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Review of  Dependent-Head Synthesis in Nivkh

Reviewer: Wolfgang Schulze
Book Title: Dependent-Head Synthesis in Nivkh
Book Author: Johanna Mattissen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Typology
Subject Language(s): Gilyak
Book Announcement: 15.1249

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Date: Sun, 18 Apr 2004 18:17:52 +0200
From: Wolfgang Schulze <>
Subject: Dependent-Head-Synthesis in Nivkh

AUTHOR: Mattissen, Johanna
TITLE: Dependent-Head-Synthesis in Nivkh
SUBTITLE: A contribution to a typology of polysynthesis
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
SERIES: Typological Studies in Language 57
YEAR: 2003

Wolfgang Schulze, IATS, University of Munich.

d' = Heavily palatalized alveolar voiced stop (> affricate)
e^ = High central vowel
g^ = Vocied velar fricative
gh = Voiced uvular fricative
G = Voiced uvular stop
kh = Aspirated voiceless velar stop
n' = Palatal nasal
ng = Velar nasal
r^ = Voiceless dento-alveolar trill
t' = Heavily palatalized alveolar voiceless stop (> affricate)
th = Aspirated dento-alveolar voiceless stop
x^ = Voiceless uvular fricative


Nivkh (also known by its xenonym Gilyak) represents a highly endangered
language spoken (in terms of four dialects) by roughly 1.000 people in
the Lower Amur basin, along the mouth of the Amur River, and in the
coastal regions of Sakhalin. The varieties spoken on the mainland are
characterized by a relatively strong impact from adjacent Tunguso-Manchu
(Sangi 1988:195, also see Burykin 1988). Up to now, no convincing
hypothesis has been put forward that would help to illuminate the genetic
affiliation of Nivkh, which hence has to be classified as an 'isolated'

Documentary work on Nivkh started as early as 1854-6, when L. v. Schreck
and P. v. Glehn led an expedition into the Amur and Sakhalin regions
(some results were published by Wilhelm Grube in 1892). Roughly, by the
same time, Pere L. Fure and Kausake Okamoto published short word lists of
Nivkh. Still, it took another 70 years, until Akira Nakanome published a
first grammatical treatment of the language (Nakanome 1927). Today,
standard reference grammars are Panfilov 1962/65 and Gruzdeva 1998.

To my knowledge, the book under review (henceforth 'DHSN') is the first
comprehensive look at the morphosyntax of Nivkh from a typological
perspective (Russek 1996, too, has taken this perspective. Unfortunately,
her thesis has remained unpublished). It represents the revised version
of Johanna Mattissen's University of Cologne PhD thesis (2001). The
author (henceforth 'J.M.') develops her analyses with the help of a broad
textual data base (published texts, grammars, individual studies, usually
stemming from the Amur varieties) and 'mediated' fieldwork (carried out
by Hidetoshi Shiraishi). The book aims at discussing in details a hotspot
of Nivkh linguistics, namely the question of polysynthesis (in its
broadest sense). J.M. delimits the organization principles of Nivkh
morphosyntax from standard polysynthesis as follows: "[A] single
homogeneous structural principle is active in Nivkh. This principle
consist of a systematic and consistent synthesis of heads and their
dependents under adjacency in the order dependent-head (...) and leads to
the complex word forms characteristic of Nivkh" (p.1). To illustrate the
degree of synthesis that is characteristic of Nivkh, let me quote an
example from Gruzdeva 1998, also given by J.M. (p.149):

t'ig^r-park-e^vr-thar^u-gu-ve (Gruzdeva 1998:39)
'If only you would chop firewood!'
[CST = Causative, IMP.p = Imperative Plural; see above for the phonetic

Nevertheless, it should be noted that not every Nivkh clause is marked
for such a high degree of synthesis, as shown by the following examples

he^-n'ivg^-gu mur-gir-ko qan-gir-ko phre^-d'-g^u
that-preson-PL horse-INS-ASC.p dog-INS-ASC.p come-IND/NML-PL
'Those people came by horses and dogs.'
[PL = Plural, INS = Instrumental, ASC = correlative-associative, IND/NML
= Indicative/Nominalization]

The overall presence of synthesis strategies in Nivkh necessitates that
any description of this feature has to consider a vast range of
grammatical features, including morphophonology and pragmatics. In this
sense, the reader of DHSN can rightly expect to learn not only about
synthesis in Nivkh together with its typological setting, but also about
the main aspects of the grammatical architecture of Nivkh. In this sense,
the book follows a currently well-established tendency, namely to use a
typologically salient parameter crucial for the grammatical organization
of a language to do two things at the same time: discuss the parameter
itself and present its overall relevance for the functioning of a
grammatical system. This double orientation makes DHSN very useful for
both the general audience and people interested in Nivkh itself.


