Ranto Appendix – R

SUBJECTS

A good polyglot learns to take the rules of any given target language for granted as natural laws; a good linguist on the other hand learns that there are many different ways of doing things.  Esperantists (who tend to be hobbyist Euro‐polyglots) often trumpet the language's case‐marking system as an indispensable guide to the fundamental “argument structure” of a sentence.  But even disregarding the way Esperanto marks various other things the same way as its “direct objects”, there's nothing logically necessary about subjects and objects.  Indeed, the terms are only meaningful once you've defined them for a specific language in terms of the more universal concepts of:

Different languages group these according to various schemes (known to linguists as “alignments”).

  1. the pedant's solution (known from one Australian language).  Clearly more complicated than there's any call for.
    Agent distinguished as Ergative case
    Experiencer distinguished as Intransitive case
    Patient distinguished as Accusative case
  2. the clairvoyant's option (less rare; much use of context): cases not distinguished even by word‐order rules.
    Agent / Experiencer / Patient all treated alike (i.e. no cases)
  3. the monster raving loony candidate (some Iranian sightings); combines all the drawbacks of (A) and (B).
    Agent / Patient treated alike as Transitive case
    Experiencer distinguished as Intransitive case
  4. the orthodox Indo‐European approach; two cases, Nominative (= Nonpatient) vs. Accusative (= Patient).
    Agent / Experiencer treated alike as Nominative case
    Patient distinguished as Accusative case
    (In English, for instance, Nominatives go before the verb and Accusatives after.)
  5. looking glass logic – the rather widespread opposite of (D); Agent vs. Nonagent.
    Agent distinguished as Ergative case
    Experiencer / Patient treated alike as Absolutive case
    (This often strikes Europeans as “passive”: sentences “hinge” on the Absolutive – often meaning the Patient – not the Ergative; cf. “Sam was seen by us”.)
  6. a compromise solution – part (D), part (E).  Also common.
    Agent / (voluntary) Experiencer handled as Nominative case
    Patient / (involuntary) Experiencer handled as Absolutive case
    (So in “I slid on the ice”, “I” may be Nominative if it was deliberate skating or Absolutive if it was an accident.)

What's more, many languages mix the above systems!  For more detail, and further examples of exotic possibilities Zamenhof never considered, see… well, I used to cite an old favourite language typology textbook here, but I should probably be pointing people at the World Atlas of Language Structures.