Itziar Laka, born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1962. Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Associate Professor of Philology and General Linguistics at the Universidad del Pais Vasco, Bilbao.
Fellow (1 September 1996 – 31 January 1997)
The topic of the research I have undertaken while at NIAS is part of the larger project originally named “Encyclopaedia of Syntactic Case Studies”, (renamed The Syntax Companion). The aspect of linguistic research I have explored is Ergativity. In a nutshell, ergativity is a pattern of case and/or agreement morphology that appears in a relative minority of languages, in all continents, not all of which are genetically related to each other. Ergative languages, however, group in a grammatical class the single argument of the transitive sentence and the patient argument of a transitive sentence. Ergativity constitutes a challenge to linguistic theory even today, and it has unavoidable consequences regarding the status that (apparently basic) notions such as subject or object ought to have in a general theory of human language.
During my stay at NIAS, I have undertaken an exhaustive examination of the empirical sources on ergativity available. I compared and assessed a large number of typological works reporting ergative phenomena from languages all across the planet. This research into the sources confirms that most phenomena reported in the typological literature do in fact conform to a unified morphological pattern. However, on occasion, a given language reported as ergative in the literature has turned out to have been misclassified.
NIAS has been crucial in the speediness with which I have been capable of undertaking this first stage of my research. I was also able to concentrate on a compilation and critical comparison of the various theories of ergativity that have developed within modern syntactic theory, and an assessment of the impact that such theories have on our current understanding of human language, and the status that notions like subject, transitivity and grammatical relation, among others, have in our `language instinct’.