LINGUIST List 13.3412

Mon Dec 23 2002

Review: Morphology/Syntax: McGregor (2002)

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  1. Claire Bowern, McGregor (2002), Verb Classification in Australian Languages

Message 1: McGregor (2002), Verb Classification in Australian Languages

Date: Sun, 22 Dec 2002 21:39:34 +0000
From: Claire Bowern <>
Subject: McGregor (2002), Verb Classification in Australian Languages

McGregor, William B. (2002) Verb Classification in Australian Languages.
Mouton de Gruyter, xxvi+531pp, hardback ISBN 3-11-017141-4.

Book Announcement on Linguist:

Claire Bowern, Harvard University and Centre for Research on Language
Change, Australian National University.


William McGregor has written the first major account of verbal
classification constructions in Australian languages. Many languages
of Northern Australia have a common construction whereby an
uninflecting preverb is paired with an inflecting verb, yielding a
complex predicate. The preverb carries most of the lexical
information about the predicate, while the inflecting verb acts as a
host for tense and agreement morphology. McGregor gives a detailed
discussion and analysis of these constructions in the languages of the
Western Kimberley (particularly in the languages Gooniyandi and
Nyulnyul) and relates them to other languages in Australia and
beyond. He considers how the construction could have arisen and
touches briefly on other related verbal phenomena. The book also
contains a summary of basic information about Australian languages and
a guide to orthography.


The potential audience for this book is quite broad. Anyone interested
in typology and verbal classification, light verb constructions, etc,
would benefit from McG's arguments and examples. The presentation
presumes no specialist knowledge of Australian languages and is very
friendly towards those with no experience in these languages.


Chapter 1 is a summary of the program and an introduction to
McGregor's ideas of verb classification. McG. distinguishes between
the notions of superclassification and subclassification. In nominal
superclassification a noun is assigned to one of a small number of
classes; gender systems are a good example of this type of
classification. Nominal subclassification systems involve dividing the
noun into several types. McG's example is 'trains', which can be
subclassified in English as 'steam train', 'diesel train', 'passenger
train', and so on.

Verbal classification systems also show both types. Verbal
superclassification involves assigning the event to one of a number of
defined and fairly discrete categories.

McG, following Dixon 1982 and others, distinguishes a cline of
classification systems between 'class system' and 'category' systems,
according to parameters of boundedness of the marker, number of
categories, exhaustivity of the system, disjoint classes vs overlap,
and obligatoriness of use. McGregor uses the analogy of types of
library classification systems to illustrate the differences.

Chapter 2 presents the Gooniyandi verb classifier system in detail.
Gooniyandi is a non-Pama-Nyungan language spoken in the North-West
semi arid region of Western Australia. In Gooniyandi all verbs must
appear with a classifier. The categories are largely disjoint there
are not many verbs which can appear with more than one
classifier. Comparison is made with Gooniyandi's only relation,

In Chapter 3 McGregor surveys compound verb constructions (CVCs) in
several different languages. CVCs comprise a usually uninflecting
preverb and an inflecting verb root. The preverb and the inflecting
verb form distinct word classes. The inflecting can almost always be
used on its own, without a preverb. The following examples from Bardi
illustrate a CVC and an inflecting verb used alone.

1. inflecting root used alone:
nganamboogal 'I hit him.'
 root: -boo- 'hit'

2. examples of CVCs
garr nganamboogal 'I rubbed him.'
 Preverb: garr 'rub'
 Inflecting verb: -boo- 'hit'
 entire predicate means: 'to rub (something)'.

roowil innyagal 'He was walking.'
 Preverb: roowil 'walk'
 Inflecting verb: -nya- 'pick up, catch'
 Entire predicate: 'to walk'

A large portion of chapter 3 is concerned with the Nyulnyulan
languages and their CVCs. McG examines the frequency of various
inflecting verbs, their 'collocational potentials' (the most common
semantic denominator that events which use the same inflecting verb

Chapter 4 also deals with cross-linguistic comparison, in this case
with the types of category system themselves. McG surveys the degree
of grammaticalisation of the constructions and the verbs used as
inflecting verbs. Half this chapter is a detailed comparison of the
systems of Gooniyandi and Nyulnyul, which represent in some ways
opposite ends of the grammaticalisation continuum. Chapter 5 draws
comparison between conjugation systems in Australian
languages. Chapter 7 is also typological: it discusses grammatical
phenomena related to CVC constructions, such as serial verbs.

