A paper by Jessica Coon, Nico Baier (McGill postdoc ’18–’19), and Ted Levin has been accepted for publication in the journal Language. The paper is titled “Mayan Agent Focus and the Ergative Extraction Constraint: Facts and Fictions Revisited”, and is available on LingBuzz.
Abstract: Many languages of the Mayan family restrict the extraction of transitive (ergative) subjects for focus, wh-questions, and relativization (A’-extraction). We follow Aissen (2017b) in labelling this restriction the ergative extraction constraint (EEC). In this paper, we offer a unified account of the EEC within Mayan languages, as well as an analysis of the special construction known as Agent Focus (AF) used to circumvent it. Specifically, we propose that the EEC has a similar source across the subset of Mayan languages which exhibit it: intervention. The intervention problem is created when an object DP structurally intervenes between the A’-probe on C and the ergative subject. Evidence that intervention by the object is the source of the problem comes from a handful of exceptional contexts which permit transitive subjects to extract in languages which normally ban this extraction, and conversely, a context which exceptionally bans ergative extraction in a language which otherwise allows it. We argue that the problem with A’-extracting the ergative subject across the intervening object connects to the requirements of the A’-probe on C: the probe on C is bundled to search simultaneously for [A’] and [D] features. This relates the Mayan patterns to recent proposals for extraction patterns in Austronesian languages (e.g. Legate 2014; Aldridge 2017b) and elsewhere (van Urk 2015). Specifically, adapting the proposal of Coon and Keine (to appear), we argue that in configurations in which a DP object intervenes between the probe on C and an A’-subject, conflicting requirements on movement lead to a derivational crash. While we propose that the EEC has a uniform source across the family, we argue that AF constructions vary Mayan-internally in how they circumvent the EEC, accounting for the variation in behavior of AF across the family. This paper both contributes to our understanding of parametric variation internal to the Mayan family, as well as to the discussion of variation in A’-extraction asymmetries and syntactic ergativity cross-linguistically.