How to learn 130 prefixes in an hour:
Regular polysemy in the pronominal argument paradigms of Dalabon and Mayali.

Nick Evans
Linguistics, University of Melbourne
Institut für Sprachwissenschaft, Universität zu Köln


In languages which encode information about multiple pronominal arguments
on adjacent slots on the verb,  it is unusual for the subject and object
forms to be learnable in isolation, and the two morpheme slots are
frequently merged. The resultant set of combinations typically lies
somewhere between an irregular paradigm and a set of forms derivable by
combining subject and object elements according to some set of rules. These
paradigms are potentially vast - in Dalabon, which has a rich set of
person, number and kinship categories in its pronoun system, there are 115
possible subject/object combinations, each of which further distinguishes
six tense/aspect/mood categories.
Most such languages reduce the number of forms by widespread
homophony or polysemy (cf Heath 1991). By and large, however, the recent
upsurge of interest in polysemy by semanticists has neglected this
phenomenon, so that it is not always clear, for example, whether the formal
collapse is accidental homophony or principled polysemy. In this paper I
offer an analysis that reveals systematic polysemy in such systems in two
closely-related north Australian languages, Mayali and Dalabon, both
polysynthetic languages whose verbs take obligatory pronominal prefixes for
subject and object.  I will argue that if the informational structure of
the paradigm is correctly analysed, and appropriate rules of semantic
referral (or regular polysemy) are formulated, it becomes possible to
account for this very complex paradigm on the basis of a relatively small
set of rules that generate a basic form set, supplemented by several layers
of semantic referral rules that retrieve forms already generated for other
semantic combinations.

Heath, Jeffrey. 1991. Pragmatic disguise in pronominal-affix paradigms. In
F. Plank, ed., Paradigms: the economy of inflection. Berlin: Mouton de
Gruyter. Pp. 75-89.

Date created: 16 March 1998
Last modified: 16 March 1998
 1998 Nicholas Evans
Maintained by: David Nash

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