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date: 03 October 2023

Morphology of Trans New Guinea Languageslocked

Morphology of Trans New Guinea Languageslocked

  • Sebastian FeddenSebastian FeddenInstitut de Linguistique et Phonétique Générales et Appliquées (ILPGA), Université Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3)


The aim of this article is to present the morphology and morphosyntax of Trans New Guinea (TNG) languages to a wide audience of linguists. The TNG languages are a family of several hundred languages spoken across much of the New Guinea mainland. The morphology of TNG languages shows a high degree of diversity, from mildly polysynthetic to almost isolating. Language data from virtually all subgroups of TNG can be found here, giving preference to recent descriptions and new data.

TNG languages display a clear categorial divide between nouns and verbs. In terms of word formation, they typically allow N-N and V-V compounding. Category-changing derivational processes usually involve overt morphological means. TNG languages are rich in nominalization processes; verbalization processes are less common. Valency-changing derivational processes (causatives, applicatives) are widespread and involve affixation or verb serialization. Many TNG languages have a reduced inventory of verb roots, in extreme cases comprising only as few as 60 recorded roots. Serial verb constructions and light-verb constructions are used to increase the expressive power of the verb lexicon. Besides nouns and verbs, TNG languages have sizable classes of adjectives, small classes of adverbs, and pronouns, directionals, numerals, postpositions, and conjunctions.

Nouns have restricted inflectional morphology, with inflection for the possessor being the most widespread. Nominal number is expressed less often and gender is very rare. Peripheral case roles are signaled by postpositions. Many TNG languages show optional ergativity where transitive subjects can be marked by a special case depending on certain semantic or pragmatic factors, such as animacy, agentivity, or focus. Verb morphology is extensive, yielding large paradigms. TNG languages use verbal affixes to express core arguments. Subjects are almost universally indexed with a suffix on the verb. The majority of TNG languages also index the object on the verb, either with a prefix or a suffix. The majority alignment pattern in the clause is accusative. Most TNG languages employ distinct constructions for bodily and mental processes, depending on whether they are controlled by an animate agent (e.g., think) or whether they are manifestations of a stimulus beyond the control of the experiencer (e.g., be angry). Tense, aspect, and mood categories can all be found in TNG languages with one of them usually being dominant. For the expression of aspect, serial verb constructions are common in which the last verb in the serialization has undergone grammaticalization into an aspect marker—for example, a progressive marker which has developed from the verb ‘stay’.

In clause chains, almost all TNG languages distinguish between medial and final verbs. Medial verbs morphologically indicate co-reference or disjoint reference of key participants in the discourse, and final verbs provide morphosemantic information like tense, mood, or illocutionary force, which typically applies to the whole clause chain. Since this type of tracking system of continuity in discourse is highly characteristic of TNG in general and less common worldwide, it is treated in more detail here.


  • Morphology

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