This article addresses the verb morphology of Komnzo, a language of Southern New Guinea. It provides a description of verb indexing in Section 1, which is followed by a corpus analysis of a small class of verbs. Komnzo verb morphology encodes transitivity by distinct alignment patterns in the verb morphology, which I call ‘verb templates.’ Templates encode participant constellation, e.g. transitive or ditransitive, as well as event structure, e.g. dynamic versus stative. The system allows for some fluidity as to which lexemes can be used in which template. In addition to the description, the main contribution of the article lies in an in-depth examination of the interaction between lexical semantics and the morphological structure in Komnzo. This article takes an empirical approach, which draws on evidence from a text corpus of over 12 h of natural speech and comprises more than 12,000 inflected verb forms.
This article focusses on Komnzo [ISO 639-3: tci, Glottocode: komn1238], a language of the Yam family in the south-west of Papua New Guinea. Komnzo is spoken by approximately 200–250 speakers in the village of Rouku and Morehead Station. It belongs to the Tonda subgroup of the language family. Figure 1 shows a map of the Yam language family.
The aim of this article is to describe the interaction between lexical semantics and the morphological structure of verb indexing. The latter will be called ‘verb template’ in this article. I describe and analyse that some lexemes can occur in different verb templates, while other lexemes cannot. Examples (1) and (2) serve here as introductory examples. The verb räzsi ‘erect’ can occur in what I call the ‘transitive template’ (1a) as well as in the ‘prefixing template’ (1b). The verb yrsi ‘build’ can only occur in the ‘transitive template’ (2a), and placing it in the ‘prefixing template’ renders the clause ungrammatical (2b).
|‘He erects the post.’|
|‘The post is erected.’|
|‘He builds the house.’|
|intended meaning: ‘The house is built.’|
This article is structured as follows: Section 2 provides information on the text corpus and the dataset used in this article. Section 3 introduces Komnzo verb morphology with a focus on distributed exponence (Section 3.1) and verb templates (Section 3.2). Section 4 contains a detailed corpus study of those lexemes that can be encoded in one particular template, namely, in the prefixing template. Section 5 draws together the observed patterns and provides a conclusion.
2 Text corpus
The data discussed in this article are obtained from a subset of the Komnzo text corpus. The subset comprises those recording sessions that have been fully interlinearised and glossed. The texts were collected during the author’s PhD project between 2010 and 2015.
The subset of the corpus used here comprises well over 12 hours of natural speech of various text genres, including both natural and stimuli-based narratives and conversations (Table 1). The overall size is around 55,000 word tokens, which makes the Komnzo text corpus a typical language documentation corpus (Mosel 2012). I make an effort to use almost exclusively examples from the text corpus in this article. All corpus examples are referenced with a source code of the following format: tciYYYYMMDD-NN SSS ##. The first part identifies the transcription file. Each item in the archive starts with the ISO 639-3 code for Komnzo (tci). Next is the date of the recording (YYYYMMDD) and the number of sessions on that date (NN). The second part identifies the annotation within the transcription file. Transcription tiers are sorted by speaker (SSS). Intonation units on the respective transcription tiers are numbered (##). Thus, example (9) in this article has the source code: [tci20130914-01 KAB 16], i.e., it was the first recording session on 14th of September 2013. The speaker is Kaumb Bai (KAB). This is intonation unit number 16 on the KAB text tier. The names of the corresponding files follow the formatting of the source code: ELAN transcription file (tci20130914-01.eaf), audio-file (tci20130914-01.eaf), and video-file (tci20130914-01.mpeg).
The corpus can be accessed in two ways. The complete collection is archived with TLA, Nijmegen (Döhler 2010–2015). The corpus of transcribed texts has been archived at Zenodo (Döhler 2021). The latter contains all transcription files in ELAN format (.eaf) in a single zip file. The associated audio and video files are accessible in separate session nodes at both locations. The title of a session node follows the formatting of the source code but often adds a title of the recording.
3 Grammatical background
This section introduces the relevant grammatical background of Komnzo. I describe the principle of distributed exponence in Section 3.1, which is important for understanding verb morphology in Komnzo, as well as for understanding the glossing conventions of examples in this article. Section 3.2 presents a description of verb templates, which are important for the topic of this article.
3.1 Distributed exponence
Like other languages of the Yam family, Komnzo has a complex verb morphology. Verbs express person, number, and gender of up to 2 participants, 18 TAM categories, valency, directionality, and deictic status. Complexity lies not only in the amount of grammatical categories that can be expressed morphologically in the verb, but also in the way in which these categories relate to their exponents. I use the term ‘distributed exponence’ for this type of morphological complexity, a term which surfaced in the recent literature on multiple exponence (Caballero and Harris 2012). Carroll defines distributed exponence as “the phenomenon in which morphosyntactic and morphosemantic properties are marked non-redundantly at multiple inflectional sites’ (Carroll 2016, 268). In Komnzo verb morphology, this plays out as underspecification of individual morphs. Consider Table 2, in which the verb thoraksi ‘appear’ is inflected for different TAM categories.
|#||TAM category||Inflected form|
It becomes clear from the table that the inflectional sites (the prefix, the verb stem, and the suffixes) contribute some information to TAM without encoding a particular TAM value. For example, the prefix y- occurs in non-past, recent-past, and past tense (in lines 1, 3, and 5). Moreover, it is involved in marking imperfective (lines 1 and 5) and durative aspect (line 3). Likewise, the verb stem thor is involved in expressing perfective aspect (lines 4 and 7), but also iterative aspect (line 8). In other words, morphs are underspecified as to their grammatical meaning, in this case the TAM category. Underspecification of this type is also found for other grammatical categories, such as number and valency.
