Factors appear to be combining to obfuscate what should be some straightforward syntactic analysis.

Wagiman has inalienable body parts, in that they may occur as adjuncts, specifying where an action took place on someone’s body. For instance, to say “my arm hurts” you could say mangh-nga ga-yu lari nganing-gin, which is literally ‘my arm (in the third person) hurts’. But you may also say mangh-nga nga-yu, lari which is ‘I hurt, arm’. A better example would be bowh-ma nga-ya, marttal ‘I swell up, foot’, meaning ‘my foot swells up’. It is clearly not the speaker that is swelling up, merely their foot.

Now this is usually no problem, except when combined with the optional dropping of overt subjects, which in transitive predicates would have to take ergative case, and the fact that the intransitive pronoun paradigm is identical to the object-is-third-person column of the transitive pronoun table (basically, you can’t tell from the prefix whether it’s a transitive predicate with a 3rd singular object or just an intransitive predicate), then you run into some issues.

Verbs pair with coverbs in Wagiman to form complex predicates, whose overall transitivity may differ from the transitivity of either – and occasionally both – of the contributing elements. We therefore need other factors to give us clues as to the transitivity of the overall predicate, like case marking or bound pronouns.

Now, see this sentence:

Wurnang-wurnang-nga ga-yu lagiriny
wag.tail-rdp-asp 3sgA(3sgO?)-be.pres tail(abs?)

Either: The tail is wagging
or: (the dog) is wagging, tail
or: (the dog) is wagging (his) tail

I’ve put the option of the verb containing the 3rd singular object bound pronoun in brackets, the two are form-identical. Same goes for the absolute case on tail; it is impossible to say if it is there or not (and even harder to argue that it matters).

The differences between the three alternate glosses is as follows. In the first, the tail is the subject of an intransitive clause and takes the zero-marked absolutive case, ‘the tail is wagging’. In the second, the understood dog is the subject of an intransitive clause and the tail is an inalienable body part. That is, it isn’t the dog itself that is wagging, it is the tail. But syntactically it resembles the sentence above, “I swell up, foot”, it isn’t “I” that is swelling up to be particular, it is the foot.

Finally, in the third, the dog is the subject of a transitive clause, so it should take the ergative case marker but is dropped anyway, and the tail is the absolutive-marked object. This shouldn’t ordinarily happen like this though, since the verb ‘be’ is monovalent; it only allows one syntactic argument; a subject. But other monovalent verbs in Wagiman occasionally form complex predicates that are transitive overall; the valency of the verb is not always a good indicator.

To cut a long and technical story short, I have gone for the second option based entirely on a hunch, but it could potentially be either of the three.

A hunch. Ha! See how scientific theoretical syntax is?