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Review of Verb Classification in Australian Languages
Date: Sun, 22 Dec 2002 12:06:42 -0500 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.
Claire Bowern: Harvard University and Centre for Research on Language Change, Australian National University.
OVERVIEW 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.
AUDIENCE 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.
SUMMARY OF CHAPTERS 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, Bunuba.
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.
(Bardi) 1. inflecting root used alone: nganamboogal 'I hit him.' root: -boo- 'hit'
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 denote).
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 research.
CRITICAL EVALUATION. 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 language).
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:
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 follows:
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:
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 out.
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.
REFERENCES 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.
Margetts, Anna (1999). Valence and transitivity in Saliba, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. PhD thesis, Catholic University of Nijmegen.
Metcalfe, C. D. (1975). Bardi verb morphology. Canberra; Pacific Linguistics.
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 431-471.
Nicolas, Edith (1998). Etude du système verbal du bardi, langue du nord-ouest australien, avec une présentation contrastive du système bunuba. PhD, Université Paris VII: Denis Diderot, Paris.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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 dialectology.