Distributed exponence prompts us to take the inflected word, rather than the morpheme, as the level of analysis. As a practical consequence, I gloss verbs in a word-and-paradigm style (Matthews 1974), as in (3a) and (4a), and refer the reader to the morphology chapter of the Komnzo grammar for information on the finer details of exponence (Döhler 2018, 175ff.). In this glossing convention, only the verb stem is separated from the inflectional material by slanted lines on the morpheme tier. In the corresponding gloss tier, the inflected verb form is then positioned within its paradigm by listing the grammatical information in the following order: argument structure (person, number, gender, transitivity), TAM, and directionality. In addition, I put the entire verb gloss in square brackets followed by the type of verb template in subscript. For example, thoraksi ‘appear’ in (3a) occurs in the [prefixing template] pref , while the verb zä- ‘carry’ in (4a) occurs in the [transitive template] trans . The system of verb templates is addressed below.
|‘The man appears.’|
|‘The girl carries the yams.’|
Note that if I were to use the item-and-arrangement glossing style, which breaks up the word in its segments, as in (3b) and (4b), I would have to use rather opaque glossing labels. An example is the gloss nd for non-dual, because the three-way number system is composed by combining a singular vs non-singular distinction in one slot with a dual vs non-dual distinction in another slot. Likewise, the prefixes come from the alpha series, glossed as , which is used for building the non-past tense in imperfective aspect. For these practical reasons, I adopt the word-and-paradigm style throughout this article. The only exceptions are examples (5a–e), where it is necessary to show the segmentation.
3.2 Verb templates
Komnzo is a double marking language. In addition to a rich case system for flagging nominals, up to two arguments can be indexed on verbs. Inflected verb forms can be categorised as either prefixing or ambifixing, as we have seen in (3) and (4), respectively. The difference is whether core arguments are indexed only by the prefix or by the prefix and the suffix. Below I introduce further subdivisions of these two types. I use the term ‘verb template’ here for the different morphological arrangements, or indexing patterns. A noteworthy characteristic of Komnzo verb morphology is that most verb stems can occur in different templates. I use the term ‘template fluidity’ to describe this phenomenon. Template fluidity is the main mechanism not only to encode valency alternations in Komnzo, but also to express subtle differences in event semantics that have to do with volitionality and dynamicity.
3.2.1 The definition of verb templates
For a complete description of verb templates, it is useful to expand our categorisation and make further subdivisions beyond prefixing versus ambifixing. The morphological slots involved in the definition of templates are the following: (i) the undergoer prefix, (ii) the diathetic prefix, and (iii) the actor suffix. On the basis of the presence versus absence of these slots and on the basis of what is encoded in them, we can define the five templates that are shown in Table 3. The undergoer prefix can index either the p argument of a transitive verb form or the s argument of an intransitive verb form. Furthermore, it can be filled with a person/number-invariant form, which I call the middle prefix. The diathetic prefix slot can be empty or be filled by the diathetic prefix a- (DIA). The neutral label ‘diathetic’ is used here because its function is underspecified, as it can either decrease or increase valency (cf. Döhler 2022a,b). Finally, the actor suffix can index the a argument of a transitive verb form, or the s argument of an intransitive verb form. Moreover, the actor suffix can be absent for those intransitives, which index the s argument in the prefix.
|Prefixing (io)||(y-) ben, poss||(a-)||—|
|Ambifixing||Middle||( -)||(a-)||(-th) s|
|Transitive||(y-) p||—||(-th) a|
|Transitive (io)||(y-) ben, poss||(a-)||(-th) a|
Thus, Komnzo is an example of a split-intransitive system (Merlan 1985) or split-s system (Dixon 1994). One type of intransitive indexes their s argument in the prefix like the p argument in the transitive template. I call this pattern prefixing template. The second type of intransitive indexes their s argument in the suffix like the a argument in the transitive template. This is one function of what I call the middle template.
From the possibilities of these three morphological slots, we can now define five verb templates, as shown in Table 3. As mentioned earlier, the presence versus absence of the actor suffix creates a distinction between prefixing and ambifixing templates. A second criterion is the presence versus absence of the diathetic prefix, which changes the reference of the undergoer prefix from a p to a beneficiary (ben) or possessor (poss). The corresponding nominal is then flagged with either dative or possessive case. I call this template, the ‘(io) template,’ i.e. io for indirect object. This is possible for verbs in the transitive template creating the ‘transitive (io) template,’ which could also be called ‘ditransitive template.’ However, I avoid this term because the process is so productive in the language, that it is better to analyse all ditransitives as being derived (cf. Section 3.2.3). The diathetic prefix is also possible for intransitive verbs in the prefixing template, which creates the ‘prefixing (io) template.’ Finally, the diathetic prefix is used together with the middle prefix creating the ‘middle template.’ Henceforth, I use the labels prefixing, prefixing (io), middle, transitive and transitive (io) when referring to the five templates. I give concrete examples in (5a–e).
