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Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area

Volume 31.2 — October 2008



Carol Genetti

University of California, Santa Barbara

Research Centre for Linguistic Typology

A.R. Coupe Ellen Bartee Kristine Hildebrandt You-Jing Lin

La Trobe University SIL SIUE UC Santa Barbara The goal of this paper is to describe some of the syntactic structures that are created through nominalization processes in Himalayan Tibeto-Burman languages and the relationships between those structures. These include both structures involving the nominalization of clauses (e.g. complement clauses, relative clauses) and structures involving the nominalization of verbs and predicates (e.g. the derivation of nouns and adjectives). We will argue that, synchronically, clausal nominalization, structurally represented as [clause]NP, is the basic structure underlying many of the nominalizing constructions in these languages, even though individual constructions embed and alter this structure in interesting ways. In addition to clausal nominalization, we will illustrate the presence of derivational nominalization, represented as [V-NOM]N and [V-NOM]ADJ, although some nominal derivations target the predicate, not the verb root as their domain. We will also demonstrate that derivational nominalization can be seen as having developed from clausal nominalization, at least for some forms in some languages, and that the opposite direction of development, from derivational to clausal structures, is also attested. We will conclude with some syntactic observations pertinent to recent claims made on the historical relationship between nominalization and relativization, demonstrating that there are various ways that these structures can be related. This study is based on data from five Tibeto- Burman languages of the Himalayan area: Manange, Dolakha Newar, Mongsen Ao, Dongwang Tibetan, and Zhuokeji rGyalrong.

Key words: Tibeto-Burman, derivational nominalization, clausal nominalization, relative clause, complement clause, converbal clause 1 The overall analysis and writing is attributed to Genetti as first author and Coupe as second author; Bartee, Hildebrandt, and Lin contributed data and analysis of their languages of expertise as well as comments on the paper as a whole. Another paper (Genetti, to appear) addresses the same data but is aimed at typologists. The goals of that paper are to bring Tibeto- Burman nominalization to the broader audience, to illustrate the relationships between clausal and derivational nominalization, and to emphasize the role of the relative clause in the diachronic development of each type from the other. This paper was primarily written when Genetti was in residence at the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology at La Trobe University. Thanks to Professors RMW Dixon and Alexandra Aikhenvald for comments and support and the offer to present this research at RCLT. We would also like to thank Professor Jackson T.-S. Sun for valuable comments, Rebekka Siemens for invaluable assistance to this project and Lea Harper for excellent editorial contributions. Any errors or inconsistencies are entirely the fault of the authors.

97 98 Genetti, Coupe, Bartee, Hildebrandt, Lin


We will use the term nominalization to refer to a general process by which nonnominal elements become grammatical nominals. Comrie and Thompson (1985:

349) define nominalization more narrowly as “turning something into a noun”, thus invoking a derivational process which references both the notion of wordhood and the lexical category of noun. This narrowly-defined notion of nominalization, essentially as a derivational process which creates lexical nouns from words of other lexical categories, we will refer to as derivational nominalization. Tibeto-Burman languages, however, are well known for their extensive use of clausal nominalization, a syntactic process which allows a clause to function as a noun phrase within a broader syntactic context. The two levels of nominalization differ both in terms of the domains to which they apply (lexical root versus clause) and in terms of the syntactic category of the resultant structures (single word versus noun phrase). These differences are summarized in

Table 1:2

–  –  –

It is important to note that clausal nominalizations do not always result in an entire clause appearing intact in a larger structure. As demonstrated below, particular syntactic environments often require the modification of these nominalized clauses in order to meet the functional needs of the construction.

Thus the basic structure [clause]NP gives rise to a variety of more specialized structures in the syntax of these languages.

Most of the general linguistic literature on nominalization has focused on derivational nominalization. Semantically, derivational nominalizations either refer to the action or state denoted by the verb (“action nominalizations”) or to an entity involved in that action or state (“participant nominalizations”).

Syntactically, derivational nominalizations function as heads of noun phrases.

This can be seen in the following example of derivational nominalization in Dongwang Tibetan. Here the derived noun ki55mo53 [steal-NOM] ‘thief’ co-occurs with a preceding demonstrative and a following numeral. The noun phrase as a

whole carries the ergative clitic in accordance with the transitive verb:

This two-way distinction is, in fact, idealized. In some cases the predicate appears to be the 2

–  –  –

Note that this is a participant nominalization as it designates a participant involved in the action of the verb ‘steal’.

It is important to contrast clausal nominalizations with action nominal constructions. The latter contain “in addition to a noun derived from a verb, one

or more reflexes of a proposition or predicate” (Comrie and Thompson 1985:

358). Action nominal constructions are thus multi-word phrases that have a derived noun as the head and that contain arguments or adjuncts associated with the proposition. There is considerable variation in the morphosyntactic mechanisms that languages employ to represent arguments within these constructions (Koptjevskaja-Tamm 1993, Comrie and Thompson 1985). Action nominal constructions are not attested in any of the five languages of this study.

They are, however, found in other Tibeto-Burman languages of the Himalayas, such as Galo (Post 2007).

By contrast, clausal nominalizations are structures where nominalization targets an entire clause without creating a derived noun as the head. In the words of Comrie and Thompson, “the verb in such clauses typically has no nominal characteristics and often has such verbal characteristics as person and number, though it may be lacking in tense-aspect marking” (1985: 392). The difference between clausal nominalizations and action nominal constructions is the lexical category of the head and the concomitant categorial features of the dependents (this will be illustrated in (2) below). In action nominalizations, the head is a derived noun; in clausal nominalization the head is notionally a verb. In both structures, the clause as a whole functions as a noun phrase within a broader

syntactic structure. These characteristics are summarized in Table 2:5

4 The Dongwang examples have been provided by Ellen Bartee. They follow the transcription conventions of Bartee 2007. Note that clitics and most particles are toneless, as are “secondary verbs” such as tʂhi ‘lead’ in this example.