In chapter 6 McG summarises previous treatments of verb
superclassifying constructions. Previous analyses include semantic
bleaching (a 'light verb' analysis), a classifier analysis, and
treatments as fusions (in LFG or construction grammar) or complex
predicates. More on this below in the critical evaluation

Chapter 8 discusses a possible origin of the CVC constructions in
Australian languages. McG argues that ideophones are the most likely
source of such constructions. He further raises a suggestion that
Pama-Nyungan verb conjugation classes could have arisen from CVCs.

The discourse uses of verb classification are discussed in chapter 9,
which is mostly a case study of their use in one Gooniyandi
text. Chapter 10 presents conclusions and directions for further


I have several criticisms of this book (mostly about chapter 6 and the
parts that concern Bardi), but I do not want the following criticisms
to cloud what I see as a major achievement for Australian studies and
an impressive foundation for future work, as well as an important
contribution to typology.

I turn first to worries about data, particularly in Bardi. Most of
McG's data come from Nicolas (1998), a small, very badly transcribed
text collection, or from Metcalfe's published work, which is of
considerably better quality but is also rather sparse. It seems odd to
do textual research on Nicolas' corpus when Aklif's texts are readily
available, are much better transcribed and translated and represent a
much bigger corpus with more sophisticated language. The examples in
the Bardi dictionary are also a wealth of information there for the
taking (Aklif 1999); Aklif 1999 also contains a grammar summary
considerably more clear than Metcalfe's early transformational
analysis, which would have been better quoted than McG's reworking of
Metcalfe (1975), where several tense categories have been collapsed
which should be treated distinctly.

Bardi is frequently taken to support conclusions made for Nyulnyul,
however Bardi and Nyulnyul also appear to behave quite
differently. The differences are perhaps quite small when comparing
Nyulnyulan to Bunuban, which represent extremes of the scale. However,
there are some very interesting differences within Nyulnyulan,
including whether preverbs can appear without inflecting verbs (they
can in some languages but not others), which inflecting verbs the
preverbs take (there is considerable variation among cognate preverbs
even between Bardi and Nyulnyul, which are almost mutually
intelligible), how many inflecting verbs there are in the language
(Nyulnyul has more than double Yawuru's number), whether preverbs
themselves can be inflected for aspect or other categories (they can
in Yawuru, but not in Bardi), the sources of preverbs and their
productivity with respect to reduplication and whether they can also
be used in other word classes (varies a lot from language to

Placement of Bardi on the classification scheme there is considerably
more overlap in Bardi categories than there seems to be in Nyulnyul,
and this raises problems for the classifier analysis (I haven't done
counts of what proportion of the preverbs can take more than one
inflecting verb, since the number goes up every time I gloss a
text). The categories are not nearly as discrete as McGregor claims
for Nyulnyul many preverbs appear with more than a single inflecting
verb. The largest collocation I have recorded is 5:

3. dirray 'turn'

+ -banji- 'turn around'
+ -ar- 'rotate something'
+ -boo- 'turn into something'
+ -jiidi- 'swing about'
+ -0- 'swing about, turn back' (historically < *-w-, now a 
phonologically null root.)

A good deal of the book argues for a classifier analysis of various
verb constructions, and I agree with this for all the languages I have
any expertise in. There are several parts of the book (especially pp
261, 266ff), however, where McGregor argues for a classifier analysis
to the exclusion of a complex predicate analysis. That is, McGregor
argues that the constructions in Nyulnyul and Bardi are not complex
predicates or compounds containing bleached inflecting verbs. The
argument is much easier to sustain for Gooniyandi, where all portions
of the inflecting verb must appear with a preverb, and the 'preverb'
can be reasonably clearly identified as the head of the verbal
predicate (it assigns theta-roles, etc).

