Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton October 13, 2017

Single versus concurrent systems: Nominal classification in Mian

  • Greville G. Corbett , Sebastian Fedden EMAIL logo and Raphael Finkel
From the journal Linguistic Typology


The Papuan language Mian allows us to refine the typology of nominal classification. Mian has two candidate classification systems, differing completely in their formal realization but overlapping considerably in their semantics. To determine whether to analyse Mian as a single system or concurrent systems we adopt a canonical approach. Our criteria – orthogonality of the systems (we give a precise measure), semantic compositionality, morphosyntactic alignment, distribution across parts of speech, exponence, and interaction with other features – point mainly to an analysis as concurrent systems. We thus improve our analysis of Mian and make progress with the typology of nominal classification.



1st/2nd/3rd person




adnominal element obligatory with the distal demonstrative in adnominal use








covering classifier
























medial verb
















residue classifier


remote past






This research was funded by the AHRC (UK) under grants AH/K003194/1 “Combining Gender and Classifiers in Natural Language” and AH/N006887/1 “Lexical Splits: A Novel Perspective on the Structure of Words”. This support is gratefully acknowledged. For helpful discussion leading up to the article we thank Erich Round, Tom Güldemann, and Tim Feist. We are grateful to Matthew Baerman, Francesca Di Garbo, Tim Feist, Tom Güldemann, Tania Paciaroni, Matthias Passer, Maïa Ponsonnet, Erich Round, Hedvig Skirgård, and Anna Thornton for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this article; and to Penny Everson and Lisa Mack for their help in preparing the manuscript. We thank our Mian consultants, Kasening Milimap, Liden Milimap, and Asuneng Amit. All examples are elicited, except where the textual source is given in square brackets after the example. Corbett and Fedden are joint authors of most of this article (the order of names is not significant); Raphael Finkel has had a major input, primarily in Section 6, where the question of orthogonality is explored in depth.


A Verbs that require a classifier

The verbs that require a classifier – with a few exceptions – refer to various forms of entity handling or movement, for example ‘give’, ‘take’, ‘put’, ‘lift’, ‘turn’ ‘throw’, ‘bury’, and ‘fall’. The list here is exhaustive.

-Ø ̂ /—

‘take s.o./’ (This verb is segmentally zero, yet all word forms based on this root have a LHL tonal melody. This is the reason for putting the diacritic ( ̂) into the representation of this verb. It seems that there used to be a non-zero verb root ‘take’, which was elided while the tone associated with it remained.)


‘leave, lose’


‘rouse (prey)’


‘throw into the fire’


‘put into the fire’


‘put s.o./ into a bag, cover’


‘push s.o./, throw s.o./’


‘push s.o. out of the way’


‘bury s.o., plant’


‘fetch (water)’


‘take s.o./ (in order to carry)’


‘put s.o./, care for s.o.’


‘lift s.o./’




‘feel sorry for s.o./, be concerned about s.o./’


‘chase s.o.’


‘put into the fire’


‘put s.o. on back (piggy-back style)’




‘fall (i.e., s.o./ falls)’


‘hang up’


‘take (child) into arms to lull to sleep’


‘put (pig or child) on shoulder’


‘take s.o./’


‘follow s.o.’


‘turn s.o./’


‘hate s.o.’


‘pen in, imprison s.o.’


‘step on s.o./’


‘light, set on fire’


‘hang up (item of clothing) to dry’


‘remove s.o./’


‘put above fireplace’


‘take s.o./ into arms’


‘give s.o./ to s.o.’


‘put on (item of clothing)’



In two cases, the classifier is frozen in the singular form of the residue-classifierob-, namely as ob-tanà [fire 3sg.resd.obj-light] ‘light, set on fire’ and aai ob-dî [water 3sg.resd.obj-fetch] ‘fetch water’.

Some of the verbs that take classifiers are subject to animacy restrictions, e.g., -êb/— ‘take s.o./ (in order to carry)’ and -halila/-halin ‘be concerned about s.o./’, where the referent can be animate, and —/-hâa’ ‘chase s.o.’ or -suana/-suan ‘hate s.o.’, where the referent has to be animate. For some verbs the referent has to be inanimate, e.g., -ma/-san ‘plant’, -meki/— ‘hang up’, and -tangâa’ ‘hang up item of clothing to dry’.