5 Koptjevskaja-Tamm warns that one needs to be careful in distinguishing clause-like action nominal constructions from clausal nominalizations. She cites cases in the literature where some constructions described as clausal nominalizations are, by her criteria, action nominal constructions. She writes: “there is probably no sharp boundary between clausal nominalizations and [action nominal constructions]. Some languages have clausal nominalizations, some have both types, and finally, some do not distinguish between the two types” (1993: 52).

100 Genetti, Coupe, Bartee, Hildebrandt, Lin

–  –  –

The following example from Dolakha Newar exemplifies clausal nominalization. In this example a nominalized clause functions as a subject complement of the lexicalized expression ju-en con-a, which expresses some

surprise at the state of affairs expressed in the nominalized clause:

–  –  –

The only way in which the nominalized clause differs from an independent clause is in the verb morphology; Dolakha Newar nominalized verbs are non-finite, the nominalizing suffix replacing the complex of tense, person, and number marking that is found on finite verbs. The verb, however, could still be negated or carry the causative affix. Note that the subject of the clause carries the ergative case marker reflective of the transitive verb balyet- ‘stalk’, and that the clause contains the repeated adverbial ānthi ‘in that manner’. There is no sense in which the nominalized verb is acting like a noun in this example; it cannot take nominal morphology and it functions as the head of a clause, not the head of a noun phrase.

While this example may be considered “highly clausal” in that it contains a number of morphosyntactic features of an independent clause, examples such as (1) above from Dongwang Tibetan may be considered “highly derivational” in that they contain a number of features of nominal heads. Some examples will be intermediate between the two.

It should be noted that although we will be discussing "clausal nominalization", it is not unusual for the nominalized constituents to contain more than one clause. In the following example from Dolakha Newar, the nominalized constituent is a chain of three clauses linked by the converbal "participial

construction" (Genetti 2005):

–  –  –

Such examples clearly indicate that nominalization is a syntactic, as opposed to a derivational, operation in this language.


Clausal nominalization functions as a core element of the syntax of most, if not all, Tibeto-Burman languages. In addition, nominalization in Tibeto-Burman appears to be always plurifunctional, making for complex and interesting patterns well worthy of description. For these reasons, the number of papers on nominalization in Tibeto-Burman languages is remarkable, and continues to grow by the year. The following list of articles (which excludes descriptions in reference grammars) is extensive, but is unlikely to be complete: Bickel 1995, 1999, Chalise 2005, DeLancey 1986, 1999, 2002, Ebert 1994, Genetti 1992, Herring 1991, Kölver 1977, Lahaussois 2002, 2003, LaPolla 2006, Matisoff 1972, Noonan 1997, 2005, O’Rourke 2000, Regmi 2005, Watters, this volume.

These papers, taken together, attest to both the pervasiveness and the complexity of clausal nominalizations in Tibeto-Burman. The most commonly noted structures in which nominalized clauses are found are the following (cf.

Noonan 1997, 2005):

• (Verbal) complement clauses

• Converbal clauses

• Relative (sometimes called participial) clauses

• Nominal complement clauses (gapless adnominal clauses)

• Non-embedded, independent clauses In addition, some degree of derivational nominalization is also attested in most (perhaps all) Tibeto-Burman languages. This is especially true of participant nominalizations. Interestingly, some languages also use nominalization to derive lexical adjectives (as described below), while other languages suffix nominalizers to other dependent elements of the noun phrase (e.g. demonstratives and time words [Watters, this volume]).

Most of the studies, following the seminal work of Matisoff (1972), are especially focused on the use of nominalization for the production of relative clauses. The very strong tendency to form relative clauses with nominalizations has been termed the “nominalization-relativization syncretism” by DeLancey (2002). In addition to this ubiquitous structural correlation, some Tibeto-Burman languages also show an interesting axis between nominalization and genitivization. In some languages, such as Lahu, the nominalizer itself functions as the genitive morpheme. In others, such as some dialects of Tibetan, the nominalizer co-occurs with the genitive morpheme in some constructions. Finally, the ability for nominalized clauses to occur as independent utterances has also been widely discussed in the literature (yet it is still poorly understood; Watters this volume provides a useful discussion). Bickel (1999: 272) gives the label “Standard Sino-Tibetan Nominalization" to “the morphological convergence of 102 Genetti, Coupe, Bartee, Hildebrandt, Lin [these] syntactic functions” (i.e. nominalization, relativization, genitivization, and non-embedded nominalization).

Most of the studies on nominalization in Tibeto-Burman have been descriptions of the phenomenon in a single language. The papers that have taken a comparative approach (Herring 1991, Genetti 1992, Bickel 1995, DeLancey 2002, Watters this volume, Noonan 2005) have primarily been focused on comparing and contrasting the forms and structures, often with an eye to the historical reconstruction of particular nominalizers and/or the postulation of a historical scenario that sheds light on the how these particular patterns are related.

Our goals here are somewhat different. First, by presenting data on five geographically and genetically distant Tibeto-Burman languages, we hope to illustrate the diversity of structures and sets of structures that are found across Tibeto-Burman. Second, we hope to show that despite this diversity there are certain syntactic commonalities and we will discuss these with respect to the synchronic and historical literature on nominalization in Tibeto-Burman.

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