Another limitation for defining grammatical relations: the case of Ket

Morphosyntactic alignment patterns (nominative-accusative; ergative-absolutive; active-inactive, etc.; discussed in the talk) and grammatical relations constituting them (subject, object, ergative, absolutive; also discussed in the talk!) are a central issue in linguistic typology. During the years, the notion of alignment has changed from a language-specific to a construction-specific concept. Different alignment patterns are not only distributed over the globe, but can be found within a single language.

Grammatical relations are defined as a neutralization of semantic roles by morphological, syntactic or discourse-related means (cf. Van Valin 2005, Role and Reference Grammar).

Ket, a highly endangered Yeniseian language of Siberia (210 speakers, according to ethnologue) is known to exhibit various patterns to encode participants in the verb. In the literature (Vajda 2004, Georg 2007), those patterns are subsumed under different alignment classes, namely active-inactive, nominative-accusative, ergative-absolutive, e.g:

Conjugation class III, pattern: nominative-accusative

Subject: coded in the affix positions P8,P6 and P-1 of the verbal template
Object: coded in the affix positions P4/P3/P1 of the verbal template

Verbal template P8 P7 P6 P5 P4 P3 P2 P1 P0 P-1
Subject Lexical


Redundant Subject Lexical


Object or Durative Object Past tense or imperative Object Verbal STEM Subject Plural
Verb 1:


ku- kəŋ- t- o- il- ok -n
2Subj   2pl.Subj head durative   past   move -Subj.Pl
kkə́ŋtòloɣin: ‘You (Pl.) were shuddering” (single argument)
Verb 2:



da bu k a (j)t  




away 3.Masc.


      transitive stem  
dabúɣàjit: ‘She carries him’ (agent + patient)

Table: Since the single argument of an intransitive verb is coded the same position as the agentive argument in the transitive verb, one could speak of a subject-relation.

However, it turns out that, in order to state such grammatical relations, only those verbs are being related to each other where the particular pattern of the one has a structural coincidence with that of the other. This relation-setting is not done within a grammatical context, but depends on the lexicon, since the coding of participants is lexically determined for each verb, hence not predictable.

The strong intertwining between lexicon and grammar asks whether grammatical relations can be stated for Ket or if they remain a merely lexically motivated illusion.



Georg, Stefan (2007). A descriptive grammar of Ket (Yenisei-ostyak). Part 1: Introduction, Phonology, Morphology. Folkestone, Kent, UK: Global Oriental LTD.

Vajda, Edward (2004). Ket (Languages of the World/Materials Volume 204.) Munich: Lincom Europa.

Van Valin, Robert D., Jr. (2005). Exploring the Syntax-Semantics Interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s