Fwd: Nahuatl word classes

Galen Brokaw brokaw at buffalo.edu
Wed Jan 2 16:38:52 UTC 2013

Hi Magnus,

I have a question about "cualli" too. Like John, I thought your original 
point was that grammatical categories should be based on form and formal 
behavior rather than semantic function. And I wholeheartedly agreed with 
that. I had the same concern, and we have had discussions on the list 
about this issue before. Now that I've gone back and reread your 
original response, I see that you do refer to syntactical function, but 
you then immediately explain, and advocate for, the classification of 
words in Nahuatl based on morphological form. So I guess I thought you 
were defining syntactical function in formal terms. So I'm not sure 
exactly how syntactical function differs from form and whether or not 
you can divorce it from form or from semantics either, and that seems to 
cause problems. I agreed with what I understood you to be saying, that 
grammatical categories should be based on their formal properties and 
behavior rather than their semantic function. I think this is so in part 
because "semantic function" always has formal implications that are not 
necessarily universal. For example, if a particular language uses verbs 
exclusively to describe nouns, then it is difficult for us to talk about 
the semantics of this phenomenon without recourse to the grammatical 
category "adjective." But this does not mean that such verbs have an 
adjectival function. In the hypothetical language to which I am 
referring, such expressions are verbal, so they have a verbal function. 
They only have an adjectival function in relation to languages that have 

This is only indirectly related to my question about "cualli." I think 
the issue here is a little different. So to get back to the case of 
"cualli," and at the risk of revealing my profound ignorance, can I ask 
how the usage of "kwalli" is different from other nouns? Maybe I don't 
understand your examples, but don't other nouns work the same way? You 
can say "tehwah titlakati" too, right? But this doesn't mean that 
"tlakati" works as a verb. If that were the case, then wouldn't all 
predicate nominatives and direct objects function like verbs when the 
verb is omitted? It sounds like you are saying something similar to the 
idea that because a verb is not necessary, therefore nouns work like 
verbs in Nahuatl. But just because the verb can be omitted doesn't mean 
that the noun takes on a verbal function. It seems to me that this 
confuses pragmatics with formal categories and structures of syntax. 
Maybe I am misunderstanding, but it sounds like you are hesitant to 
classify it as a regular noun, not because it behaves irregularly from a 
morphological or formal perspective, but rather merely because it is 
commonly used without a verb. But it seems to me that such usage has 
more to do with pragmatic function than it does syntactic function: the 
fact that Nahuatl doesn't need an actual verb in a complete and 
acceptable utterance (which could be expressed as a complete grammatical 
sentence with a verb). Of course, I think this is true of all languages.


On 1/1/2013 10:49 PM, Magnus Pharao Hansen wrote:
> Dear John and listeros
> Thanks for the explanations.
> some responses:
> 2. Ok, so the -x is the remnant of the /yi/ ending (this means that in La
> Huasteca the phonological forms are underlyingly /tokayitl/ and /ma:yitl/).
> This would not be recognized by speakers of central dialects.
> 4. I am not giving an account of how these words are formed, they are
> clearly fromed from verbs and nouns. But they function like property words
> that form stative predicates.
> 5. kwalli works as a verb in that its primary syntactic function is to form
> predicates "kwalli inon" 'tehwah tikwalli" etc. And it is not very nouny
> ()although obviously it originated as a noun because it neither accepts
> plural or possessive morphology, and hardly ever occurs as the argument of
> a verb as nouns prototypically do.
> best,
> M
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