B Comparison with Burmeso

Burmeso is a language spoken in the Mamberamo River area of Western New Guinea, as described by Donohue (2001). Burmeso has arguably two different gender systems, one marked by agreement on the verb (on an absolutive basis) and another (with some different distinctions) marked on adjectives. The details can be found in Donohue (2001), where there is also a representative word list, from which Corbett (2012: 176–180) extracted the system matrix given in Table B-1. In this table, genders I to VI are marked on the verb, and those labelled m, f, and so on are marked on the adjective. We stress, again, though that the semantics of the systems are partially distinct.

Table B-1: Gender systems in Burmeso.

mfnm inanf inann anim
I44 plus all male kin terms5 (4 birds)1 (‘neck’)2 (‘sea’, ‘wound’)
II7 plus all female kin terms41 (‘small goanna’)2 (‘sago rinser (lower)’, ‘string.shapes’)
III328, mainly inanimate10, inanimate1 (‘goanna’)
IV9, inanimate
V2 (‘banana’, ‘sago tree’)
VI1 (‘arrow’)1 (‘coconut’)

For our simple measure of orthogonality of the two candidate systems, we calculate as follows:


This score is higher than that for Mian. To apply normalized total discrepancy we include just the counts of actual nouns (121 in all), and leave out additional indicators for which we have no numbers (e.g., ‘all female kin terms’). Then the normalized discrepancy is .58, again closer to the canonical standard for concurrent systems than is Mian (score .76). Recall that on this measure lower scores indicate closeness to concurrent systems. Both the orthogonality measure and the normalized total discrepancy measure agree that Burmeso displays a greater proximity to a canonical concurrent-system arrangement than Mian.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2000. Classifiers: A typology of noun classification devices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2010. Gender, noun class and language obsolescence: The case of Paumarí. In Eithne B. Carlin & Simon van de Kerke (eds.), Linguistics and archaeology in the Americas: The historization of language and society, 235–252. Leiden: Brill.10.1163/9789047427087_014Search in Google Scholar

Audring, Jenny. Forthcoming. Canonical, complex, complicated? In Francesca Di Garbo & Bernhard Wälchli (eds.), Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity. Berlin: Language Science Press.Search in Google Scholar

Baerman, Matthew, Dunstan Brown & Greville G. Corbett. 2005. The syntax-morphology interface: A study of syncretism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511486234Search in Google Scholar

Bakker, Peter. 1997. A language of our own: The genesis of Michif, the mixed Cree-French language of the Canadian Métis. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1075/cll.17.12bakSearch in Google Scholar

Bakker, Peter & Robert A. Papen. 1997. Michif: A mixed language based on Cree and French. In Sarah G. Thomason (ed.), Contact languages: A wider perspective, 295–363. Amsterdam: Benjamins.10.1075/cll.17.12bakSearch in Google Scholar

Bond, Oliver. Forthcoming. Canonical typology. In Jenny Audring & Francesca Masini (eds.), The Oxford handbook of morphological theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Boush, Al. 1975. Tifal grammar essentials. Manuscript, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Ukarumpa. in Google Scholar

Brown, Dunstan & Marina Chumakina. 2013. What there might be and what there is: An introduction to Canonical Typology. In Brown et al. (eds.) 2013, 1–19.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199604326.003.0001Search in Google Scholar

Brown, Dunstan, Marina Chumakina & Greville G. Corbett (eds.). 2013. Canonical morphology and syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199604326.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Chapman, Shirley & Desmond C. Derbyshire. 1991. Paumarí. In Desmond C. Derbyshire & Geoffrey K. Pullum (eds.), Handbook of Amazonian languages, Vol. 3, 161–352. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 1991. Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781139166119Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781139164344Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 2012. Features. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781139206983Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 2013. Canonical morphosyntactic features. In Brown et al. (eds.) 2013, 48–65.Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. & Sebastian Fedden. 2016. Canonical gender. Journal of Linguistics 52. 495–531.10.1017/S0022226715000195Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. & Richard J. Hayward. 1987. Gender and number in Bayso. Lingua 73. 1–28.10.1016/0024-3841(87)90012-XSearch in Google Scholar

Donohue, Mark. 1997. Tone systems in New Guinea. Linguistic Typology 1. 347–386.10.1515/lity.1997.1.3.347Search in Google Scholar

