Fwd: Nahuatl word classes

Galen Brokaw brokaw at buffalo.edu
Wed Jan 2 18:51:26 UTC 2013

Hey Magnus,

I have no problems with the morphological criteria for classifying words 
in Nahuatl. So no problems there. But...
I mispoke/miswrote in my example. I didn't mean to say that the language 
would use verbs exclusively to describe nouns, which I know is what I 
wrote. I meant that in describing nouns, the language used verbs rather 
than something else. In other words, the hypothetical language doesn't 
have adjectives; it uses verbs rather than adjectives to convey the 
qualities of nouns in addition to the other things that verbs do. Of 
course, the idea is informed by the way Nahuatl uses verb forms in 
contexts in which English and Spanish would use adjectives. The point 
was that in such a case it is misleading to talk about verbs fulfilling 
an adjectival function as if "adjective" were some kind of universal 
category. I know you weren't doing this with "kwalli," but it seems to 
me a similar problem. You seem to want to attribute verb-like qualities 
to a noun based on what seems to me the pragmatic usage of nouns to 
convey an idea that could be more fully elaborated into a more 
"complete" grammatical utterance. I don't see the formal basis for 
making this argument, and if I understand the issue (which I admit, I 
may not), then pragmatics provides an explanation for the positive 
evidence that you give of how "kwalli" actually does behave. The only 
formal basis for this argument is the negative evidence that "kwalli" 
doesn't do all the things other nouns do.
The fact that a particular word like "kwalli" doesn't exhibit ALL of the 
same morphological behavior as other nouns doesn't necessarily mean that 
it doesn't belong to the same category. There are certain expressions in 
English, and I assume all languages, that while formally grammatical, 
are not acceptable based on usage because they are semantically strange 
or illogical given the way the word is culturally defined. So just 
because you couldn't or wouldn't say it, doesn't mean that it is not 
formally grammatical. So when you say that you "cannot say 'nokwal,'" I 
take your word for it. But does this mean that it is merely an 
expression that is not used for semantic, cultural, and/or logical 
reasons or does it mean that it violates the in/formal, abstract rules 
implicit in the speakers' mental grammar. If I understand correctly, all 
the examples that you give in both posts are negative ones: they are 
things that "kwalli" doesn't do that other nouns do. But what about what 
it does? Doesn't the positive evidence that you cite (i.e., what 
"kwalli" actually does formally) conform to the expectations of nouns? 
Does it do anything in formal terms that other nouns don't? If "kwalli" 
behaves formally in ways that other nouns don't, then that kind of 
evidence might be a more compelling basis for qualifying its 
classification or for classifying it differently. But if there is no 
doubt about the fact that "cualli" is a noun historically and it doesn't 
behave formally in ways that other nouns don't (by which I mean what it 
actually does rather than what it doesn't do), then I don't see on what 
basis you would need to call it something other than a noun. So if this 
is the case, I don't see why the perfect solution for "kwalli" wouldn't 
be to just call it a noun.


On 1/2/2013 12:42 PM, Magnus Pharao Hansen wrote:
> Hi Galen
> The form/function issue comes from the fact that Nahuatl is 
> polysynthetic, which means that most of its syntax is carried out by 
> means of morphology, and that syntactic functions are marked through 
> morphology. I.e. when I argue for the use of formal morphological 
> criteria for determining word class membership in nahuatl it is 
> because they are the best diagnostic tools for determining the 
> syntactic functions of words. I.e. a word that takes nominal 
> morphology also tends to have particular syntactic functions.
> I don't understand your example of a language that uses verbs 
> exclusively to describe nouns - I don't think such a language is 
> possible since verbs are generally understood to be words that have 
> the primary  function of forming predicates. Any wordclass that has 
> the primary function of describing nouns would be a class of 
> adjectives not verbs - unless there is another reason to consider them 
> a subclass of verbs.
> Regarding kwalli I don't have a perfect solution, it is obviously 
> historically and morphologically a noun - no doubt about that. But you 
> cannot in contemporary Nahuatl say "nokwal" or "kwalko" or "ipan 
> kwalli"  or pluralize it to kwalmeh or kwaltin (except in agreement 
> with the noun it modifies). You also never use kwalli as the argument 
> of a verb "se kwalli" or "in kwalli" (unless followed by a head noun 
> that is being modified by kwalli). In all of these ways it doesn't 
> behave like a noun. Yes it is true that all nouns in Nahuatl can form 
> predicates, like titlacatl, but for most nouns this is not the primary 
> use, for kwalli it is.  I am currently thinking that kwalli, hueyi, 
> chichiltik and other of these words are best characterized as 
> statives, that form intransitive predicates.
> You can read a more complete exposition of my thoughts on Nahuatl word 
> classes here: 
> http://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/dspace/bitstream/1808/8101/1/KWPL-32-PharaoHansen2.pdf
> best regards,
> M
> On 2 January 2013 11:38, Galen Brokaw <brokaw at buffalo.edu 
> <mailto:brokaw at buffalo.edu>> wrote:
>     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 adjectives.
>     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.
>     Galen
>     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
>         _______________________________________________
>         Nahuatl mailing list
>         Nahuatl at lists.famsi.org <mailto:Nahuatl at lists.famsi.org>
>         http://www.famsi.org/mailman/listinfo/nahuatl
> -- 
> Magnus Pharao Hansen
> PhD. student
> Department of Anthropology
> Brown University
> 128 Hope St.
> Providence, RI 02906
> _magnus_pharao_hansen at brown.edu <mailto:magnus_pharao_hansen at brown.edu>_
> US: 001 401 651 8413

Nahuatl mailing list
Nahuatl at lists.famsi.org

More information about the Nahuat-l mailing list