Guugu Yimithirr Lesson 9

Absolutive case and Ergative case

Ergative case and Absolutive case are so important so we might as well learn the linguistic terminology.

Ergative case and Absolutive case are forms of nouns.

Simply put, Absolutive case is the wordlist form of the noun. In the wordlist it says buliman (“policeman”). Buliman is the Absolutive form.

Ergative case case the ending –ngunbulimanngun

There are a few different Ergative endings, but –ngun is always understood by Guugu Yimithirr speakers.

Absolutive case means that the subject doesn’t do anything that affects another person (or thing)

Johnny gagathirr is a sentence. Johnny doesn’t do anything to anybody else so Johnny is in Absolutive case, so there is a zero ending on Johnny.

Let’s learn a few words. Ngaabaay means “head”, and bungal means “clever”.

Agnes ngaabaay bungal means “Agnes is clever”.

There is no ending on Agnes in Absolutive case.

So when do we use the Absolutive case?

Let’s recapitulate. We have learned that Absolutive case has no ending, and Ergative Case usually has the ending –ngun:



But which one do we use? It depends on the verb, the action word.

If there is no verb, or the verb describes a state or a movement or something else that doesn’t affect another person or thing, the verb is called an intransitive verb.

Verbs that describe a state are called intransitive verbs. “To lie down”  is a state, so the verb is an intransitive verb in both English and Guugu Yimithirr. You don’ do anything to anybody or anything when you are lying down, so it is an intransitive verb.

Wunaarna means “lying” (down)

Bubu menas “ground” or “land”

Johnny bubuwi wunaarna means “Johnny is lying on the ground”. It is an intransitive sentence. Johnny is not doing anything that affects anybody else.

Other verbs that go with the Absolutive case are verbs for movement, such as thadaa (go) and gadaa (come). These are action words where you do something, but the thing you do is not an action directed at another person (or object), such as watching them or touching them.

Ergative case means that the subject does something that affects another person (or animal or thing)

We recall that Johnnyngun yarraman thabi means “Johnny kicked the horse”.

The ergative ending –ngun is added to Johnny.

Personal pronouns do not have Ergative case endings.

We recall from the previous lesson that some pronouns are used together with the noun. But the personal pronouns do not take ergative endings.

Nhulu Johnnyngun yarraman thabi.

More examples of Ergative and Absolutive case

Nhaathi means “saw”.

Bulimanngun yarrga nhaathi means “The policeman saw the boy”.

Ngayu buliman nhaathi means “I saw the policeman”. There is no Ergative ending on Ngayu because it is a pronoun.

The two words mayi (“food”) and buday (“ate”) are very common even among people who mostly speak English in Hope Vale:

Yarrga bula bulimanngun mayi buday means “The boy and the policeman ate the food”. There are two people doing something (yarrga and buliman), but we only put the Ergative ending on the last of those two words. We recall that the pronoun bula (“they, two people”) is put between the two words.

This type of sentence where there is an object affected by the verb action is called a transitive sentence.

Now, compare the previous sentence with this sentence: Yarrga bula buliman football wuurilil  (“The boy and the policeman are playing football”). Two of them are kicking the ball of course, but that is not the point of the sentence. The sentence tells us that the two of them are involved in an activity that doesn’t affect another person or object, so the case is Absolutive.


In some sentences there is a “doer”, and the “doer” takes an ending in Guugu Yimithirr – but not in English.


ngaabaay – “head”

bungal – “clever”

bubu – “land”

wunaarna – “lying”

nhaathi – “saw”

mayi – “food”

buday – “ate”


The case for the doer is Ergative case, and the ending is (often) –ngun

Sentences with a doer are called transitive sentences.

Sentences where the verb describes a state or an activity that doesn’t directly affect somebody else is called an intransitive sentence. The case of nouns in such sentences is called Absolutive case, with a zero ending.

Personal pronouns do not have the Ergative case.


Now go to the Quizlet web site to practice what you learned in this lesson:

Quizlet Lesson 9