McGregor's arguments against a complex predicate analysis are as

a. head tests fail; on these tests either one or neither of the
preverb and inflecting verb are identified as the head, but never both
(cf Alsina, Bresnan and Sells' 1997:1 criterion that complex
predicates are multiheaded);

b. if we take the criterion of inflectional locus, the inflecting
verb is the head; however the uninflecting preverb usually governs
theta-role assignment;

c. if we follow Mohanan (1997) and say that complex predicates
contain two predicative units which jointly determine clause
structure, we again run into problems with Nyulnyulan transitivity
alternations, since the transitivity of the inflecting verb remains
constant even though the transitivity of the clause as a whole can
vary (p 263 ff).

While I accept some of McGregor's reservations about tests for
headedness, I do not really follow argument (a). In Bardi, for
example, one can point to examples of pairs which differ minimally,
for example with regard to theta-role assignment or transitivity,
where the locus of shift is the verb morphology, the preverb or the
inflecting verb. Some examples are given below. These examples show
pairs of sentences where a difference in aspect is caused by changing
one part of the predicate either the verb morphology, the light verb
used in the CVC, or the uninflecting preverb.

4. Clausal Aspect can be determined by:

(a). verb morphology
Aaman roowil ngannyan, gala inngoorroobinngay iilanim. as soon as
walk 1sg-'catch'-cont, right then 3sg-chase-1sg dog-erg 'As soon as I
go for a walk, the dog chases me.'

Moonboorran roowil innyij.
towards speaker walk 3sg-catch-perf
'He is coming towards me.'

(aspect markers: -n 'continuative' vs -ij 'completed action (in the
last few days)')

(b). the light verb

joornk innyana
run 3sg-'put'-past
'He ran away (quickly).'

joornk injarralana
run 3sg-'run'-past
'He took off with speed.'

(in this CVC, -(i)nya- is unmarked for any specific aspect, whereas
the use of jarrala- is inceptive, and refers to the act of 'starting
to run')

(c). the preverb

Bany inamana boorroo.
shoot 3sg-'put'-past kangaroo
'He shot the kangaroo.'

Banybany inamana.
shoot-redup 3sg-'put'-past
'He kept on shooting (it).'

(reduplication of the preverb shows that the action was iterative)

For further examples see Bowern (2002). Surely the clearest analysis
for data like these is that both the preverb and the inflecting verb
are contributing information to the meaning of the predicate,
information which is normally associated with a head. Therefore I
agree with Mohanan's characterisation of this type of construction,
that both parts determine clause structure.

I don't agree with McG that this causes problems in analysing the
transitivity of verb constructions (point (c) above). Again, my data
are from Bardi rather than Nyulnyul but I think this analysis could be
applied to Nyulnyul mutatis mutandis. My argument is as follows.

Firstly, I draw a distinction between clausal transitivity and
predicate valency (following Margetts 1999 and others). I need this
for Bardi to account for various case marking and argument structure
mismatches which are not related to the question of CVCs and I will
not go into detail here.

In Bardi the situation regarding transitivity alternations is as follows:

5. preverb + monovalent inflecting verb > intransitive predicate
 preverb + bi/trivalent infl. verb > intransitive or transitive predicate

Thus CVCs using inflecting verbs such as jiidi- 'go' and -ni- 'sit'
always produce monovalent complex predicates, but when a preverb is
combined with a transitive inflecting verb the resulting complex
predicate may be transitive or intransitive, depending often on the
argument structure of the preverb. For example, roowil (i)nya- 'walk'
is intransitive and takes a single NP in absolutive, even though
(i)nya- 'catch' (the inflecting verb used with this preverb) takes
transitive verb morphology and when used without a preverb takes an
ergative subject.

Now, I argue here that the morphology of the inflecting verb is
transitive because it is forced by the conjugation class of the
verb. These usually bivalent verbs take transitive prefixes, because
that is the conjugation that these verbs belong to, even though
technically not all argument positions are filled in CVC
constructions. The transitive set of prefixes have to be used for the
verb to be morphologically well-formed. The argument is similar to
arguments for impersonal verbs in languages like Latin; ningit 'it
snows' has 3rd person agreement not because some real third person
argument is triggering agreement, but because all verbs aren't
morphologically well-formed without a tense/subject agreement suffix.