J.M.'s treatise is organized in ten chapters, preceded by a comprehensive
list of abbreviations and 'acknowledgements'. The book ends with an
'appendix' (to chapter 3.4), a list of references, and an extremely
helpful 'bibliography on Nivkh' (roughly some 400 titles). Chapter 1
(pp.1-34) is entitled 'Introduction' and offers basic information about
both the socio-linguistic setting of Nivkh speakers and the general
architecture of Nivkh grammar. Typologically speaking, Nivkh "shows
affinities to Chukchi, Ainu, and Native American languages" (p.5).
Technically speaking, Nivkh is a both prefix- and suffix-agglutinating
language furnished with well-elaborated paradigms of nominal and verbal
inflection. Nouns lack gender or class indication, but make frequent use
of deictic prefixes in terms of locational determiners. Singular
possessors (as well as reflexive possessors) can be marked in terms of
pronominal prefixes which reflect proclitic variants (or 'clipped forms',
Austerlitz 1959) of the corresponding personal pronouns. There are no
relational cases (the core relations being expressed with the help of
synthesis grading). However, Nivkh knows a number of basically locative
case forms (strongly reduced in Eastern Sakhalin) as well as a
functionally prominent 'instrumental' case (used to express secondary
core relations within the O(bjective) domain). Most locative case forms
have a strong tendency towards metaphorization (in the sense of Schulze
(in press)). J.M. also notes (p.120) that there is a recent tendency to
use the so-called 'causee' case as an accusative-like case marker,
obviously based on its use to encode a causee in causative constructions,

if j-ax kepr-gu-d' (Panfilov 1962:248)
'He made him stop' > 'He stopped him.'

Most importantly, Nivkh operates through a great number of so-called
'relational morphemes' (p.10) or former postpositions that have 'entered'
the agglutination chain (in terms of layered morphology, see Mithun
1999). Verbs do not indicate the S/A-domain, but have a slot for
referents in O-function. In addition, a number of TAM-related morphemes
are added to the verbal stem. Most importantly, the initial consonant of
a verbal stem can undergo systematic changes in contact with preceding
vowels or consonants. As the segment preceding the stem usually is a unit
in O-function, these changes are strongly correlation with transitivity.
An example taken from Krejnovic^ 1937:27 is:

qan r^u-d'
dog run=after-IND/NML
'The dog takes up the chase'

qan qanthud'
[qan qan-r^u-d']
dog dog-run=after-IND/NML
'The dog runs after a dog.'

t'x^an n'sangGanthud'
[t'i-qan n'i-t'ang-qan-r^u-d']
2sg-dog 1sg-white-dog-run=after-IND/NML
'Your (sg.) dog runs after my white dog.'

Another salient feature of Nivkh is the fact that two converbs can be
marked for person:

jang phr^e^-g-t ezmu-d (p.32)
3sg come-CST-cv:1sg rejoice-IND/NML
'I was happy that he came' (lit. 'I rejoiced letting him come')

Note that the paradigm of person marked converbs is rather exceptional:
The cluster (2/3sg) contrasts with the cluster (1sg/1-3pl).

As J.M. puts it "[d]ependent-head synthesis is the principle operative
for the encoding of possessors, attributes, objects and complement
clauses in Nivkh" (p.33). Accordingly, most syntactic features alluded to
in the 'Introduction' are elaborated in more details in the other
chapters of DHSN.

