4 - Noun Incorporation
Noun incorporation (NI) is ultimately a form of compounding: it combines a noun root/stem with a verb (a N+V or V+N compound) to create a new verb with a more specific meaning. English has some (marginal) examples, such as "berry-pick" or "mountain-climb": here, a noun is combined with a verb to form a new verb with a narrower scope than the original verb (referring now to specific kinds of picking or climbing). However, the English examples aren't very good analogues to the much more productive systems of languages that make heavy use of NI (for example, in English verbs with incorporated nouns can usually only appear with further derivation, either as actor or activity deverbals, such as "he's a mountain-climber" and "she went berry-picking").
4.1 - Shared Characteristics
Note, before we get into the various types of NI, that all forms share several qualities. For one, NI is normally a valance-adjusting phenomenon. In other words, if a verb incorporates what was previously its direct object, the new verb will have its valency reduced by one (transitive > intransitive, ditransitive > transitive). We can use the English example of "mountain-climb" again to illustrate this: in "I climb mountains", "climb" is a transitive verb, with "mountains" filling the direct object role. In "I mountain-climb", however, the verb ("mountain-climb", with incorporated object) is now intransitive, with "mountain" no longer a core argument of the verb, but rather a PART of the verb, specifying the type of action conveyed by the verb. This isn't as clear in English as in languages which explicitly mark transitive and intransitive clauses separately (for example, by differing the verb conjugation or using an ergative case-marking system), but it works the same way in those languages (in fact, there do seem to be languages where incorporation has no effect on the verb's valence, but this is unusual).[NOTE 1]
Secondly, incorporated nouns are almost always uninflected, unspecified roots. In most languages, nouns roots are never incorporated along with case markers or plurality markers or noun class markers or articles or demonstratives.[NOTE 2]
I'll give a brief example to illustrate this point, from Bininj Gun-wok. Note how the noun root, when incorporated into the verb in the second example, no longer has a prefix marking noun class (NB: the notational system the original source uses in the glosses is very hard to understand, and I may have mistranscribed some of it--nonetheless, the important part for our purposes is the loss of the noun classifier prefix when the nominal is incorporated, which I'm confident I got correctly):
- baginjeng gun-ganj
"S/he cooked (the) meat"
"S/he meat-cooked" (="s/he cooked (the) meat")
Very often, as well, the incorporated form of a noun may differ from the form it assumes as a free nominal. This may be a regular process (in Algonquian languages, for instance, the incorporated forms of nouns beginning in m-
usually lose the m-
), an irregular process, or even a suppletive process with some nouns, where the incorporated form has no obvious phonological connection to the free-standing noun.
Also, note that there's a restriction in all languages on what nouns can be incorporated. As far as I know, no
language regularly allows the incorporation of a transitive subject into the verb.[NOTE 3]
Verbs in various languages can incorporate their patient argument (intransitive subject or transitive direct object) or obliques like locations and instrumentals associated with the verb, but agents are never incorporated (actually, I don't know if intransitive semantic agents can be incorporated...does anyone know?). Evidently there are also no known languages in which benefactives or indirect objects (receivers) can be incorporated. All this is probably a side effect of the use of NI to background incorporated participants--see below.
As one final note, be aware that in some languages more than one noun can be incorporated into a single verb. For example, the following Cuiba
verb has three incorporated nouns: namaxɨpérɨnadobóbame
, "you take off the hair
of the skin
of the arm
-dobóba-me = REFL
4.2 - Types and Functions of NI
Most polysynthetic languages make use of NI, though the exact systems and their level of productiveness will vary from language to language (and, of course, not all languages with NI are polysynthetic). Marianne Mithun's work (1984), which I'm drawing on very heavily in this section, distinguishes several types/uses of NI. The first type is the most basic: noun-verb compounds deriving new verbs, with the incorporated noun root serving to narrow the scope of the original verb root. Compare, for instance, the two Yucatec Maya
examples below, the first with a separate nominal, and the second with that noun root incorporated into the verb, to narrow the scope of the activity described:
- tinch’akah che’
"I chopped a tree"
"I wood-chopped" (= "I chopped wood")
More advanced types of NI, however, can be used for more complex syntactic and discourse effects. The second type of NI (Mithun's type two) is a way of promoting former obliques to subject or direct object status, by incorporating the former subject or DO of the verb. This strategy is used in many languages, for example, when the underlying subject or DO does not play a major role in the discourse, and the speaker wishes to focus more on the effect the action has on some person or participant who is not an underlying core argument of the verb. For example, English often has body parts as the subjects or DOs of verbs of feeling (as in, "my head hurts" or "she hit my knee"). The second type of NI allows the underlying subject or DO to be incorporated into the verb, which means the affected participant can now be cast as the subject or DO (in the English examples given, this would be the equivalent of, "I head-hurt" and "she knee-hit me", where I'm
now the focus of both verbs, rather than my head or knee). All languages which use NI for this purpose also use it in type one situations as described above, to narrow the scope of the verb. A real-life example of type two NI is the following, again from Yucatec Maya. Note how the object changes from the tree in the first sentence to the cornfield (which was initially a locative oblique) in the second:
- kinch’akk che’ ichil inkool
INCOMPL-I-chop-it-IMPERF tree in my-cornfield
"I chop the tree in my cornfield"
- kinch’akche’tik inkool
"I clear my cornfield"
Here's another real-life example, this time from Blackfoot
- no’kakíni áisttsiwa
"My back hurts"
"I have a backache"
The third use of NI (Mithun's type three) takes place on the level of the discourse, rather than an individual clause or sentence. This is the use of NI to background established nouns: in languages with type three NI, a noun is generally introduced into the discourse with the separate nominal, but in further mentions of it, now that it's established material, it is often incorporated into the verb, unless the noun is highly focused. All languages which use type three NI also use types one and two. As an example of type three, consider the Koryak
text below. When the whale is first mentioned, it is referred to with a separate noun; after that, it is incorporated into the verb as established information (I've simplified the orthography a bit to make the example easier to read):
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1) wutču iñinñin yuñi qulaivun.
