LINGUIST List 4.442

Wed 09 Jun 1993

Sum: Languages without adjectives

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  1. , Sum: Languages without adjectives

Message 1: Sum: Languages without adjectives

Date: Fri, 4 Jun 93 17:52:16 PDTSum: Languages without adjectives
From: <>
Subject: Sum: Languages without adjectives

This is a somewhat belated summary to the query I made about a month
ago. The original query goes as follows:

>James McCawley (1992) has suggested that there be no such category as
>Adjective in Mandarin Chinese after failing to distinguish adjectives
>from verbs with a list of universal properties. I like to know if
>there are indeed languages without adjectives. Japanese and some
>Sino-Tibetan languages can employ 'adjectives' as predicate without a
>copula, just like Chinese. I wonder if there is any difficulty in
>identifying adjectives in these languages. I will post a summary if
>there is interest.
>James McCawley (1992) Justifying part-of-speech assignments in
> Mandarin Chinese. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 20, 2,
> 211-46.

I received seven replies from the respondents below. Languages they
cited are given along with the respondents' names according to the
order their notes reached me. Many thanks to their responses.

John E. Koontz Omaha-Ponca
Mireille Langenbach British Sign language
M.A.F. Klamer Muna, Acehnese, and Kambera
John M. Lawler Acehnese, Puget Salish
Yongkyoon No Korean
Irina Sekerina Russian-Aleut
Randy LaPolla Hani

*Reply 1*
 From: (John E. Koontz)

The Siouan languages of North America have no adjective class. In a typical
Siouan language, the concepts that would be adjectival in English are coded
by stative verbs (intransitive verbs that take transitive object concord
prefixes) or nouns. For example (in Omaha-Ponca):

 i~s^ta' a~-ska'
 eye me-clear
 I see well

I chose this example, with possessor raising to show that concord can occur
even when the encoded concept doesn't normally accord with non-third person
subjects. Ska is a verb that usually refers to the being colored white.
Of course, with a stative verb like tta~'ga `be big', there is no problem
getting all concord forms without setting up elaborate contexts.

An example with a noun would be ppa~kka `Ponca', an ethnic identity, which
can be used as a modifier, e.g., ppa~'kka wa?u' `Ponca woman'.

There are copular formations, e.g.,

 wi' uma~ha~ ni~'kkas^i~ga=b-dhi~
 I Omaha person I am
 I am an Omaha man.

Some nouns can be verbalized, e.g.,

 kka~ga=i kka'ghe
 It is a crow crow

The shift of e to i before the plural/proximate marker =i is normal and
regular, and has nothing to do with verbal status per se.

I think that it is widely considered among Siouanists that object concord,
and therefore stative verbs, are more recent historical developments than
active concord (in transitives and active intransitives). Also, it a
personal observation of my own that a number of stative verbs end in -ga,
cf. tta~'ga above, and that this is historically related to ga `that
yonder' (or its cognates in other Siouan languages), i.e., an incorporated
demonstrative, perhaps originally functioning as a copula, i.e.,

 me big
 I am big

may be historically

 *wa~ hta~ ka
 me big yon
 I big "am"

This analysis is my own, and I can't say how widely is is accepted by my

The Caddoan languages are somewhat similar to the Siouan languages, but
there are a few adjectives (one or two) in a typical languages, as well as
some bound (incorporated only) elements that are adjectival in nature.

*Reply 2*
 From: Mireille Langenbach <>

I am currently doing research on British Sign Language in relation to
adjectives. It was initially claimed by Bergman (1983) that (Swedish) Sign
Language did not have any adjectives, which was later (in her 1986
article "A comparison between some static sentences in Swedish
Sign Language and in English) reviewed so that it is now thought that sign
languages are among those languages which have a small, closed adjective

One of the problems in determining which words should be considered to be
adjectives is the lack of a copula verb (such as 'to be' in English) in
sign languages. Therefore there is no way in which to distinguish verbs
from adjectives in predicate position, e.g.we can have:


and there is no way to find out if 1) should read 'mother is kind' or
'mother kinds', so if it is an adjective or a verb. Semantic criteria
cannot help us much further, because, as Bergman claims,

"from a mere semantic perspective it is not possible to distinguish
between (qualitative) adjectives and (stative) verbs."

 Therefore, all "adjectives" in sign language could just be intransitive,
stative verbs. The only difference is that adjectives can also occur in
attributive position, and verbs can't. Of course there is a problem with
this in that not *all* adjectives can occur both in predicative and in
attributive position, not even in languages with an open adjective class
such as English. For example, we can say

1) an utter fool
but not
2) * the fool is utter

and there are some verb forms which can function as attributes, e.g. "broken":

1) the window is broken
2) the broken window.


