Since Du Bois’s (1987b) seminal paper, ergative alignment in morphosyntax has been claimed to correlate with a characteristic constellation of argument realization in discourse: both intransitive subjects (S) and transitive objects (P) serve to introduce new referents via full noun phrases (NPs), while transitive subjects (A) are dispreferred for this function and are thus mostly realized as pronouns or zero (e.g. Dixon 1995, Du Bois et al. 2003, Goldberg 2004). This ergative patterning in discourse is generally accounted for in terms of information-management strategies employed by speakers in dealing with the cognitive demands of introducing and monitoring referents in discourse. These claims have recently been questioned by Everett (2009), whose data (English and Portuguese) show no support for the claimed ergative bias in discourse and raise doubts about explanations in terms of information management. The present article subjects the claims of an ergative bias in discourse to more rigorous testing, drawing on the largest database compiled to date (nineteen spoken-language corpora from fifteen typologically diverse languages), and assesses the explanatory frameworks. We find that, with the exception of Du Bois’s original Sakapultek data, there is very little evidence for the postulated ergative pattern in natural spoken-language discourse crosslinguistically. Although our findings do confirm low levels of full NPs in the A role (Du Bois’s ‘Non-lexical A’ constraint), we concur with Everett (2009) that the semantic feature [±human] provides an empirically more sound and conceptually more economical account than earlier explanations framed in terms of information management. Finally, we address the plausibility of emergentist claims for a diachronic link between ergative alignment in morphosyntax and information flow in discourse. The raw data used in this article and extensive exemplification of the methodology employed are available as online supplementary materials.


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pp. 591-618
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