So I’m a tad stressed right now and work is probably going to suck tonight so I thought I would take the time to share with everyone a really fascinating topic; the linguistic pivot. Now I’m not going to go into too much detail, because quite frankly people have written enormously about this topic. But I hope to give anyone who actually reads this a good insight into what I am talking about.
So first things first: What is a pivot? Simply put a pivot is a topic in a sentence that does not and often is not restated in a coordinate clause. That may sound complicated. What I mean is that in a sentence like “James punched Dillon and kicked him” We know that James is the subject of both verbs (punched and kicked). Dillon can’t be the subject of kicked even though he is a possible subject (by which I mean the sentence “Dillon kicked” is possible). Even more interesting is that only the subject can do this. I couldn’t say “James punched Dillon and James kicked” and have it mean the same thing as “James punched Dillon and James kicked Dillon”.
Now before I go further I will have to deviate slightly to a different topic; transitivity. Transitivity refers to how many arguments a verb can take, arguments here meaning roughly ‘things in the sentence that apply to the verb’. So in a sentence like “James punched Dillon with his fist because Dillon is a fat-fat-fatty” the arguments of punched are “james”, “dillon”, “with his fist”, and “because dillon is a fat-fat-fatty” (words like “his” and “fat-fat-fatty” aren’t arguments of punched, they are components of the arguments). Arguments come in two types: Core arguments (things the verb cannot exist without, like the subject or object) and Oblique arguments (things that are optional, prepositional phrases, subclauses, etc.) The two basic types of transitivity are Intransitive and Transitive. This means, respectively, verbs that only take one core argument (in English this is always a subject) and verbs that take two (a subject and an object). So in English I can transitively eat an apple or I can intransitively dine (note I could dine on an apple but because dine is intransitive the apple must take the preposition on and thus become oblique). Some verbs can be both: The cup broke vs. I broke the cup.
Now note how in that last example with cups the subject is playing a very different role in the two sentences. In the first the subject (cup) is undergoing the action of the verb. In the second the subject (I) is actively perpetrating the action. This is just one piece of evidence for the existence of three types of core arguments: The familiar object (which will be represented as O), the subject of an intransitive verb (Which will be represented as S) and the subject of a transitive verb (A). I would go into more detail but this is already rambling. Now one may think that languages would distinguish the three but this is not so (as apparent in English’s grouping of S and A as subjects). The reason is that S never coincides with the other two (A and O) who must always coincide. Thus only A needs to be made distinct from O and S can be grouped with either. So there are two ways to do this: group S and A distinct from O (as in English) or Group S and O distinct from A. Now most languages group as English does (SA/O). These languages are called Accusative. A minority of languages group the second way (SO/A). These languages are called Ergative. There are also languages that deal with this in other ways but we don’t need to go into that right now.
So why bring all this mumbo jumbo up? Weren’t we talking about pivots? Well remember how pivots work around subjects? In Ergative languages subject does not mean the same thing as in Accusative ones. Thus pivoting works differently. Interestingly enough in an Ergative language a sentence like “James punched Dillon and James kicked” would totally work, while “James punched Dillon and kicked Dillon” would not (at least not to mean what it means in English; it could mean that Dillon did the kicking). The reason for this is that it turns out that the pivot is not subject oriented: it’s S oriented.
This is probably because S is almost always treated as the most important core argument. In languages with case marking the case with S in it is always the most basic.
There’s a lot more that could be said and honestly this was quite rushed (I didn’t even get any example sentences from other languages). But I’m fairly certain it’s accurate and a subject I find utterly fascinating. I invite any Tumblr linguists who actually have the patience to read all this to fact check me and inform me of any blatant errors.
Boy I feel better now!
Something I’ve been wondering lately is if Object-Subject languages (the rare word orders OSV, OVS, VOS) are more likely to be ergative, i.e. if there’s a relationship between pivot point and word order. But given that something around 40% of the world’s languages are ergative but less than 10% have OS word order, this connection is probably tenuous.