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The UCLA Linguistics Department proudly sponsors a wide range of research talks. Our flagship series is the Linguistics Colloquium, which includes distinguished visiting speakers and is addressed to a general audience of linguists. Specialist talks cover a variety of areas, and are most often given by in-house speakers.

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Colloquium: Lisa deMena Travis, McGill "Investigating the macroparameters and/or microparameters of ergativity"
Friday, January 25, 2013, 11:00am - 01:00pm

If one is interested in the tension between macroparameters (e.g. Baker 2008) and microparameters (e.g. Kayne 2000), ergativity is a good place to start.  Various accounts of ergativity suggest that it is encoded in a macro-parameter that governs a fundamental aspect of grammar (Marantz 1984: Argument structure; Murasugi 1992: nesting movement paths, etc.).   The immediate problem is that languages create an ergativity continuum that isn’t easily explained with a macroparameter.  I am interested in looking at ergativity to determine what parts of ergativity appear to be fragile, and what parts robust, with the aim of eventually determining the theoretical underpinnings to ergativity, and what form macroparameters and microparameters should take more generally.


The fragile end of ergativity:  Typically when the external argument (Agent) of a transitive verb is Absolutive in an ergative language, the construction is an anti-passive and the internal argument (Theme) is oblique.  Ergative language, however, vary in interesting ways, however, in this regard.  I will briefly give examples from Inuktitut (from Johns 2006) and Austronesian, and then explore facts from Mayan languages in more detail to trace a continuum in how internal arguments can be licensed.  The languages that will be highlighted are Chol, Q’anjob’al and Kaqchikel.


The robust end of ergativity: One of the last vestiges of ergativity that appears in languages at the far end of the continuum is ergative case itself, or its reflex.  Mahajan’s Generalization (Mahajan 1997) states that ergative languages are never verb-medial.  Indonesian and Javanese, however, are SVO languages yet, I argue, have some of the earmarks of syntactically ergative languages.  In particular, there is an argument position that is arguably reserved for ergative arguments.


Doing microcomparative work involves addressing not only theoretical but also methodological issues.  I raise some questions about the relation between E-language similarities and I-language similarities and how the answer to that question affects how linguists do research.



Baker, Mark C. (2008). 'The Macroparameter in the Microparametric World', in T. Biberauer (ed.), The Limits of Syntactic Variation. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins, 351-374.

Johns, Alana (2006). 'Ergativity and Language Change', in A. Johns, D. Massam, and J. Ndayiragije (eds.), Ergativity: Emerging Issues. Dordrecht: Springer, 293-315.

Kayne, Richard (2000). Parameters and Universals. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mahajan, Anoop (1997). 'Universal Grammar and the Typology of Ergative Languages', in A. Alexiadou, and T. A. Hall (eds.), Studies on Universal Grammar and Typological Variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 35–57.

Marantz, Alec (1984). On the Nature of Grammatical Relations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Murasugi, Kumiko (1992). Crossing and Nested Paths: NP Movement in Accusative and Ergative Languages, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Doctoral dissertation.

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