As mentioned earlier, template fluidity is one of the main characteristics of the system in Komnzo. This does not mean that all verb stems can occur in all templates. While the system is fluid for some verbs, there are restrictions for most verb lexemes. In fact, only a small number of lexemes can occur in all templates. An example is the verb migsi (mig-∣mir-) ‘hang’ in (5a–e). In the examples, we can see how the different templates change the meaning of the verb. Note that the examples are all elicited and appear here in a reduced gloss, which ignores all TAM information. Examples (5a–e) correspond to the five templates as they are listed in Table 3.
|‘He is hanging.’|
|b.||prefixing (io) template:|
|‘Something of his (or for him) is hanging.’|
|‘They hang themselves up.’ (or: ‘They assume a hanging position.’)|
|‘They hang him up.’|
|e.||transitive (io) template:|
|‘They hang up something of his (or for him).’|
3.2.2 The semantics of verb templates
Since I address the topic of lexical semantics and how it interacts with template fluidity, it seems appropriate to first describe the meaning contributed by the different templates. This can be done in two ways. First, we can cycle a single verb lexeme through the five templates and see how this affects its meaning, as was done in examples (5a–e). Second, we can examine the verb forms in the corpus for each template and refine more general semantic categories. This is done below.
The prefixing template (5a–b) is used for intransitive verbs. Typical verb meanings found in the prefixing template are shown in (6), which is a non-exhaustive list. It follows from the list that the prefixing template expresses state-like meanings, and these are often non-volitional. Notable exceptions are a few dynamic verbs like yak- ‘walk, come’, thefäsi ‘jump’ and yarenzsi ‘look around’.
|(6)||state-like verbs: etfth ‘sleep’, msaksi ‘dwell’, mthizsi ‘rest’, rä- ‘be’, sufaksi ‘be old’, -ythk ‘be finished’|
|positional verbs: migsi ‘be hanging’, moraksi ‘be leaning’, rngthksi ‘be in a tree fork’, sisthgsi ‘be sticking out of something’, yukrasi ‘be standing’, -thn ‘be lying down’|
|non-volitional verbs: fogsi ‘be caught by nightfall’, kwan ‘emit sound’, rfiksi ‘grow’, thgusi ‘forget’, yathizsi ‘die’|
The middle template is used for dynamic (and often volitional) events. These involve the verb meanings in (7). In fact, the majority of intransitives are expressed in the middle template, i.e. they are morphological middles or reflexiva tanta (in the sense of Geniušienė 1987). The middle template is multifunctional. In example (5c), we saw the verb migsi ‘hang’ in an inchoative, reflexive alternation (‘hang self up’, or ‘assume hanging position’). The middle template is used for various valency alternations including impersonals, reflexives/reciprocals, and passives (cf. Section 3.2.3). The interpretation of an inflected verb form in the middle template, e.g. whether it is impersonal or passive, results from lexical semantics interacting with case marking on the nominal (Döhler 2018, 187).
|(7)||motion: brigsi ‘return’, farksi ‘set off’, fänizsi ‘shift place’, frezsi ‘come up from river’, kwir- ‘run’, mräsi ‘stroll’, sogsi ‘climb’, rsörsi ‘descend’, rzür- ‘dance’, thfäsi ‘fly’|
|controlled activity: bznsi ‘work’, karksi ‘pull’, rafigsi ‘paddle’, rä- ‘do’|
|uncontrolled activity: rsir- ‘burn’ (intr.), rüsi ‘rain’, wäsi ‘happen’|
|controlled bodily processes: borsi ‘laugh’, zübraksi ‘close eyes’|
|uncontrolled bodily processes: kumgsi ‘smell’, mnzeraksi ‘fall asleep’, rkwiyasi ‘give birth’, rfeksi ‘limp’, traksi ‘fall’, thäknsi ‘shake’, yarizsi ‘hear’|
|noise emission: fasisi ‘make noise’, naf- ‘talk’, rusi ‘bark’, warksi ‘howl’|
|phase: bthaksi ‘finish’, ko- ‘become’, mäyogsi ‘continue’, thkäsi ‘start’|
The transitive template (5d) is the main ‘biactant construction’ in Komnzo (in the sense of Lazard 2002). The corresponding actor nominal is flagged with the ergative case, while the undergoer is unmarked, i.e. in the absolutive case. We have seen examples of this above in (1a), (2a), and (4). Typical verb meanings found in the transitive template are shown in (8).
|(8)||caused change of state: fönzsi ‘burn down’ (tr.), frazsi ‘extinguish’, thrsi ‘tear’ (tr.), transi ‘carve’, wäthsi ‘wrap’, yafüsi ‘open’ (tr.)|
|physical transfer: maträksi ‘take out’, thorsi ‘put inside’, zinaksi ‘put down’, zrin ‘carry’|
|physical impact: rtmaksi ‘cut’, rziraksi ‘bend’, rusi ‘shoot’, zan ‘hit, kill’|
|causation: fathasi ‘hold, grab’, garsi ‘break’, nagusi ‘poke’, näbüsi ‘smash with stick’, mthnzsi ‘cause’, fiyoksi ‘make’, yrsi ‘build’|
|consumption: dagon ‘eat’, mgthksi ‘feed’|
|perception: figthksi ‘lick’, fiknsi ‘touch’, marasi ‘see’|
|interaction: monegsi ‘wait’, rsoknsi ‘bother’, thofiksi ‘disturb’, weksi ‘invite’, yaroksi ‘escort’|
|speaking: bräknsi ‘call out’, ko- ‘speak’, rfitfaksi ‘answer’, szsi ‘ask’|
The transitive (io) template is the ditransitive construction in Komnzo. In comparison with the (simple) transitive template, the addition of the diathetic prefix changes the reference of the prefix from a patient or theme to a beneficiary or possessor, as in (5e). The dependent nominal is accordingly flagged with dative or possessive case. Examples of verbs in this template are as follows: yarisi ‘give’, trikasi ‘tell’, fänzsi ‘show’, and rbänzi ‘explain’. However, these verb stems may also occur in the transitive template, in which case they index the patient or theme, rather than the beneficiary, and they change their meaning slightly (e.g., trikasi ‘tell’ becomes ‘report’, or yarisi ‘give’ becomes ‘transfer’). As a consequence, one can argue that all ditransitives are derived (Döhler 2018, 206). I expand this argument in the following section.