Finally, it is not clear to me that the two arguments (complex
predicate/fusion versus verbal classifier) are mutually
exclusive. That is, surely an inflecting verb can be both part of a
complex predicate construction and fulfil the role of a classifier in
that construction?

There is an interesting problem of where Nyulnyul and Bardi fall
between a classifier and category system. McG seems to argue that
Nyulnyul and Bardi have dedicated classifiers; however it is difficult
to see how the classifiers are dedicated, since a) the 'classifier'
inflecting verbs can appear without a preverb, and therefore without a
lexical event to classify, and b) there are numerous simple inflecting
verbs in Bardi and Nyulnyul which do not take part in the
classification system.

I am also not entirely convinced that all instances of preverb +
inflecting verb are classifier constructions, or if they are, that
they are the same type of construction. There is a good case to be
made, for example, for both syntactically formed and lexically formed
preverb + inflecting verb constructions in Bardi. They behave
differently with regard to reduplication, the independence of the
constituents and the flexibility of the relative ordering of the
components (see further Bowern forthcoming)).

I also have several comments regarding the origin of preverbs in
ideophones. I certainly agree that ideophones are a possible source of
preverbs, and McG provides good arguments that this is the case. I am
somewhat sceptical, however, about applying the idea to
(Proto-)Nyulnyulan. Firstly, many non-ideophonic preverbs can be
reconstructed to Proto-Nyulnyulan with a fair degree of
certainty. Secondly, McG argues that the phonotactics of preverbs
cannot be explained by regular sound rules but there is no
demonstration of this. There are frequent synchronic alternations in
Bardi between adjectives and slightly syncopated preverb forms (eg
joorrongg (velar nasal + g) 'straight' vs joorroong ma- (velar nasal
only) 'choose'. This would indicate either that some phonological
reduction has taken place with the cliticisation of the preverb to the
inflecting verb, or that there is extra morphological material on the
free form. There are several possible origins of the Nyulnyulan CVCs
in Pre-Proto-Nyulnyulan, and I am not convinced that alternative
scenarios (such as the grammaticalisation of a loose event classifier
construction, the extension of metaphor, or other paths) were ruled

Thus in summary, 'Verb classification in Australian languages' is a
very readable and interesting book, and there is much in it that is
controversial and open to dispute. I hope very much that William
McGregor's book will provide an impetus for further research on this
topic in Australian languages and elsewhere.


Aklif, Gedda (comp) (1999). Ardiyooloon Bardi Ngaanka: One Arm Point
Bardi dictionary. Halls Creek: Kimberley Language Resource Centre.

Alsina, Alex, Joan Bresnan and Peter Sells. Complex
Predicates. Stanford, California: CSLI Publications.

Bowern, Claire (2002). 'How Light are North Australian light verbs?'
Paper presented at the Dudley House/Harvard Linguistics Light Verb
Workshop, November 11th, 2002, to be published in Harvard Working
Papers in Linguistics, Vol 9.

Bowern, Claire (forthcoming). A Bardi comparative grammar. PhD
Dissertation, Harvard University.

Margetts, Anna (1999). Valence and transitivity in Saliba, an Oceanic
language of Papua New Guinea. PhD thesis, Catholic University of

Metcalfe, C. D. (1975). Bardi verb morphology. Canberra; Pacific

Mohanan, Tara (1997). Multidimensionality of representation: NV
complex predicates in Hindi. in Alsina, Alex, Joan Bresnan and Peter
Sells. Complex Predicates. Stanford, California: CSLI Publications. pp

Nicolas, Edith (1998). Etude du syst�me verbal du bardi, langue du
nord-ouest australien, avec une pr�sentation contrastive du syst�me
bunuba. PhD, Universit� Paris VII: Denis Diderot, Paris.


Claire Bowern is the world's other Nyulnyulanist. She is currently
writing her dissertation on a historical grammar of Nyulnyulan
languages, focusing on Bardi, language contact and historical
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