The morphology of Yam languages

Mae Carroll

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionary


    The Yam languages are a primary language family spoken in southern New Guinea across an area spanning around 180km west to east across both the Indonesian province of Papua and Papua New Guinea. The Yam languages are morphologically remarkable for their complex verbal inflection characterized by a tendency to distribute inflectional exponence across multiple sites on the verb. Under this pattern of distributed exponence, segmental formatives, that is, affix­ es, are identifiable but assigning any coherent semantics to these elements is often diffi­cult and instead the inflectional meanings can only be determined once multiple forma­tives have been combined. Despite their complex inflectional morphology, Yam languages display comparatively impoverished word formation or derivational morphology. Nominal inflection is characterized by moderately large case inventories, the largest dis­playing 16 cases. Nouns are occasionally marked for number although this is typically re­stricted to certain case values. Verbal paradigms are much larger than nominal para­digms. Verbs mark agreement with up to two arguments in person, number, and natural gender. Verbs also mark complex tense, aspect, and mood values; in all languages this in­volves at least two aspect values, multiple past tense values, and some level of grammati­cal mood marking. Verbs may also be marked for diathesis, direction, and/or pluractional­- ity. The overall morphological pattern is that of fusional or inflectional languages. Nominal inflection is rather straightforward with nominals taking case suffixes or clitics with little to no inflectional classes. The true complexity lies in the organization of the verbal inflec­tional system, about which, despite individual variation across the family, a number of ar­ chitectural generalizations can be made. The family displays a fairly uniform verbal in­flectional template and all languages make a distinction between prefixing and ambifixing verbs. Prefixing verbs show agreement via a prefix only while ambifixing verbs via agree­ment with a suffix, for monovalent clauses, or with both a prefix and a suffix for bivalent verbs. These agreement affixes are also involved in the distributed exponence of tense, aspect, and mood.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationOxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics
    Editors Mark Aronoff
    Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
    PublisherOxford University Press
    ISBN (Print)9780199384655
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


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