3.2.3 Valency alternations
The system of templates is used for valency alternations. For example, the verb marasi (mar-) ‘see’ occurs in the transitive (9) and in the middle template (10). There are 302 inflected forms of this lexeme in the corpus. The majority of tokens (290) are in the transitive template. It follows that the use of the middle template in (10) is best analysed as a reciprocal alternation. Note that reflexives and reciprocals are encoded identically in Komnzo (Döhler 2022b).
|how=ins [2∣3pl>2∣3pl:pst:dur/tie] trans|
|‘We were watching the fathers how they were tying the bowstring.’ [tci20130914-01 KAB 16]|
|‘We were seeing each other from a distance.’ [tci20120922-08 DAK 118]|
Another example is the causative alternation in (11), where the speaker describes how gardens are shifted to a new location from year to year. The verb brigsi (brig-∣brim-) ‘return’ is used in the middle template in (11a). In (11b), the transitive template introduces a causer to the argument structure, and thus, ‘bring back’ is a better translation. The verb brigsi occurs 171 times in the corpus. The majority of tokens (133) are in the middle template. Thus, the use of the transitive template in (11b) is best analysed as a causative alternation.
|we||z = n\rä/|
|[1pl:rpst:ipfv:vent/return] mid||also||prox= [1pl:npst:ipfv/be] pref|
|‘Meanwhile we finished (the soil) and we returned now …|
|z = \rä/||arake|
|[…] this year we started (making gardens) right here. We brought back the gardens now.’ [tci20120922-08 DAK 80-81]|
A third example is the applicative alternation, which is encoded by the transitive (io) template. In example (12), we see the verb brigsi in the transitive (io) template. In addition to the adverb nezä ‘in return’, it is the template that expresses the meaning ‘pay him back’. A more literal translation of (12) would be ‘return something for him’.
|‘The in-law brought plenty of food. How will we pay him back?’ [tci20120805-01 ABB 736-737]|
Almost all verbs can be applicativised in this way in Komnzo. The argument indexed in the prefix is usually flagged with the dative case or possessive case. This is shown with the verb rinaksi (rinak-∣rin-) ‘pour’ in example (14). The verb is in the transitive template in (13), while it occurs in the transitive (io) template in the following example.
|‘I returned again and poured the water.’ [tci20120902-24 MAA 59-60]|
|‘Pour some of that water for our Kaubu!’ [tci20121019-04 SKK 9]|
Applicativisation is also possible for prefixing verbs. In example (15), the s argument (‘old man’) of yukrasi ‘stand’ is indexed the verb, while in the following example (16), it is the possessor (‘the old man’), even though it is clear that the state-of-affairs described by the verb is about the s argument (‘taros’). Note that the inflection in (16) is still mono-valent, because only one argument can be indexed in either of the two prefixing templates. The same is true for (14) above. The verb remains bivalent in its morphology, because no more than two arguments can be indexed in this template.
|‘The old man with the walking stick is standing.’ [tci20111004 RMA 142]|
|‘His taros are standing over there, the old man’s (taros).’ [tci20150916-03 SKK 131]|
A number of verbs in Komnzo are deponent with respect to the diathetic prefix. I understand deponency here as a mismatch between morphology and morpho-syntax (Baerman et al. 2006). These verbs employ the diathetic prefix obligatorily, i.e. they always occur in the prefixing (io) or transitive (io) template, but the argument indexed in the undergoer prefix is the s argument and the p argument, respectively. The dependent nominal is then in the absolutive, and not in possessive or dative case. For example, the prefixing verb yathizsi (-thiz∣-thif) ‘suffer, die’ only occurs in the prefixing (io) template. One would expect that the prefix indexes a recipient or possessor in this template, as in (5b) or (16). However, as we can see in (17) and (18), it is the s argument in absolutive case, which is indexed.
|‘Meanwhile, the boy was in pain.’ [tci20100905 ABB 90-91]|
|‘Some of her own children have passed away already.’ [tci20120922-26 DAK 54]|
There are also deponent transitive verbs, which always employ the transitive (io) template. The prefix in these inflections always indexes the p argument. Examples for deponent transitives are fiyoksi (fiyok-∣fiyoth-) ‘make’, frmnzsi (frmnz-∣frms-) ‘prepare’ and dagon (na-∣wob-) ‘eat’. As this article is concerned with prefixing verbs, I will not address deponent transitive verbs here.
It follows from the description that there is a certain degree of template fluidity. Most verbs can occur in different templates and labels such as ‘transitive verb’ or ‘middle verb’ are often a matter of (corpus) frequency. As we have seen, verbs of the type brigsi ‘return’ can be characterised as middle verbs, because they occur in this template most of the time, whereas verbs of the type marasi ‘see’ can be characterised as transitive verbs on the same grounds.
There are two types of exceptions to template fluidity. First, there are many verb stems that are fixed in their template choice. For example, moth (kwir-∣math-) ‘run’ and thweksi (thwek-∣thweth-) ‘rejoice’ always occur in the middle template. We may call these middle-only verb. Likewise, the verbs mthizsi (mthiz-∣mthif-) ‘rest’ and etfth (ru-) ‘sleep’ always occur in the prefixing template. We may call these prefixing-only verb.