this.time.only such whale it.comes.
"This is the first time that such a whale has come near us."
"It is a good one (whale)."
"They attacked it (the whale)."
The final type of NI (Mithun's type four) is the incorporation of semantically-broad noun roots in order to classify or specify the verb action; the verb can then in addition still take overt nominals marking subject and object. This is, essentially, the use of NI as a classificatory system. In fact, in many cases, a participant is first introduced with both an overt nominal and classificatory incorporation on the verb, and then for future reference to the participant, all that is needed is to make use of the incorporated classifying nominal. A long but useful example is the following excerpt from a Mohawk
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1) tohka niyohserá:ke tsi nahe’ sha’té:ku nikú:ti rabahbót wahut̲s̲y̲ahní:nu ki rake’níha
several so.it.year.numbers so it.goes eight of.them bullhead he-f̲i̲s̲h̲-bought this my.father
"Several years ago, my father (fish-)bought eight bullheads"
Note that the bullheads
are first introduced with a separate nominal rabahbót
, but also with a classifying incorporated nominal in the verb, -itsy-
, "fish". The story continues, telling of how the speaker's uncle found and caught the fish, and then:
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2) saháhkete’ kí:kv rakenuhá:’a sahvt̲s̲y̲ahsherunyà:na’.
back.he.turned this my.uncle back.he.went.to-f̲i̲s̲h̲-fix.
"My uncle then returned to fix them (the fish)."
3) yusà:rawe ki’ óksa’k wahvt̲s̲y̲ahserú:ni tanu wahvt̲s̲y̲akerì:tahwe.
back.he.arrived just quick he-f̲i̲s̲h̲-fixed and he-f̲i̲s̲h̲-fried.
"At home, he cleaned and fried them (the fish)."
4) tsi nahót̲s̲y̲arihse ki’ kí:kv wahv̀:ru :
as as.he.finished-f̲i̲s̲h̲-frying just this he.said :
"And when they (the fish) were ready, he decided..."
5) 'tho yukyatv́:ro rinut̲s̲y̲anutv̀:ra.'
'there we.two.are.friends I/him-f̲i̲s̲h̲-feed.go.for.to'
"...to take them (the fish) to his friend as a special treat."
In all these subsequent sentences, the bullheads are referred to only through the incorporated noun root -itsy-
, functioning as something of a classifier. Mithun reports that languages with productive use of type four NI will have all of types one, two, and three as well.
Mithun's paper was written a number of years ago, and I understand there have been a number of refinements or alternative theoretical approaches proposed by various researchers since then (unfortunately, I don't have access to a lot of them), but the basic rubric is probably close enough to the truth that it can be extremely useful to conlangers, especially novice conlangers who are still trying to sort through all the possibilities that are out there (even given that I left a lot of nuances and detail out).
------------------ NOTES ----------------------
(1) An example of a language in which NI has no effect on the verb's valence is Yanomami
. For example, compare the following two examples. In the first there is no incorporation, while in the second the direct object is incorporated into the verb; but in both cases, the subject (if expressed) is treated as ergative--that is, as the subject of a transitive verb:
- (kamijənɨ) sipara japuhii = "I want an/the axe"
(I-ERG) axe I-want-DYNAMIC
- (kamijənɨ) jasiparapuhii = "I want it (the axe)"
(2) This generalization mostly holds. There are languages, though, where, for instance, adjectives and other modifiers of the (now-incorporated) noun remain outside the verb. See the discussion of type four NI for some examples from Mohawk.
(3) One possible example of the incorporation of a transitive subject/agent is in the English expression "doctor-recommended." But there's a number of ways in which this is not (in my opinion) a very good example. For one, English does not have very productive NI, except, to a limited extent, in order to describe common habitual activities (often hobbies or jobs, like "mountain-climb" or "berry-pick"). And even then, most examples of "incorporation" in English require the verb to be used in a deverbal form (e.g., "he's a mountain-climber" or "he's off mountain-climbing" are more acceptable than "he mountain-climbs on the weekends"). "Doctor-recommended" is even more restricted, and can only be used in very specific circumstances. I don't know of any incorporating language in which semantic agents/the subjects of transitive verbs can be incorporated regularly, or even in more than perhaps a couple of very marked constructions. In any case it's extremely