SSILA 2019: Ergativity in Chitimacha

This year at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA), I will be presenting a talk titled "Ergativity in Chitimacha". The conference is being held concurrently with the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, January 3-6, 2019, New York City. Check out the abstract below!

Abstract: Ergativity in Chitimacha

ISO 639-3: ctm
Glottolog: chit1248
Location: 29°52’09.1″N 91°32’38.7″W

This talk presents the first analysis of grammatical relations in noun phrases in Chitimacha. Previous grammatical descriptions of the language treat Chitimacha noun phrases as uninflected for case (Swanton 1920; Swadesh 1946:319), yet describe various “postpositions” which sound suspiciously like markers of grammatical relations. For example, Swadesh (1939a:120) states that the main function of the postposition hiš is “indicating the subject of an active verb”, and that this form also serves as an instrumental. Given Swadesh’s description, and the fact that instrumental > ergative is a well-known grammaticalization pathway (Garrett 1990; Heine & Kuteva 2004:1280), hiš is likely an ergative marker. Another form, ‑(n)k, he describes as optional when it marks subjects (Swadesh 1939a:134), perhaps suggestive of an absolutive. He later notes that “hiš is a device for indicating the subject unambiguously,” but that “‑(n)k is also used” (Swadesh 1939a:120). Taken together, these and other miscellaneous comments are suggestive of a system of case marking that follows an ergative-absolutive pattern.

However, this cannot be the whole story. While hiš, for instance, does appear in contexts that are compatible with an ergative, as in (1), it does not do so consistently, as (2) illustrates, and occasionally hiš and ‑(n)k co-occur, as in (3).

(1) Kiči   hečʼin  hiš    we   šaːhken  hus=up      hi   nahw-iʔi.
    woman  holy    CASE?  DET  basket   3SG=toward  AND  throw-3SG
    'The holy woman threw the basket at her.' (Swadesh 1939b: A13 3.5)
(2) We   kiči   nahcʼipu  hus  koː   hi    ʔam-i.
    DET  woman  young     3SG  aunt  DIST  see-3SG
    'The girl saw her aunt.' (Swadesh 1939b: A27 3.3)
(3) Wetkš  we   siksi-nk    hiš    hesikʼen  ʔapš  heyšt-iʔi.
    then   DET  eage-CASE?  CASE?  again     RED   pick.up-3SG
    'Then the eagle picked him up again.' (Swadesh 1939b: A1 3.4)

Given that Swadesh describes the appearance of both hiš and ‑(n)k as the need to avoid ambiguity, then if these forms are case markers, they are most likely discourse-optional or differentially-marked (McGregor & Verstraete 2010; Seržant & Witzlack-Makarevich 2018).

In this talk I present an analysis of the hiš nominal marker in Chitimacha, with some ancillary commentary on ‑(n)k, based on a corpus of texts recorded by the last two fluent speakers of the language with Morris Swadesh in the 1930s (Swadesh 1939b). I suggest that hiš is a discourse-optional ergative enclitic that appears when the agent is potentially ambiguous (i.e. when multiple agents are activated in the discourse). This work is a valuable contribution to language revitalization efforts being undertaken by the Chitimacha tribe, since these markers appear frequently in archival materials, but their functions have previously been opaque to modern learners. Moreover, since Chitimacha is known to have undergone contact-induced changes in its verbal alignment system (Hieber 2018), this talk not only provides a first description of a previously unacknowledged component of Chitimacha grammar, but also contributes to an understanding of grammatical relations from an areal perspective in the U.S. Southeast.


3    third person
AND  andative ('to')
DET  determiner
DIST distal
RED  reditive ('returning')
SG   singular


  • Garrett, Andrew. 1990. The origin of NP split ergativity. Language 66(2). 261–296. doi:10.2307/414887.
  • Heine, Bernd & Tania Kuteva. 2004. World lexicon of grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511613463.
  • Hieber, Daniel W. 2018. Lessons from an isolate: Chitimacha diachrony in areal perspective. SSILA 2018. Salt Lake City, January 4–7. Available at:
  • McGregor, William B. & Jean Christophe Verstraete. 2010. Optional ergative marking and its implications for linguistic theory. Lingua 120(7). 1607–1609. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2009.05.009.
  • Seržant, Ilja A. & Alena Witzlack-Makarevich. 2018. Differential argument marking: An introduction. In Ilja A. Seržant & Alena Witzlack-Makarevich (eds.), Diachrony of differential argument marking, 1–40. (Studies in Diversity Linguistics 19). Berlin: Language Science Press. doi:10.5281/zenodo.1228243.
  • Swadesh, Morris. 1939a. Chitimacha grammar. Chitimacha grammar, texts and vocabulary. (American Council of Learned Societies Committee on Native American Languages Mss.497.3.B63c G6.5). Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society Library.
  • Swadesh, Morris. 1939b. Chitimacha texts. Chitimacha grammar, texts and vocabulary. (American Council of Learned Societies Committee on Native American Languages Mss.497.3.B63c G6.5). Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society Library.
  • Swadesh, Morris. 1946. Chitimacha. In Cornelius Osgood (ed.), Linguistic structures of Native America, 312–336. (Publications in Anthropology 6). New York: Viking Fund.
  • Swanton, John R. 1920. A sketch of the Chitimacha language. (Numbered manuscripts 1850s-1980s (some earlier), MS 4122). Suitland, MD: National Anthropological Archives.

Daniel W. Hieber

Ph.D. Candidate in Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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