Second, template choice alters the meaning for some verbs to such a degree that it would be misleading to call this an alternation. For example, the verb rbänzsi (rbänz-∣rbs-) has the meaning ‘untie’ in a transitive template, but ‘explain’ in a transitive (io) template. A more literal translation of the latter would be ‘to untie something for someone’ and by semantic extension this means ‘explain’. Another example of this type is karksi (kark-∣kar-), which has the meaning ‘pull’ in a middle template, but ‘take away from someone’ in a transitive template. A more literal translation of the latter would be ‘to pull something from someone’ and by semantic extension this means ‘take’. Such pairs are best analysed as separate lexemes, but often a clear-cut decision between analysing them as alternations or as separate lexemes is not possible.
4 Corpus study
We can now turn to the corpus study, which targets the prefixing and the prefixing (io) template. For practical reasons, these two are treated together here. The guiding research question of the corpus analysis is to what extent is a particular lexeme (or a group of lexemes) fluid. I am especially interested in the ability (or inability) to occur in the prefixing template and also in one of the ambifixing templates, i.e. the middle, transitive, and transitive (io) templates. The main questions are as follows: Which lexemes appear in the prefixing template? What is the semantic profile of these verbs? Can they be divided into groups? If so, on what semantic or morphological grounds? What are the special morphological operations in this template? Which of these lexemes show what degree of template fluidity?
There are two publications on the verb morphology of two related languages both from the Nambu subgroup of the Yam family. Siegel (2017) describes intransitive and transitive verbs in Nama, the direct neighbour of Komnzo to the East. Evans (2014) analyses positional verbs in Nen, the easternmost language of the family. Both publications make similar observations to the ones described here, but they place the focus on different aspects of the verb morphology.
The methodology for this corpus study is both qualitative and quantitative. The specific dataset prepared for this study contains 65 ELAN transcription files. From these, all verb tokens were exported using ELAN’s search function on the part-of-speech tier. There are 12,404 inflected verb forms and 554 infinitives in the dataset. These were imported into OpenRefine, a software for cleaning up and harmonising messy data. Next, all inflected verb forms were coded for template type. OpenRefine allows us to view specific subsets of the data, so-called facets, e.g. all inflections in the prefixing (io) template, or all tokens of a particular lexeme. An example of the data can be seen in Table A1 in the Appendix for the verb migsi ‘hang’. The final list of verb tokens was exported as a comma-separated file (.csv) and archived under: https://zenodo.org/record/6684141.
The quantitative part of the methodology comes in the form of token frequencies for a given lexeme or a group of lexemes in a particular verb template. The qualitative analysis was to comb through the dataset to detect patterns as well as to find particularly good examples to showcase the semantic differences.
The results are shown in Tables 4, Table 5, 6. The tables list those prefixing verbs (57), which are attested in the corpus. Note that I have added six prefixing verbs, which are not attested in the corpus, but whose membership in this class is attested through elicitation. In total, there are 63 prefixing verbs.
|fätfaksi||be across sth.||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|fethaksi||be dipped in water||—||—||1||3||—||—|
|fifthaksi||be lying straight||—||—||1||3||—||—|
|mgthksi||be in the mouth||4||—||22||2||5|
|mtheksi||be lifted up||—||4||16||—||1|
|nänzüthzsi||be covered with soil||1||—||—||10||—||—|
|rafigsi||be on top of sth.||2||—||7||26||2||—|
|rakthksi||be on top of sth.||—||—||—||4||1||—|
|rfuthraksi||be piled up||—||1||—||—||—|
|rgsi||be wearing clothes||6||15||—||—||1|
|rinaksi||be poured into||1||—||—||10||5||1|
|rmiththraksi||be joined together||—||—||—||3||—||—|
|rmnzüfaksi||be side by side||—||—||—||1||—||—|
|rngthksi||be in a tree fork||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|rthbraksi||be sticking on sth.||1||—||—||1||—||—|
|rzarsi||be tied together||—||1||3||12||—||3|
|sisraksi||be sticking out||1||—||—||—||—||—|
|sümraksi||be widened, be open||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|thamsaksi||be spread out||—||—||2||2||1||—|
|tharasi||be underneath sth.||1||—||6||6||2||—|
|tharuksi||be inside sth.||2||—||20||17||—||1|
|thäfrsi||be covered by sth.||—||—||1||6||—||1|
|thfuksi||be covered with leaves||—||—||—||1||—||—|
|thorsi||be inside sth.||62||—||43||56||1||6|
|ththaksi||be pinned on sth.||3||1||2||7||—||—|
|ttüsi||be painted on sth.||—||—||1||6||—||8|
|wäthsi||be tied, be wrapped||—||—||—||24||1||13|
|worsi||be planted in ground||—||—||6||19||—||26|
An asterisk marks ungrammaticality; in the pref column, this signals deponency.
|rmigufaksi||be in the middle||1||—||—||—||—||—|
|yufaksi||be bent over||—||—||—||—||—|
aTranslations in brackets refer to the translation in the ambifixing templates.
bAn asterisk marks ungrammaticality; in the pref column, this signals deponency.
|-nor||shout, emit sound||a||108||—|
|-thn||be lying down||91||6|
|-wä||be up high||23||2|
|-ythk||come to end||28|
|fogsi||be away, caught by night||13||—||—|
|wäksi||wake up, caught by day||6||—||8|
aAn asterisk marks ungrammaticality; in the pref column, this signals deponency.
bThe verbs ‘walk’ and ‘come’ share the same stems -yak and -tf.
Prefixing verbs can be divided into three subclasses based on their morphology. The first and largest subclass comprises 40 positional verbs (Table 4). Membership is assigned by two features: (i) positional verbs take the stative suffix -thgr, and (ii) they can occur in other templates. Due to their ability to occur in other template, we may call them fluid prefixing verbs. The second subclass with 11 members are also fluid prefixing verbs, but they not do take the stative suffix (Table 5). The third subclass with 12 members are those verbs which cannot occur in other templates, i.e. they are prefixing-only verbs (Table 6).
