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11 The system of Verb Orientation

From the book A Grammar of Coastal Marind

  • Bruno Olsson


This chapter describes one of the most important morphosyntactic resources in Coastal Marind, the use of which has consequences for the constituent order and morphological shape of the verb in almost every clause. The structures discussed below, collectively treated under the rubric Verb Orientation, combine features of information structure and argument flagging in what appears to be a typologically unique way, although a similar system of prefixal focus marking has been described for the Papuan language Watam by Foley (1999). Some parallels also exist with symmetric voice systems as discussed by Austronesianists (e.g. Ross 2002), verbal focus marking in Bantu (Gibson et al. 2016), and with the voice-like systems of some Nilotic languages (e.g. Andersen 2015, from which I borrow the term ‘orientation’). The most important factor governing the use of the Verb Orientation system is the function of the constituent placed immediately before the verb complex (henceforth the pre-verbal constituent). There are two facets of this: (i) how to choose a constituent to place before the verb, which is a question of how to package the information in a clause, and (ii) the grammatical and/or semantic role of the pre-verbal constituent, which governs the use of one of the five Orientation prefixes. The following discussion will focus on the second issue first, and it will be shown that the Orientation prefixes have functions that are similar to grammatical case in dependent-marking languages, such as flagging a constituent as filling the role of S or A (i.e. the sole argument of an intransitive verb, or the agent-like argument of a monotransitive verb) or O (the patient-like argument of a monotransitive verb), in addition to various other uses, some of which are less suggestive of case marking. §11.1 is essentially a catalogue detailing some of the more frequent uses of the Orientation prefixes, and some readers may prefer to skim through these subsections. The information-structural aspects governing what constituent ends up in the preverbal position are discussed in (§11.2), where it is shown that one of its main functions is the expression of focus, as shown by the obligatory pre-verbal placement of the questioned constituent in content (or wh-) questions, and of the corresponding constituent in answers to such questions. §11.3 discusses some ways in which the Orientation system interacts with other grammatical subsystems in the language. Finally, §11.4 describes the Givenness prefix te-, which is used when the constituent placed in the pre-verbal position contains a demonstrative.

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