Searching for “Agent Zero”
The origins of a relative case system
Felicity Meakins |
University of Queensland |
ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language
Gurindji Kriol, a mixed language spoken in northern Australia, combines a Kriol VP with a Gurindji NP, including case suffixes (Meakins 2011a). The Gurindji-derived case suffixes have undergone a number of changes in Gurindji Kriol, for example the ergative suffix -ngku/-tu now marks nominative case (Meakins 2011b, 2015). This study explores a new innovation in case morphology among Gurindji Kriol-speaking children: the use of -ngku/-tu to mark possessors as well as subjects, i.e. the emergence of a relative case system. Although rare in Australian languages, syncretism between agents and possessors is not uncommon cross-linguistically, reported in Caucasian Eskimo-Aleut, Mixe-Zoquean and Yucatecan-Mayan languages (Allen 1964; Blake 1994; Palancar 2002). In the case of Gurindji Kriol, the relative case system found its origins in allomorphic reduction which led to syncretism between ergative and dative case forms. This syncretism was shaped by the syntactic grouping of subjects and possessors as dependents of verbs and possessums, respectively. Although partial syncretism between ergative and dative case is not unusual in Australian languages historically, it has gone to completion in Gurindji Kriol and can be observed in two other instances of rapid linguistic change in Australia: Ngiyambaa (Donaldson 1980) and Dyirbal (Schmidt 1985). The re-organisation of the case system can be traced back to a small group of second-generation Gurindji Kriol speakers at Nitjpurru (Pigeon Hole) and this change has since been transmitted laterally through familial connections to other children at Daguragu. There are also indications that it has begun propagating to other children at Kalkaringi and is now being acquired by the next generation of Gurindji Kriol speakers.
Keywords: case system, Gurindji Kriol, language contact, language change, child language, children’s agency
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