Donohue, Mark. 2001. Animacy, class and gender in Burmeso. In Andrew Pawley, Malcolm Ross & Darrell Tryon (eds.), The boy from Bundaberg: Studies in Melanesian linguistics in honour of Tom Dutton (Pacific Linguistics 514), 97–115. Canberra: Australian National University.Search in Google Scholar

Fedden, Sebastian. 2007. Women, houses, and plural objects? – Homophony in the Mian gender system. In Robyn Loughnane, Cara Penry Williams & Jana Verhoeven (eds.), In between wor(l)ds: Transformation and translation (School of Languages and Linguistics Postgraduate Research Papers on Language and Literature 6), 183–198. Melbourne: University of Melbourne. in Google Scholar

Fedden, Sebastian. 2010. Ditransitives in Mian. In Andrej Malchukov, Martin Haspelmath & Bernard Comrie (eds.), Studies in ditransitive constructions: A comparative handbook, 456–485. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.10.1515/9783110220377.456Search in Google Scholar

Fedden, Sebastian. 2011. A grammar of Mian. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.10.1515/9783110264197Search in Google Scholar

Fedden, Sebastian & Greville G. Corbett. 2017. Gender and classifiers in concurrent systems: Refining the typology of nominal classification. Glossa 2(1). Article 34. in Google Scholar

Foley, William A. 2000. The languages of New Guinea. Annual Review of Anthropology 29. 357–404.10.1146/annurev.anthro.29.1.357Search in Google Scholar

Gerner, Matthias & Walter Bisang. 2008. Inflectional speaker-role classifiers in Weining Ahmao. Journal of Pragmatics 40. 719–732.10.1016/j.pragma.2007.11.004Search in Google Scholar

Gerner, Matthias & Walter Bisang. 2009. Inflectional classifiers in Weining Ahmao: Mirror of the history of a people. Folia Linguistica Historica 30. 183–218.10.1515/FLIH.2009.001Search in Google Scholar

Goddard, Cliff. 1982. Case systems and case marking in Australian languages: A new interpretation. Australian Journal of Linguistics 2. 167–196.10.1080/07268608208599290Search in Google Scholar

Grinevald, Colette. 2000. A morphosyntactic typology of classifiers. In Gunter Senft (ed.), Systems of nominal classification, 50–92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Grondona, Verónica María. 1998. A grammar of Mocoví. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh doctoral dissertation.Search in Google Scholar

Healey, Alan. 1964. The Ok language family in New Guinea. Canberra: Australian National University doctoral dissertation.Search in Google Scholar

Healey, Phyllis. 1965. Telefol noun phrases (Pacific Linguistics B-4). Canberra: Australian National University.Search in Google Scholar

Keenan, Edward L. 1984. Semantic correlates of the ergative/absolutive distinction. Linguistics 22. 197–223.10.4324/9781315880259-17Search in Google Scholar

Kilarski, Marcin. 2013. Nominal classification: A history of its study from the classical period to the present. Amsterdam: Benjamins.10.1075/sihols.121Search in Google Scholar

McGarrity, Laura W. & Robert Botne. 2001. Between agreement and case marking in Lamnso. In Robert Botne & Rose Vondrasek (eds.), IUWPL 3: Explorations in African linguistics: From Lamnso’ to Sesotho, 53–70. Bloomington, IN: IULC Publications.Search in Google Scholar

Passer, Matthias Benjamin. 2016. (What) Do verbal classifiers classify? Lingua 174. 16–44.10.1016/j.lingua.2015.12.003Search in Google Scholar

Pawley, Andrew. 2005. The chequered career of the Trans New Guinea hypothesis: Recent research and its implications. In Pawley et al. (eds.) 2005, 67–108.Search in Google Scholar

Pawley, Andrew, Robert Attenborough, Jack Golson & Robin Hide (eds.). 2005. Papuan pasts: Cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples (Pacific Linguistics 572). Canberra: Australian National University.Search in Google Scholar

Polinsky, Maria. 2003. Non-canonical agreement is canonical. Transactions of the Philological Society 101. 279–312.10.1111/1467-968X.00120Search in Google Scholar

Ross, Malcolm. 2005. Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages. In Pawley et al. (eds.) 2005, 15–66.Search in Google Scholar

Round, Erich R. & Greville G. Corbett. 2016. The theory of feature systems: One feature versus two for Kayardild tense-aspect-mood. Morphology 27. 21–75.10.1007/s11525-016-9294-3Search in Google Scholar