Mireille Langenbach

*Reply 3*
 From: "M.A.F. Klamer" <>

Yes indeed there are languages without adjectives. I know the
following three Austronesian languages to have stative verbs instead of
Adjectives: Muna (spoken in Sulawesi), Acehnese (Sumatra) and Kambera (Sumba).
Muna: Rene van den Berg (1989) 'A grammar of the Muna language' Dordrecht: Foris
Acehnese: Mark Durie (1985) 'A grammar of Acehnese', Dordrecht:
Foris Publications
I myself am working on a description of Kambera, right at this moment I am
writing a section on why this languages has no adjectives. The motivation is
actually quite straightforwardly based on structural similarities between the
expression of 'the apple is red', 'the apple falls', 'he walks' etc.).
Best wishes,
Marian Klamer

*Reply 4*

Mark Durie and I have a dispute going at the moment about this matter in
Acehnese. He explicitly says there are no adjectives. My student Abdul
Gani Asyik (a native speaker, but a much more conservative grammarian
than I) says there are. I think the issue opens up the question of just
what the difference might be between adjective and verb, on the one hand,
and adjective and noun, on the other.

I might add that in Puget Salish (Lushootseed, Skagit, Snohomish), it's
very hard to motivate such a distinction. This is especially interesting
because Puget Salish is polysynthetic, while Mandarin clearly is not.

{ bibliography for Acehnese ... ... }

The best source for Puget Salish is Thom Hess's grammar. Let me know
if you can't find it.


*Reply 5*
 From: Y No <>

Korean is a language which lacks adjectives in its strict sense. Stative verbs
are employed in expressing the meanings that would be expressed by Copula + Adj
in English and similar languages.

Yongkyoon No
School of East Asian Studies
The University of Sheffield

*Reply 6*

 A mixed Russian-Aleut language (Copper Island Aleut) spoken on Copper
(Mednyj) Island (IN the Russian Federation but geographically a part of the
Aleutian Islands), does not have adjectives as a separate syntactic category.
A qualitative atrtributrue is expressed by a noun in the possessed form (i),
while the qualitative predicate is expressed by a finite verb (ii):

(i) ukuxta-l-ya ula-m uluyaa
 see-PAST-1Sg house-REL red-POSS
 'I saw a red house'

(ii) ulaa u uluyaa-it
 house-his red-PRES-3Sg
 'His house is red'
Data from Golovko, E. and Vaxtin, N. (1990). Aleut in Contact: The CIA Enigma.
Acta Linguistica Hafniensia, 22, pp.97-125. Supposedly, this particular
feature of CIA was inherited from one of its linguistic source languages,
Irina Sekerina, CUNY Graduate Center, New York.

*Reply 7*

I have not yet had a chance to read McCawley's article, but he is
basically right about there not being a class of adjectives in Chinese.
Chao Yuen-Ren (1968) and a number of others have said the same thing,
though they point out that these verbs are distinct as a subclass of verbs
because of certain syntactic and semantic properties they have (particular
reduplication patterns, taking certain adverbs, etc.).
This is true for a large number of Sino-Tibetan languages as well
(I am in the middle of a project collecting a large amont of morpho-
syntactic data such as this in Tibeto-Burman, but cannot give you
the figures yet), but in some languages the adjectives have become
more like English adjectives (particularly in languages that require
copulas for equational sentences--often those languages that have
no adjectives also allow bare nominal predicates, i.e. NP1 NP2 'NP1 is
a NP2'), or are different from non-stative verbs in taking
different affixes or allowing different reduplication patterns.
In some cases (e.g. Hani) the adjectives act like verbs when they
don't have the adjectival prefix, but act like adjectives or nouns
when they do have the adjectival (or nominalizing) prefix.

Hope this helps.

Randy LaPolla
Inst. of History & Philology
Academia Sinica

The answer to my first question is obvious: there are indeed
languages without adjectives. But whether a concensus on the category
of adjective exists among linguists working on a particular language
is unclear. The issue becomes more interesting and complicated,
perhaps, if we take a diachronic look at the controversial problem of
'adjective vs. stative verb'.

I will end the summary with an observation about the putative
adjective in Chinese languages. Those who have taught English to
speakers of Chinese may recall that Chinese students seem to favor the
use of intensifiers such as 'very', e.g. 'He is very tall', 'That is
very nice' when the intended meaning is simply that he is tall, and
that is nice. This can be due to transfer from their native
languages. In many, if not all, Chinese languages/dialects, the form
'NP + ADJ' is not used as a statement by itself. Instead, the
appropriate form looks like 'NP + Intensifier + ADJ', e.g.

Mandarin ta hen piaoliang.
Cantonese k0 hou lian.
Southern Min i j^in sy.
 she very pretty
 'She is pretty.'

Without the intensifier, the sentence is incomplete, or infelicitous.
There seems to be some special function carried by the intensifier in
these sentences.

Once again, thanks to those respondents with their instructive
information. It won't be some sort of 'uniqueness' even if Mandarin
turns out to be truly a language without adjectives.
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