In the following discussion, I describe template fluidity of prefixing verbs as well as some of the peculiarities found with this group of verbs. Prefixing verbs are a small class of 63 from around 350 verb stems that have been documented so far. Prefixing verbs bring together most of the irregularities that are found in the verb morphology. Irregularities include limitations on possible TAM categories, stem suppletion for TAM, stem changes for dual number, stem changes according to template choice, lack of infinitival forms, deponency, and the ability to construct a fourth number value. One could say that despite them being simple with respect to indexing, i.e. they are monovalent, prefixing verbs are the locus of irregularity in what is already a rather complex morphological system.
4.3.1 Template fluidity
With respect to template fluidity, prefixing verbs can be divided into two groups: those that occur only in the prefixing template, and those that occur in other templates as well. Of the 63 prefixing verbs, only 12 are prefixing-only. The remaining 51 verbs can occur in one or all of the ambifixing templates.
An example of a prefixing-only verb is wäksi, which means literally ‘be caught by daybreak’ or ‘experience daybreak’. The verb is shown in example (19). In the text, the speaker describes the malignant actions of a sorcerer during the night time.
|‘He would not sleep there or stay until morning’ [tci20130903-04 RNA 110]|
By semantic extension, this lexeme can also be used to mean ‘wake up’, as in example (20). The speaker here describes how they stayed overnight for an event in the neighbouring village.
|[1pl:npst:ipfv/sleep] pref||[1pl:npst:ipfv/wake.up] pref||redup-morning|
|‘We slept, we woke up and returned early in the morning.’ [tci20120904-01 MAB 173]|
After what has been described previously, one would expect that this lexeme can also be used in a more dynamic sense in the middle template (‘awaken’), and also with a more volitional sense in the transitive template (‘wake someone’). However, wäksi never occurs in these templates. This gap in the system is filled by a distinct lexeme: bnazsi ‘wake up, get up, rise’. This is shown for the middle template in (21) and the transitive template in (22). In turn, bnazsi cannot be used in the prefixing template. Thus, it seems that in this case, it is the lexical semantics of the two verbs that constrains template fluidity.
|‘The fathers were getting up early.’ [tci20210805-01 MAB 568]|
|[sg>3sg.masc:pst:dur/wake.up] trans||emph||(.) sign|
|‘She was waking him up really. She was giving him a sign.’ [tci20120901-01 MAK 98-99]|
A contrasting example is the verb thgusi ‘forget’, which occurs in the prefixing template as well as the ambifixing templates in the corpus. I provide a longer example in (23), which comes from a botanical walk, during which two speakers were showing me various plants. In the example, the speakers RNA and JAA comment on a particular tree. In (23a), RNA points out that they do not know its name. First, this is done with thgusi in the prefixing template, which frames ‘forget’ as a stative. Note also the use of the iamitive marker z ‘already’. After some further elaboration in (23b) and (23c), she returns to the fact that she does not know the name. In (23d), she intends to say fämmäre z yf zäziré (literally: ‘I fell down without thinking’), which is a more metaphorical way of saying that one has forgotten something. However, she interrupts her speech and corrects herself by using thgusi again. This time the verb occurs in the middle template, which has a more dynamic meaning.
|‘Bai, this is the tree here. Its name is already lost to us.’|
|‘Just take a picture of it!’|
|‘As for its fruit, it is for eating.’|
|‘It has slipped from memory … no, not slipped from memory … I forgot the name.’|
|‘The old people hold this what’s-that … it is them who have the knowledge.’ [tci20130907-02 RNA 581-584 JAA 488-489]|
We can see from the example that there are more lexical constraints for wäksi than for thgusi in terms of template fluidity. It follows that template choice creates a difference in meaning for thgusi, whereas this is done via lexeme choice for wäksi vs bnazsi. As we will see in the following section, template fluidity is highest for verbs that express postures and position.
4.3.2 The verb ‘be’
It is worth pointing out the idiosyncracies for the existential verb -rä ‘be’ with respect to template fluidity. This verb can occur in all templates, but in the ambifixing templates, it is used as a light verb meaning ‘do’. In terms of frequency, the majority of tokens (3799) are in the prefixing template meaning ‘be’. Only 323 tokens are in ambifixing templates meaning ‘do’. I give an example of -rä in each of the five templates in (24–28).
|‘There were not plenty of people.’ [tci20120805-01 ABB 522]|
In a prefixing (io) template, the verb -rä may express possession, as in (25), where the possession is negated.
|‘The old people were weaving these, when they didn’t have (fishing) nets.’ [tci20120906 SKK 90-92]|
As a light verb, its meaning is often specified by another nominal or by a following full verb. In (26), -rä occurs in the middle template and is further specified by the nominal fam ‘thought’. This is in fact the most common way to express the concept of ‘thinking’ in Komnzo (lit. ‘do thoughts’).
|‘The girl is also thinking there on the other side.’ [tci20111004 RMA 362]|
In (27), -rä occurs in the transitive template and is followed by the full verb kwthenzsi ‘change’, which further specifies its meaning.
|‘They made it into a nzürna story. They changed it.’ [tci20111119-06 MAB 146-147]|
Finally, the verb -rä can occur in the transitive (io) template with the meaning ‘do for someone’. In (28), its meaning is not further specified because the context was enough to know that the speaker meant ‘get for someone’. Note that the beneficiary indexed in the prefix is flagged with the dative case (tayafeŋ n ‘for Tayafe’).