Chapter 2 (pp.35-64)turns to Nivkh phonology and morphophonemics. As has
been said already above, Nivkh is characterized by complex Sandhi
phenomena that always affect the initial sound of a head and are
triggered by the final sound of the preceding dependent segment, compare
zud' 's.o. washes' > te^mk-zud' 's.o. washes his hands',
nge^g^s-t'ud' 's.o. cleans her teeth', n'e^ng-d'ud' 's.o. washes us' etc.
(p.50). J.M. carefully examines the relevant alternation patterns and
arrives at a very helpful classification of the complex alternation
patterns, which serve as a diagnostic feature for the question of
wordhood, discussed in Chapter 3 (pp. 65-121). The author considers
phonological features (syllable structures, phonotactics,
morphophonemics, stress placement), morphological features, and what she
calls 'psychological reality' (Nivkh speakers' judgment upon wordhood).
In addition, she makes extensive use of non-Nivkh data to both delimit
and contextualize the Nivkh findings. She concludes: "[There] is
sufficient evidence for recognizing Nivkh complexes as single
morphological words" (p.121).

J.M. subdivides the discussion of Nivkh synthesis operations into five
chapters. Chapter 4 (pp.122-168) addresses the 'Nivkh noun plus verb
complex', that is what is commonly known as O(bjective) incorporation.
There are two verb classes in Nivkh, one of which (mono/ditransitives) is
obligatorily marked for synthesis. This class can again be subdivided
into several, morphophonologically determined subclasses (pending on the
type of initial segment of the verb stem). Structurally, J.M.
distinguishes five valency classes three of which (avalents,
intransitives, intransitives with peripheral participant) do not
participate in the dependent-head synthesis as heads (p.136). With
monotransitive verbs, various types of 'undergoers' can enter the
synthesis 'slot' (patient, product, theme, location, comparational
triggers). Ditransitive verbs having two undergoers can be divided into
two classes: a) patient/theme + recipient; b) patient/theme + goal.
Crucially, synthesis takes place according to the parameter 'primary
object' (O (monotransitive) + IO (ditransitive)). But note that the
primary object principle is occasionally violated, as in:

n'i Xevgun t'aqo-asqam-d' (p.146)
I Xevgun knife-take=away-IND/NML
'I take the knife from Xevgun'

(instead of ?*n'i t'aqo Xevgun-asqam-d'). J.M. refers to Russian as a
possible source for this type of synthesis. After having monitored
properties of referential segments in synthesis, J.M. discusses
'non-synthesization of undergoer and verb', that is constraints on the
primary object synthesis. As expected, these constraints mainly concern
coordination, topicalization/focus and demotion. An example for primary
object demotion is (p.165).

e^me^k karandas ph-oghla-khim-d'
mother pencil REFL-child-give-IND/NML
'Mother gave her child a pencil.'

e^me^k ph-oghla-dox karandas i-mg^-d'-ra
mother REFL-child-ALL pencil 3sgU-give-IND/NML-HILI
'Mother gave a pencil to her child.'
[REFL = Reflexive, ALL = Allative, U = undergoer, HILI = Highlighting

Primary object synthesis naturally raises the question whether we have to
deal with noun incorporation. J.M. addresses this issue in Chapter 5
(pp.169-181). She carefully discusses the well-known parameters of
incorporation and concludes that synthesis does not reflect noun
incorporation, but rather results from "dependent-head synthesis
operating in the governee-governor relationship" (p.181).

A true highlight of J.M.'s book is the discussion of verb-verb synthesis
that comes close to what in generally known as verb serialization
(Chapter 6, pp.182-201). An example is:

n'i vi-pher-d' (p.189)
I go-(be=)tired-IND/NML
'Walking, I got tired.'

Obviously, most of these constructions result in some kind of 'manner
conflation', ending up in lexicalized forms of verb root serialization
(e.g. in'-mangg-d' (eat-strong-IND/NML) > s.o. is voracious' (p.193)).

In Chapter 7 (pp. 202-219), J.M. asks the question: "Nivkh - A
polysynthetic language?" Although Nivkh certainly qualifies for a number
of features typologically tested for polysynthesis (see Fortescue 1994,
Drossard 1997, Evans & Sasse 2002), J.M. again stresses that it the
dependent-head template that accounts for the Nivkh synthesis strategy.

The Nivkh section of DHSN ends with Chapter 8 (pp.220-248) that discusses
features of synthesis within the Nivkh nominal complex. It is important
to note that for instance with personal 'pronouns', synthesis conditions
a shift in function, compare (p.220):

n'i e^t'x
I old=man
'I, the old man'

'my old man'

A complex example of NP-internal synthesis is (p.223):

te^m-bal-ngur^-mi n'-wo-ra
this-mountain-heart-inside 1sg-village HILI
'Inside these mountains is my village.'

