Rawàng Ata (#14): Substantivisation of Verbs

Rawàng Ata possesses several constructions that allow verbs to be employed as nominal arguments. There are four rough categories  (although closer examination shows a more nuanced picture): concrete verbs, infinitives, action nouns, and deverbal nouns.

Concrete verbs are primarily used as independent verbs; however, they may also be used as the topic of a sentence, or as an argument of another verb:

Eg. 1      sakabàrban tawi kùnyika
ra-ka-bàrb-an tawi kùnyi-ya
3I-C3-sear-C fish kùnyi-ERG
the kùnyi seared the fish

Eg. 2      lakàbarban, kùnyika tawara kòma
là-ka-bàrb-an, kùnyi-ya tawa-ra kòma
MISS-C3-sear-C, kùnyi-ER see-3A girl
the girl saw the kùnyi, so we may suspect that the kùnyi seared it (Lit: as for its searing, the girl saw the kùnyi)

Eg. 3      sakabàrban tawi rahònda baryōngma
the searing of the fish burned down the mansion

Regarding the use of a concrete verb as an argument, two important restrictions must be made clear: first, the concrete verb may bring with it its own subject, which remains by its side, but may never bring with it its object or any other attached argument; and, second, the concrete verb cannot take overt case marking, which limits the situations in which it can be used.

It is also worth observing the compulsory agreement marking on the concrete verb, and its encoding of aspect. The use of concrete verbs is also limited by semantics – concrete verbs tend to be used for definite, perfective, often perfect, past tense, known events, and cannot be used for future or irrealis events.

One way in which these limitations can be overcome is through the use of infinitives. These are verbs that do not agree with any participant, and lack spatial and temporal specificity. They are formed by adding the suffix –àng to the verbal root: for instance, from rarawa ata, ‘they all come to agreement in behaviour amongst themselves’, derives rawàng ata, ‘to all come to an agreement in behaviour with one other’, or ‘determined convention’, as well as the name of the language.

Infinitives can be used for future and irrealis events, as well as for non-future and realis ones, although among those the decision not to employ a plain concrete verb may often be taken to imply a present-tense, imperfective, imperfect or previously unknown event. Furthermore, where concrete verbs are most often definite, infinitives may freely be indefinite.

Eg. 4      lakàbarban, nyakara kùnyi
the kùnyi smelled the searing

Eg. 5      barbàng, nyakara kùnyi
the kùnyi can usually smell searing

As with concrete verbs, infinitives cannot themselves take case markers. However, they  can be placed into a case with the aid of an ‘infinitive augment’. There are three infinitive augments, and they are allocated to verbs in a lexical and seemingly unpredictable manner. The presence of an augment by itself acts to further definitise the reference of the infinitive:

Eg. 6      barbàng

Eg. 7      uma barbàng
the searing

This augment takes noun cases as a proxy for the infinitive:

Eg. 8      umàjna barbàng
uma-‘jna bàrb-àng
for fear of searing

Eg. 9      umànga barbàng
in order to sear

The augment is also needed if the infinitive is to take an argument. This argument, semantically equivalent to the subject of a concrete verb, and in the direct case, comes between augment and infinitive.

Eg. 10    umànga tawi barbàng
in order to sear a fish


Infinitives, though lacking overt verbal markings, are still clearly verbs. Their meanings are invariably transparent and their derivation is entirely productive. They are also able to take verbal arguments, albeit with the aid of an augment.

Action nouns, on the other hand, are less straightfowardly verbal.  At first glance, they may appear only to be a subset of deverbal derived nouns. Action nouns are formed through several methods, in a non-productive way – although each method can generally produce an understandable action noun, not all these action nouns are commonly-used words; what’s more, the semantic derivation is often unclear or overly specific. They do not take typical verbal affixes, such as geographical deixis or aspect, and cannot be placed in the passive voice. Although they can refer to events, actions and states, they also frequently refer metonymously to results, agents, patients and the like.

Eg. 11    rawoyala
he constricts a passage

Eg. 12    woyalàka
the wharf-laden stretch of river (lit. the constriction (of the river))
OR: the wharfs on the river

Eg. 13    rahònda
he razes

Eg. 14    hondàka
ashes, ashy soil

The most important action-noun suffixes are -ana, -àka, -unda, -ùnga, and -umà. –ana is the most productive of these; –àka commonly derives results; –unda and –umà often derive ongoing, highly durative events; -ùnga is often more conceptual. These generalisations, however, are only generalisation.

Unlike most nouns, including most deverbal derived nouns, action nouns are subject to direct possession, which is to say that they take possessive prefixes. Alternatively, it could be said that action nouns are able to take subjects – as possessive prefixes and concrete agreement prefixes are identical, and indeed the ‘possessor’ in these constructs is usually the semantic object/subject, not a possessor:

Eg. 15    suhondàka baryōngya
the ashes from the razing of the mansion

Eg. 16    suwoyalàka uryoka
the wharf-laden stretch of the river

And, just as with concrete nouns, the semantics of the ‘subject’ are overridden by the presence of a first-or-second-person participant:

Eg. 17    angātuhondàka
your ashes (i.e. the ashes of your burnt body, OR the ashes you own, OR the ashes you made)

It is also striking that the –ana action noun forms closely resemble the –an concrete verbs, and in practice transformation into action nouns is one way to place an concrete verb into a case; noteably, although it is generally true that action nouns do not show aspect, it is possible to place transform aspect-marked concrete verbs into action nouns while keeping the aspect marking. Similarly, -ùnga action nouns have a parallel infinitive form in –ùng, less common, less productive, and less semantically transparent than –àng, and, occasionally, –àng infinitives may be transformed into –ànga action nouns. On the other hand, concrete verbs can at times be used to refer to the result of the action, rather than the action itself, or may even serve semantically as participles; infinitives are extensively used where other languages would employ nouns. It is possible, therefore, that this distinction, between verbal, inflectional and semantically predictable infinitives and concrete state verbs on the one hand, and nominal, derivational, and semantically unpredictable action nouns on the other, should be best considered a general guideline rather than an absolute qualitative distinction.

On the other side of action nouns like true deverbal derivative nouns. These are semantically even less predictable, are more likely to refer to concrete objects rather than processes, and unlike action nouns take indirect possession, which is to say that their possession cannot be mistaken for verbal agreement marking. However, all these generalisations have exceptions – in particular, derived nouns can sometimes take direct possession, giving them a more overtly verbal character.

Rather, then, than a clear qualitative distinction between nouns and verbs, it may be best to see Rawàng Ata as possessing a continuum of forms, from fluid state verbs on the one hand, through concrete state and infinitive verbs, to action nouns, deverbal derivatives, and finally to ordinary nouns.

The Concrete State
Verbal Morphology
Coördination of Clauses


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