|‘These are good pandanus leaves. We will get some for Tayafe from here.’ [tci20130907-02 JAA 253-254]|
4.3.3 Fourth number value
Prefixing verbs allow for various types of special morphology. One such type is the formation of a fourth number value. As in most Yam languages, argument number is distributed over two morphological slots. The person affixes (as well as free pronouns and case markers) make a distinction between singular and non-singular. Dual number is encoded in a special slot, which makes a distinction between dual and non-dual. Singulars combine a singular with a non-dual, duals a non-singular with a dual, and plurals a non-singular with a non-dual. Prefixing verbs allow for the construction of a large plural by combining the singular in the person affix with a dual. The semantic reading of a large plural can be either exhaustive (‘all X’) or large (‘many X’). This fourth number value is possible only if the particular lexeme occurs in the prefixing template. Those prefixing verbs which can occur in other templates, e.g. in the middle template, cannot encode large plurals in the middle template.
Speakers have commented on large plural inflections as something ‘that old people say.’ Indeed, in the whole corpus, there is a single example of a large plural (29) that occurs in a story told by an older speaker who is now deceased.
|‘Hey, little brother! Are the palmwine (containers) still hanging?’|
|‘Yes, they are all there.’ [tci20130927-06 MAB 189]|
4.3.4 Positional verbs
Another example of special morphology is the stative suffix, which simultaneously encodes dual number: -thgr (non-dual) and -thgn or sometimes -thgrn (dual). The ability to take this suffix, sets up a class of positional verb. These are shown in Table 4 as the first group of verbs. With its 40 members, positional verbs form the largest group within the prefixing verbs. They may express inherent disposition without reference to a ground, e.g. mreznsi ‘be straight’ or myuknsi ‘be twisted’. Most verbs of this groups express position of a figure with respect to some ground, e.g. thorsi ‘be inside a closed container’ or ththaksi ‘be pinned on something’. These meanings can be very specific as in rngthksi ‘be wedged in a tree fork’ (usually of pig’s jaw as hunting trophies) or zaksi ‘be anchored’ (usually of a canoe by the riverbank). Example (30) shows the verb räzsi ‘erect’ in the prefixing template with the stative suffix. Accordingly, the gloss for this lexeme in this template is ‘be erected’.
|‘As for Masu, there was another post erected over there.’ [tci20120805-01 ABB 477]|
All positional verbs can be used in all other templates. The following examples show this again for the verb räzsi ‘erect’. Note that this was already exemplified in Section 3.2 for migsi ‘hang’ with elicited examples. Example (31) shows räzsi in the middle template and describes how a person fell from a tree and landed head-first in the mud.
|‘(He fell down and) planted his head (in the mud). His legs were on top.’|
|[tci20120904-02 MAB 268-269]|
Example (32) shows räzsi in the transitive template. The speaker instructs his friends in this text to build, i.e. to ‘erect’, a house at this place.
|‘You must build another house here (to sit in the) shade!’ [tci20120922-26 DAK 140]|
There are some prefixing verbs, which do not take the stative suffix, but nevertheless have positional semantics. The first group is a set of the four verbs: msaksi ‘be sitting’, rmigufaksi ‘be in the middle’, yufaksi ‘be bent over’ and yukrasi ‘be standing’. These share with positionals that they can also occur in all other templates. The second set consists of two prefixing-only verbs with positional semantics: wä- ‘be up high’ and -thn ‘be lying down’.
Taken as a group, positional verbs occur more often in one of the ambifixing templates than in the prefixing template. The figures from Table 4 show that there are 120 tokens in the prefixing templates versus 545 tokens in one of the three ambifixing templates. This varies a lot for individual lexemes, but taken together, one should analyse the prefixing template for this subclass of verbs as an alternation. In other words, their spatial or positional semantics allows them to be used in the prefixing template with the stative suffix (-thgr/-thgn). This ability makes positional verbs the subclass with the highest degree of template fluidity.
4.3.5 Restrictions on TAM
Another morphological irregularity of prefixing verbs is the fact that they are limited in their ability to express certain TAM categories. Most of them cannot express perfectives. Similar to the expression of the fourth number, this restriction only applies when these verbs are used in the prefixing template. For example, positional verbs cannot express perfectives in the prefixing template. This is only possible when they are used in a middle or transitive template, as can be seen with räzsi in (31) and (32).
It seems that the stative semantics of the template are the reason for this restriction. However, there are a few prefixing-only verbs which do allow perfectives, e.g. yak- ‘walk, come’ and yarenzsi ‘look around’. I take these as exceptions to the rule that the prefixing template encodes stative, non-volitional semantics.
4.3.6 Infinitival forms and stem changes
Many prefixing verbs lack an infinitive. Regular infinitives are formed by adding the nominalising suffix -si to the verb stem, e.g. msak is the stem of ‘sit, dwell’ and the corresponding infinitive is msaksi. Some verbs have irregular stems and they employ a noun instead, e.g. fn- is the stem of ‘hit, kill’. Instead of a regular infinitive, the nominal zan ‘hitting, killing’ is used, which can also mean ‘fight, war’. Finally, there are many verbs which lack an infinitival form. The point here is that this happens more often for prefixing-only verbs. About half of them lack an infinitive. Note that this is not the case for the more labile prefixing verbs that may occur in the ambifixing templates, including all positional verbs. Komnzo positionals differ from Nen in this respect, where Evans explains that all positionals lack an infinitive (2014, 236).