Qualifying attributes usually are verbs and thus synthesize in terms of
verb-noun clusters. The verbal attribute may be marked as a participle
(-n-, Sakhalin) which causes nasal alternation. In addition, a suffix
-la- can precede this marker denoting some kind of 'permanent property',
compare um-n'ivx 'furious-person' vs. um-la-n'ivx 'nasty (= always
furious)-person'. Verbal attribution can render relativization. A
relativized noun can then again be synthesized with the verb in case it
has primary object function. A nice example is (p.236):

n'i phi zosq-t'aqo-ve^kz-d'
I REFL break-knife-throw=away-IND/NML
'I threw away the knife which I had broken.'

Note that here, the reflexive pronoun does not become synthesized, as
opposed to non-complex NPs, compare the following example taken from
Krejnovic^ 1966:44:

n'i ph-ranr-khez-d'
I REFL-sister-speak-IND/NML
'I have spoken to my sister.'

Obviously, the non-synthesization of phi is conditioned by the fact that
it takes 'subject' function (in the relative clause). Recall that
synthesis never affects nominals in S(ubjective)/A(gentive) function in

In Chapter 9 (pp. 249-272), J.M. contextualizes Nivkh NP-internal
synthesis by elaborating an extremely valuable study on 'complex noun
forms in the world's languages'. Basically, this study aims at the
question whether complex noun forms can be considered as polysynthetic or
not. J.M. portrays a considerable number of languages with respect to
this question, discussing non-root bound morphemes, root concatenation,
and inflectional patters. The underlying question cannot be answered even
tentatively without approaching the notion of polysynthesis itself. J.M.
devotes Chapter 10 (pp.273-289) to this problem. It is entitled
'Typological outlook' and summarizes the findings in Nivkh aiming at an
"overall classification of word complexity depending on its ingredients"
(p.272). J.M. correctly states that "polysynthesis in the traditional
sense is a 'feeling' rather than a clear-cut class" (p.276). The author
carefully examines the different parameters set forth for polysynthesis
with the help of data from seventy-five languages. She arrives at two
characteristic 'axes' that condition types of polysynthesis (a
'substantial' one yield at the material under synthesis, and a
'structural' one that separates templatic from scope-ordered types). By
confronting the typological findings with her Nivkh data, J.M. ends up
with the hypothesis that a structurally motivated principle of synthesis
may represent at least something different from what is generally known
as 'polysynthesis'. Taking into account the fact that at least in Nivkh,
this principle also concerns complex noun forms, the author concludes:
"It seems to make sense to acknowledge the overall structural principle
as a type in its own right, perhaps even as a morphological type, as it
is superordinate to polysynthesis (as it is presently understood)"


It is out of question that DHSN is a 'must' to read for all who are
interested in the question of intra-clausal concatenation strategies from
a typological point of view. In addition, the book serves another
important purpose, namely to introduce the linguistics of Nivkh to the
general audience in a way that brings the book close to a 'functional
description' of Nivkh. Sure, the book is not a reference grammar of the
language. For this, the reader should for instance turn to Gruzdeva 1998.
Still, the amazing wealth of data presented by J.M. allows the reader to
get a deep insight into the linguistics of Nivkh that goes far beyond
other comparable studies.

Perhaps, the book also profits from the fact that J.M. does not adhere to
a specific language or grammar theory. It follows the standards of a
typological paradigm (with an admittedly functional perspective). Her
approach is related to what can best be called an 'interpretative Basic
Linguistic Theory' (iBLT) (modifying Dixon's term (Dixon 1997)). This
theory-neutral, nevertheless category-sensitive approach guarantees that
J.M.'s analyses are not packed into a format that is at risk to lay more
emphasis on the cover than on the contents. DHSN is unbiased towards
theoretical issues without being atheoretical. This fact makes the book
both a valuable source book and an important contribution to general
issues in language typology. Nevertheless, the basically 'structural'
approach has its shortcomings, too. For instance, the chapter on wordhood
surely is an important issue from a purely structural point of view that
posits the existence of 'words' (what ever this may be) in linguistic
cognition. However, J.M. herself considers the possibility (p.119) that
the concept of wordhood is determined by cultural (especially Western)
traditions. The fact that wordhood is often considered as a more or less
universal feature of language perhaps unnecessarily complicates the
matter. If, for instance, we refer to the concept of 'linguistic
information units' (LIU) instead of 'word', we are freed from positing
rather complicated and often contradictory parameters for 'words'. Such a
cognitive perspective would perhaps also help to account for the most
important observation by J.M., namely the dependent-head condition for
synthesis in Nivkh (and other languages). In this sense, DHSN lays the
ground for a more theory-oriented explanation of this type of synthesis.
It is out of question that without the highly learnt and extremely
thoughtful approach presented by J.M. this type of explanation would
never lurk from beyond the horizon. In this brief review, I cannot
illustrate this point in more details, just as it is impossible to
comment upon every single claim or observation. Most likely, experts of
those languages that are included in J.M.'s typology, will not always
agree with the analyses presented by the author. Nevertheless, the book
sufficiently shows that a learnt typological embedding of
language-specific phenomena can serve at least three interests: The
inclusion of a hitherto less considered language in the dimension of
cross-linguistic argumentation, the evaluation and refinement of
typological generalizations, and - last but not least - the reformulation
of theoretical positions.

