I’m getting quite solid into analysing the syntax of Wagiman verbs now, after a few weeks of collecting good data. I’ve taught myself how to use Toolbox (only rudimentarily though¹) and have been using it to interlinearise my transcribed sentences. I’ve discovered that Toolbox is a very powerful piece of software for linguists, as long as you know how to operate it, but I don’t think I do just yet.

Something I’ve been looking at during this field trip is irrealis verb forms. Wagiman initially appears to only have a few possible tense/aspect combinations; tense is marked in both prefixes and suffixes on the verb, and aspect is marked on the coverb, or with a different suffix on the verb. The verbal affixes (as far as tense goes) are few in number. The prefixes encode past, present and future (each of those with dozens of different inflections for person/number agreement) and the suffixes encode past habitual, perfect past, past, present, future realis and future irrealis.

Until now I held the opinion that affixes had to agree; that a future prefix had to combine with a future suffix, either realis or irrealis, a past prefix with a past suffix, and so on. But I’ve been forced to look at other options lately, on the basis of new data.

gi-nanda-yi ngonggo-gin nijimang, ngigun
2sgA.3sgO.Pres-see-Past 2sg-Gen uncle 2sg.Nom
you should see your uncle, you

wuji ngi-nanda-n
not 2sgA.3sgO.Past-see-Pres
you should not see him

wuji ga-nawu-ndi nung, gahan bakka
not 3sgA.3sgO.Pres-give-Past 3sg.Acc that tobacco
he should not have given it to him, that tobacco

It seems that various combinations of past-tense affixes with present-tense affixes convey different aspectual constructions, but exactly how the combinations can be categorised eludes me at the moment. In the first and third sentences, the combination of prefix and suffix corresponds; the prefix is past-tense and the suffix is present, yet they differ in at least two respects. The first is positive polarity while the third is negative, and while the first is non-past, the third is past tense².

This is quite exciting for me, but also troubling. I had a great, straightforward set of tense affixes once, but now I have to throw it all out the window since the terms past and present no longer apply. Maybe I should adopt a Ngan’gityemerri solution and name the categories tense-1, tense-2, etc.

I should point out that these are far from isoated instances, so ignoring them isn’t an option. They’ve occurred with every seaker I’ve spoken to this time around, and on a number of occasions. Otherwise I’d probably have no qualms about ignoring outlying aberrant data, which is what you do in scientific reseach all the time. I should also point out that I would certainly have heard them in my previous field trips, but at the time I was only concentrating on coverb-verb combinatorial possibilities and in m naivety, probably ignored everything else.


¹Teaching myself how to use Toolbox has been quite a tormetuous affair and this occasion reminded me why I was always so quick to give up on learning it in the past. I thought I had the hang of it after the tutorial exercises – frogs racing turtles and so on – but as soon as I tried my own Wagiman project, everything failed; interlinearising, word formulas, alternate forms and underlying forms. Also, since Wagiman has huge amounts of homophony, I really need sophisticated word formulas to prevent the ambiguity selection box from containing hundreds of possible parses. If you use Toolbox, you should know what I mean.

²I have to investigate this further. It could be that the second should be translated as ‘he shouldn’t give him grass in general’ as opposed to ‘shouldn’t have‘. If this is the case, things would be much easier for me. Except then the second entence would stand out, as in that case, one would have expected wuji gi-nanda-yi.


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?