Marked nominative alignment from reanalyzed relative clauses: Towards an explanation of prefixes and suffixes in Northwest Kainji argument marking


Northwest Kainji (Benue-Congo) languages display either prefixed or suffixed noun class marking on nouns (Hoffmann 1967 [dri], Bendor‑Samuel et al. 1973 [uth], and Smith 2007 [gel]). Affix placement is governed by the NP. Paterson (2019) argues that u̱t‑Maꞌin [gel] argument alignment patterns also depend on the structure of the NP: unmodified NPs display marked nominative alignment; NPs that contain modifiers display neutral alignment. From u̱t‑Maꞌin data, I argue that suffix class markers on unmodified subjects developed from the relative pronoun within a relative clause that has a relativized subject.

Noun class suffixes function as overt morphological nominative case for S/A arguments. Noun class prefixes on P arguments function as overt morphological accusative case.

The unique form and function of the u̱t‑Maꞌin nominative case marking and the prolific functions/locations of the accusative case marking are organized into a Type 2 Marked Nominative system (König 2008: 8, 158): (i) A and S are treated the same and simultaneously different from P, (ii) the accusative form is used as the citation form, and (iii) both case forms are morphologically marked; however, the accusative is used in a wide range of functions. The nominative, in contrast, is used in a very restricted set of functions. Overt case marking is only a feature of an NP argument if that NP argument has no modifier; when modifiers occur, no case distinction is made, i.e., the alignment system is neutral. The prefix-marked form of the accusative is the historical form of the noun word, matching the “expected” Niger-Congo prefixed noun class word form. The potentially innovative suffix-marked nominative form is the result of reanalyzing a relative clause structure as main clause syntax.

In an u̱t‑Maꞌin relative clause, the relativized element is not expressed. When the relative clause expresses an event that is sequenced with the event conveyed by the main clause and the subject of the matrix clause is also the subject of the relative clause, the structure is semantically ripe for reanalysis. The relative pronoun, already marked for agreement with the class of the head noun, is reanalyzed as a subject marker. Compare tɘ̀ ‘c6.rel’ with tɘ̀ ‘c6’; they are tonally and positionally identical. The relativized subject is reanalyzed as a main clause subject; the verb of the clause is finite and interpreted as a main clause verb.

26 Aug, 2020
University of Bucharest, Romania

Note: Originally scheduled for in person presentations and discussion but the conference was held online due to Covid-19.


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Rebecca Paterson
Rebecca Paterson
Postdoctoral Researcher

My research interests include field linguistics, grammatical description, and translation.