We have to thank J.M. for having prepared this wonderful and stimulating
book, which is formally well-done and accurate in the presentation of
both data and analyses.


Austerlitz, Robert (1959) Semantic Components of Pronominal Systems:
Gilyak. Word 15:102-109.

Burykin, A.A. (1988) Tunguso-man'c^z^uro-nivxskie svjazi i problema
genetic^eskoj prinadlez^nosti nivxskogo jazyka. In: Ju. A. Sem & A. I.
Gamilov (red.) Voprosy leksiki i sintaksisa jazykov narodov Krajnogo
Severa SSSR, 136-150. Leningrad: Leningradskij Ped. Inst.

Dixon, R.M.W. (1997) The rise and fall of languages. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Drossard, Werner (1997) Polysynthesis and polysynthetic languages in
comparative perspective. In: B. Palek (ed.). Proceddings of Linguistics
and Phonetics 1996, 251-264. Prague: Charles University Press.

Evans, Nicholas & Hans-Juergen Sasse (eds.) (2002) Problems of
Polysynthesis. Berlin: Akademie.

Fortescue, Michael (1994) Morphology, polysynthetic. In: R.E. Asher &
M.Y. Simpson (eds.). The Encyclodpedia of Languages and Linguistics, Vol.
5, 2600-2602. Oxford etc.: Pergamon Press.

Gruzdeva, E. Ju. (1998) Nivkh. Munich: Lincom.

Krejnovic^, E.A. (1937) Fonetika nivxskogo jazyka. Moskva / Leningrad:
Gosudarstvennoe uc^ebno-pedag. izd.

Krejnovic^, E.A. (1966) Ob inkorporirovanii i primykanii v nivxskom
jazyke. Voprosy Jazykoznanija 1966,3:36-51.

Mithun, Marianne (1999) The reordering of morphemes. In: S. Gildea (ed.).
Reconstructing Grammar. Comparative Linguistics and Grammaticalization,
231-255. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Nakanome, Akira (1927) Grammatik der Nikbun Sprache (des Giljakischen).
Research Review of the Osaka Asiatic Society, Vol. 5. Osaka: Osaka
Asiatic Society.

Panfilov, V.Z. (1962/65) Grammatika nivxskogo jazyka. 2 Vols.
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Russek, Susanne (1996) Studien zur Morphosyntax des 'einfachen Satzes' im
Gilyak. Muenchen: IATS (MA thesis).

Sangi, V.M. (1988) Jazykovaja situacija na Saxaline i v nizov'jax Amura.
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Schulze, Wolfgang (in press). Invariance, self-similarity and
metaphorization: The dynamics of case semantics in East Caucasian. In:
Antonio Barcelona, Klaus-Uwe Panther, Guenter Radden & Linda L. Thorburg
(eds.). Metonymy and Metaphor in Grammar. Amsterdam & Philadelphia:

Wolfgang Schulze is the Head of the Institute for General Linguistics and
Language Typology at the University of Munich (German). His main research
topics include among others Language Typology, Cognitive Typology,
Historical Linguistics, language contact, the languages of the Eastern
Caucasus, and 'Oriental' languages. He currently works on the edition of
the Caucasian Albanian (Old Udi) Palimpsest from Mt.Sinai, on a
Functional (Cognitive) Grammar of Udi and on a comprehensive presentation
of the framework of a Grammar of Scenes and Scenarios in terms of
Cognitive Typology.