John is standing." --> "John is a standee."

However, with a transitive verb, adding "-ee" does not produce a label for the person doing the action. Instead, it gives us a label for the person to whom the action is done:

"Mike employs Susie." --> "Susie is an employee."
"Mike has inducted Susie." --> "Susie is an inductee."
"Mike has appointed Susie" --> "Susie is an appointee."

The differing effect of the "-ee" suffix, depending on the transitivity of the verb, can be considered ergativity. Another example of ergativity is the verb "open":

John opens the door.
The door opens.

See also nominative case, absolutive case, accusative case, dative case, genitive case, vocative case, ablative case; compare to ergative verb.

In addition to Basque, many other languages utilize ergative case. They include:

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