zero-marked verbs

Joan Bybee jbybee at UNM.EDU
Tue Jan 21 18:22:11 UTC 2003

Dear Janet,

I have also worried about what makes a category become obligatory in one
language while a similar category may remain optional in another. Based on
Garcia and van Putte's discussion (1989, 'Forms are silver, nothing is
gold' Folia Linguistica Historica 8, 365-384) of the inferencing strategies
that lead to the infusion of meaning in zeroes, I have proposed that
different cultures utilize different inferencing strategies in interpreting
discourse (in my paper in Bybee, Haiman and Thompson. 1997.  _Essays on
Language Function and Language Type_ Benjamins). The absence of obligatory
categories (say, in isolating languages) leaves all inferences open
throughout a stretch of discourse. Obligatory categories close down certain
options right away.
Of course, it is also necessary for the overtly marked categories to gain a
certain level of frequency and redundancy before the inference can be made
that the zero signals the opposite of the overt member.

Unfortunately I have found no way to test this hypothesis, as it very
difficult to know what inferences are being made in an ongoing discourse.
However, if my hypothesis is correct, then it would suggest that discourse
strategies may be very stable over time explaining why languages without
inflection, that is, isolating languages, tend to stay isolating over time,
despite ongoing grammaticization. As we argued in Bybee, Perkins and
Pagliuca 1994, some languages simply do not carry grammaticization as far
as others do.

Whether this is really a hypothesis or just a hunch, I hope you find it

Joan Bybee

At 09:15 AM 1/21/03 -0600, jaw300t wrote:
>For the past couple of years I've been following a certain unmarked verb form
>in Kuche (also known as Rukuba, listed in the Ethnologue as Che), a language
>of Nigeria.  I had the feeling it ought to be the simple present tense.  In
>elicitation sessions, informants never gave this form in response to an
>English simple present tense sentence, although in conversation it would often
>be used that way.  In discourse, it is the most common verb form of all,
>seldom used as a simple present tense verb; there are about 20 different verb
>markings that can be used, but the unmarked form is used in many texts more
>than all the others combined.
>Fleischman's "Tense & Narrativity" and Bybee, Perkins, & Pagliuca's "The
>Evolution of Grammar" opened up some possible explanations.  But what really
>crystallized it for me was something in an earlier article by Bybee ("The
>Grammaticization of Zero" in a volume edited by Pagliuca).  She says, "When a
>grammaticizing OVERT morpheme becomes obligatory, it may happen that other
>meanings within the same functional domain, which previously had no
>grammatical expression, come to be expressed by a meaningful zero."
>It seems Kuche is at a point in its history where overt tense/aspect morphemes
>are NOT obligatory.  What happens to the unmarked form, then, is that it has
>NO SPECIFIC meaning--it means just about anything, depending on context.
>Overt tense/aspect markers are used at the beginning of a discourse, and those
>tense/aspect interpretations hold over long stretches of discourse.  This is
>much like Longacre's "consecutive" tense, except that this unmarked form is
>remarkably flexible.  It can even be used after an imperative with imperative
>force--a second imperative verb would be even less marked, because the
>unmarked form IS marked for subject agreement, while the imperative is not.
>I suppose Kuche is not unique among non-written languages in having a
>flexible, relatively unmarked form.  I don't see them mentioned in Bybee,
>Perkins, & Pagliuca.  Then, again, I suppose it's a matter of degree--in some
>languages, the interpretation assigned to a zero-marked form might be a little
>flexible, and in other languages, the interpretation of such a form might be
>quite specific.
>What is it in a language community that causes OVERT TAM marking to become
>obligatory?  Is it the transition to written literature?  Fleischman says
>(quoting somebody else, if I remember correctly), that "The meaning of written
>literature is in the text; the meaning of oral literature is in the context.)
>Janet Wilson

Joan Bybee jbybee at               phone:  505-277-3827
Department of Linguistics               fax:    505-277-6355
Humanities 526
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131-1196

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