Model of the Syntactic Structure of Early Proto-Indoeuropean

All Indoeuropean languages are nominative languages. That means that they use a special case called nominative as marker of the subject both in transitive and intransitive sentences. The case of the (direct) object in transitive sentences is called accusative. These cases are marked by the endings -s/-d (nominative) and -m/-d (accusative) in nouns (singular). The endings -s and -m are used for the animate gender, the ending -d is used for the inanimate one. None of the other cases shows gender markers. If you are interested in further questions concerning case and gender look at the page referring to nouns.

 Nevertheless it has often been maintained that an early stage of Proto-Indoeuropean was an ergative language, although there is no Indoeuropean language of this type. Well-known ergative languages are the Basque and the Georgian languages for example. Ergative languages resemble the passive voice construction of nominative languages. That means that in transitive sentences the subject is the patient whereas the agent shows the case endings of an oblique case called "ergative". The case of the subject is called "absolute". The same subject case is used in intransitive sentences and marks the agent there. So you can say that the agent shows different cases in transitive and intransitive sentences and that the case of the patient in transitive sentences agrees with the case of the agent in intransitive sentences, whereas nominative languages mark the agent in both sentences by the nominative (the case of the patient in transitive sentences does not agree with the agent case in intransitive ones). I do not want to prove this claim but I will try to build a model of how the hypothetic ergativic stage of early Proto-Indoeuropean could have worked.

 First of all, it is necessary to say that the current nominative must either be a new case or a reinterpreted oblique one. With the nominative in its current function you see simply a nominative and not an ergative language. The easiest way to reach an ergativic stage is the following one: The verb has not been changed anyway. The case of the patient in the transitive sentence has not been changed anyway. That means that the current accusative must have been the "casus absolutus", which was also used as subject case in intransitive sentences. The agent in transitive sentences was expressed by the "casus ergativus". At the moment when a new case called "nominative" occured for use as the agent both in transitive and intransitive sentences a nominative language was born. An ergative language of the type described above is a weak type one because just before the establishment of the nominative the verb showed concordance to the agent whereas in ergative languages of the strong type the verb shows concordance to the subject i.e. the patient in transitive sentences. I think that this weak type is the first step towards a nominative language and that this step is a necessary one for the transformation. I assume that the locative which ends in -i (beside endingless forms) was used as ergative case. In a reflexive sense also the dative could be used for the agent. Now look at the system of the origin of verbal endings!

 According to this verbal ending system I suggest the following original syntactic structure for early Proto-Indoeuropean at its (latest) ergativic stage period (the verb showing concordance to the agent):

Sentence type / Syntactic element

Agent of Transitive Sentence

Patient / Subject of Intransitive Sentence


intransitive (none) N-e (pronouns) or N-0+-m/-d = gender markers (nouns) R-e-V-Xintr-e
explanation (none) nominal stem (N) + ending absolute (accusative) reduplication (R) + verbal stem (V) + intransitive (perfect) ending set (Xintr)
transitive N-i N-e (pronouns) or N-0+-m/-d = gender markers (nouns) R-i-V-Xtrans-i
explanation nominal stem (N) + ending ergative (locative) nominal stem (N) + ending absolute (accusative) reduplication (R) + verbal stem (V) + transitive (primary active) ending set (Xtrans)
reflexive (medium voice) N-ei/-oi ... R-(o)i-V-Xrefl-oi
explanation nominal stem (N) + ending dative ... reduplication (R) + verbal stem (V) + reflexive (primary medium) ending set (Xrefl)

At the time when the nominative as new agent case (ending in -s/-d) was developed to be used both in transitive and in intransitive sentences, a direct transformation from the former ergativic system to the current nominative system took place as you can see in the table above. As the concordance system "case ending of the agent - reduplication vowel - verbal ending vowel" lost its sense at the same time, secondary endings could develop by reduction of the ending under the influence of the augment (é-bher-o-nt < é-bher-o-nt-i and so on).
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Written by Hans-Joachim Alscher