Most prefixing verbs have a distinct, usually shorter, stem for this template. For example, the verb msaksi has, like most verbs, two stems which are sensitive to aspect: msak and ms. The latter is used to form perfectives. These two stems are only used in ambifixing templates, whereas in the prefixing template, the stem of this verb is simply m. Such pairs (or rather triplets) can be found for many of the positional verbs (cf. Döhler 2018, 198).
Quite a number of prefixing verbs are deponent in the sense explained in Section 3.2.4. Fourteen of the 63 prefixing verbs occur in the prefixing (io) template, even though the indexed argument is an s argument in the absolutive case, not in the dative or the possessive. This observation might help in explaining some of the idiosyncracies for certain lexemes. For example, the prefixing-only verb ‘shout’ has the stem -nor. This is shown in example (33).
|‘The (bird) that just shouted over there, flew away from here.’[tci20210815 ABB 63-64]|
At first sight, this verb violates the semantic profile of the prefixing template in being both dynamic and volitional. However, the stem -nor is often preceded by a nominal that specifies its meaning in some way. For example, -nor is often preceded by kwan ‘shout (n)’ to express the concept of shouting (literally: ‘to shout the shout’), which is similar to English cognate object constructions (‘sing a song’). In example (34), -nor is preceded by the nominal ya ‘tears’ and the combination of ya ‘tears’ + -nor ‘shout’ then means ‘cry’.
|‘The mother is crying on the one side, and the child on the other.’|
|[tci20111004 RMA 120]|
There are a number of such combinations: wth ‘excretes’ + -nor means ‘fart’, or even frk ‘blood’ + -nor ‘shout’ meaning ‘bleed’. In the light of these kinds of examples, one could translate -nor in a more non-volitional sense as ‘emit a sound’. Once we adopt this translation, the transitive (io) template comes as a natural coding strategy because the sounds that are emitted must be ‘someone’s sounds’, i.e. they are possessed by the person, or animal, or object that emits them. The expected possessive case marking was probably lost, or simply reanalysed at some point in time, resulting in a deponent structure.
The topic of this article was the interaction between the morphological structure of indexing, what I have called verb templates, and lexical semantics. I have argued that this is best understood by looking at template fluidity: the ability or inability of certain lexemes or groups of lexemes to occur in different templates. We have seen that for a number of lexemes the template choice is fixed. The s argument of dynamic intransitives are encoded in the middle template, like the a argument of transitives, while the s argument of non-volitional, stative intransitives are encoded in the prefixing template, like the p argument of transitives. Such systems have been called split-s in the literature (Merlan 1985). We have also seen that a number of lexemes can be used in different templates based on semantic considerations. Cross-linguistically the latter kinds of systems have been described as fluid intransitives (Dixon 1994, Witzlack-Makarevich 2011) and they often involve dependent marking, as in Hindi/Urdu (Davidson 1999), head marking, as in Acehnese (Durie 1985), or a mix of both, as in the oft-cited example Tsova-Tush (Holisky 1987). In Komnzo, fluid intransitivity is exhibited by the head marking. Split-s or fluid-s systems seem to be an areal feature of Southern New Guinea. Not only do they occur in other languages of the Yam family, but also in unrelated languages of the region, e.g. in Marind (Olsson 2021) or Marori (Arka 2012).
In Komnzo, template fluidity is highest for those lexemes, which are unspecified in terms of agentivity. This explains why the most fluid lexemes are those verbs that describe physical postures or the position with respect to some ground, but also the verb ‘be’. These can occur in the prefixing template with its stative and non-volitional semantics, but also in all of the ambifixing templates with their more dynamic and agentive semantics. If we compare these verbs to typical change-of-state verbs like rmatksi ‘cut’ or zan ‘hit’ on the one hand, we find that the latter are less fluid. They cannot occur in the prefixing template, and the best explanation is that change-of-state verbs presuppose agentivity in their event semantics. On the other hand, if we compare them to non-volitional statives like ru- ‘sleep’ or yathizsi ‘die, suffer’ non-volitional events like fogsi ‘be caught by nightfall’, we find that these show the lowest degree of fluidity. They occur only in the prefixing template, and the best explanation is that they preclude agentivity in their event semantics. Thus, we may conclude that being unspecified for agentivity grants the greatest freedom within Komnzo verb morphology.
As I have shown, template fluidity does not only concern the way in which intransitives can be expressed, namely by the prefixing or the middle template. Fluidity is possible between all templates, i.e. for intransitives, transitives, and ditransitives. Hence, the term ‘fluid intransitivity’ seems to be a misnomer for what has been described in this article. Therefore, I suggest the term ‘fluid transitivity’ as a more suitable label for Komnzo verb morphology.
I would like to thank my Komnzo-speaking language teachers Nakre Abia and Abia Bai, as well as the people of Rouku for welcoming me to their village and for their continued support of my work. The fieldwork on which this work is based was funded by the DoBeS program of the Volkswagen Foundation and by the Australian National University. I thank both of these institutions for their support of language documentation and description. The map in Figure 1 was produced by Kay Dancey and her team at the carthographic unit at ANU, Canberra. I would also like to thank the two reviewers, whose comments and questions have helped me to improve the article.
Author contributions: The author has accepted responsibility for the entire content of this manuscript and approved its submission.
Conflict of interest: The author states no conflict of interest.
Data availability statement: The datasets analysed during the current study are available in the Zenodo repository: https://zenodo.org/record/6684141.
verb stem (e.g. y\fath/wr)
multi-item gloss (e.g. old.man)
used in cases of syncretism (e.g. 2∣3 person)
characteristic case, source
extended verb stem
immediate (‘right here’)
imminent (‘about to’)
exclusive marker (‘only’, ‘just’)
restricted verb stem
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