Morphology in Dene Languages
- Keren RiceKeren RiceDepartment of Linguistics, University of Toronto
Dene languages are often recognized for their morphological complexity. The languages are known in particular for their complex verbal morphology, and the Dene verb word has received considerable attention in the literature. The verb word is polysynthetic, with several unusual properties: the actual morpheme inventory is relatively small, with rich word formation possibilities; it is prefixing, while suffixing is far more common amongst the world’s languages; what is a single morpheme from a semantic perspective can be discontinuous, illustrating what Whorf calls interrupted synthesis; a single morpheme can be both semantically productive and lexically idiosyncratic; some affixes are mobile; there is considerable homophony; fusion of morphemes is common; and aspects of the phonology lead to surface opacity, with unexpected allomorphy. Several proposals have been introduced to account for the structure of the verb word, and psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic factors that enter in to understanding the complexities of the verb word have been addressed. There is also research on the acquisition of and teaching of the verb word. Overall, it is important to ask what the structure of the verb is synchronically, and what, while interesting, is a consequence of diachronic developments.
In addition to the well-studied complexities of the verb, there are also interesting aspects of other categories. The nouns are worthy of attention for their formation, a noun classification system, and nominal possession. The directional systems of Dene languages tend to be rich, including both a root that indicates direction and a prefix that specifies distance or direction from the speaker. At least some of he languages also have evidentials, and these are, in general, understudied.
Dene languages, like many other languages of North America, are now being learned largely as second languages. This increases the urgency to study areas such as acquisition and language use in order to help in sustaining the languages in communities where this is desired.