Thursday, August 05, 2004

Incorporation Alert

I like compounding so it follows that I love Southeast Asian languages. Many of the Hmong-Mien and Tibeto-Burman languages I work on have nifty verb-object compounds that look, in some ways, suspiciously like noun incorporation. However, few people seem to have made this connection, and there is probably a good reason for this. Given that these languages are not exactly champions when it comes to affixal morphology, it could be quite difficult to distinguish noun-incorporation from less interesting types of compounding or even simple collocation.

Be that as it may, in Southeast Asian languages, one does not say a person is deaf. Instead, one says that they are ‘ear deaf’ or ‘deaf-eared’. Thus, in Hmong (Mong Leng):
Tugtuabneeghovlaag-ntseg
CLFpersonthatdeaf-ear
‘That person is deaf.’

And it's not just Hmong. In a fairly normal Tangkhul language called Kachai, the (nominalized) citation form for ‘be deaf’ is nɐ́-kə̄-pā ear-NOM-deaf `deaf-eared'. Here, the fact that the nominalization prefix attaches directly to the verbal root, rather than the compound as a whole makes this look less compound like (and probably even less like incorporation). On the other hand, the bare root nɐ́ never occurs in isolation--it always bears a noun class prefix outside of compounds. In another Tangkhul language called Huishu, something interesting happens: the word for ‘be deaf’ is khə̀-nì nì-kə̀-khɐ́ CLASS-ear ear-NOM-deaf ‘ears are deaf-eared’. Here, the same compound or collocation contains both the bound root form for ‘ear’ and the free form for ‘ear’ (class prefix + root). It will be interesting to see if this is simply and idiosyncracy of this particular form, or if this type of construction is found more generally in Huishu.

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