Savà, Graziano. 2011. Endangered Bayso (Cushitic): Interesting typological and historical aspects. In Luca Busetto, Roberto Sottile, Livia Tonelli & Mauro Tosco (eds.), He bitaney lagge: Studies on language and African linguistics in honour of Marcello Lamberti, 163–174. Milano: Qu.A.S.A.R.Search in Google Scholar

Seifart, Frank. 2005. The structure and use of shape-based noun classes in Miraña (North West Amazon). Nijmegen: Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen doctoral dissertation. in Google Scholar

Seifart, Frank. 2010. Nominal classification. Language and Linguistics Compass 4. 719–736.10.1111/j.1749-818X.2010.00194.xSearch in Google Scholar

Singer, Ruth. Forthcoming. Beyond the classifier/gender dichotomy: Ideas for an integrated approach to the typology of nominal classification with reference to the analysis of Mawng (Australia). To appear in Sebastian Fedden, Jenny Audring & Greville G. Corbett (eds.), Non-canonical gender systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Thornton, Anna M. 2009. Constraining gender assignment rules. Language Sciences 31. 14–32.10.1016/j.langsci.2007.09.003Search in Google Scholar

Unterbeck, Barbara. 2000. Verbal classification and number: A case study in Navajo (Athapaskan/Na-Dene). In Barbara Unterbeck, Matti Rissanen, Terttu Nevalainen & Mirja Saari (eds.), Gender in grammar and cognition, 401–460. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.10.1515/9783110802603.401Search in Google Scholar

Weber, Thomas. 1997. Bimin grammar essentials. Manuscript, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Ukarumpa. in Google Scholar

Wurm, Stephen A. 1982. Papuan languages of Oceania. Tübingen: Narr.Search in Google Scholar

Zaliznjak, Andrej A. 1973. O ponimanii termina “padež” v lingvističeskix opisanijax. [Interpreting the term “case” in linguistic descriptions.] In Andrej A. Zaliznjak (ed.), Problemy grammatičeskogo modelirovanija, 53–87. Moskva: Nauka. Reprinted in Andrej A. Zaliznjak, Russkoe imennoe slovoizmenenie: S priloženiem izbrannix rabot po sovremennomu russkomu jazyku i obščemu jazykoznaniju, 613–647. Moskva: Jazyki slavjanskoj kul’tury, 2002.Search in Google Scholar

Editorial postscript

Description is guided by theory and theory feeds on description: it’s a virtuous rather than vicious circle, and little authenticity is to be expected on either side without concurrence of descriptive and explanatory efforts. It’s obvious, but bears constant underlining. This is why the Georg von der Gabelentz Award of the Association for Linguistic Typology was established, honouring expert grammar-writing, enhanced through being au courant with current typology and apt to enrich the theorising about diversity and unity, thus following in the footsteps of the prize’s eponym. Factually-grounded theoretically-minded typology is of course LT’s bread and butter, but we welcome special opportunities to present research derivative of ALT-award work in our pages.

We confidently assert that Mian would not have come to star in debates about inflectional morphology without being ushered onto the scene by Sebastian Fedden’s A grammar of Mian (Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011). This grammar was the winner of ALT’s Georg von der Gabelentz Award for 2013, and the jury’s citation explains their selection:

Sebastian Fedden’s A grammar of Mian (Trans New Guinea) is a truly excellent grammar that goes beyond a synchronic description. Based on eleven months of fieldwork, it covers the full range of descriptive topics and contains a large number of illustrative examples. The motivations underlying the author’s analyses are usually presented in a clear and thorough manner, and the discussion is always typologically informed. The author has come up with excellent and original solutions in the difficult area of how to analyze the complex tonal system. This grammar furthermore has a highly useful and substantial index and table of contents, a high level of clarity of prose, explanation and organization, a high quality and richness of texts and vocabulary. Finally, engaging in areal, genealogical and typological discussions, it goes beyond the standard expectations of reference grammars in general. We should count ourselves lucky for having such a grammar.

Inspired by Fedden’s grammar, already aware of the analytic intricacies of what was being described under the headings of genders and noun classes, the preceding article, with Fedden as one of the authors, adds theoretical depth to the analysis.

LT joins in congratulating the prize winner.

FP, July 2017

Received: 2016-6-23
Revised: 2016-11-16
Published Online: 2017-10-13
Published in Print: 2017-10-26

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 11.12.2023 from
Scroll to top button