115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Discourse Approach to Athabaskan Grammar

Melissa Axelrod, University of New Mexico

This paper focuses verb composition in an indigenous polysynthetic language spoken in Alaska – Koyukon, a member of the Athabaskan language family. An examination of verb patterning and function in discourse supports a view of the complex Athabaskan verb itself as the locus for a grammar consisting of “a network of interrelated constructions” (Goldberg 1998:205).


This paper focuses verb composition in an indigenous polysynthetic language spoken in Alaska – Koyukon, a member of the Athabaskan language family. The paper begins with a description of the complex morphology found in this language. Polysynthetic languages typically have a great deal of synthesis (many morphemes per word) and a high degree of fusion (with the possibility of each morpheme representing more than one meaning and a high degree of opacity of morpheme boundaries). These languages tend to have multiple affixes which may express the bulk of the semantic content of a particular verb word, and a single verb can contain the meaning expressed by a full sentence in a non-polysythetic language.


Example (1) below provides an example of a polysynthetic verb in Koyukon.


(1) Edeghoyeneegheleedeneek


ede  +  gho         #  yenee   #   ghe   +  le      +  ee            +  de             +    neek

self  +  towards  #  mind    #   akt   +  asp    +  2sgSubj  +  valence    +    stem = touch, feel


‘Take care of yourself’


Note that the stem (the aspectually modified root) is at the rightmost edge of the verb, its last syllable. The stem is preceded by a series of prefixes. The first of these ede is a postpositional object meaning ‘self’ and it is followed by the postposition gho ‘towards’.[1]  This is followed in turn by an incorporated noun yenee ‘mind’ which is the verb’s grammatical direct object. Following the object noun incorporate are prefixes indicating temporal notions, person and number, and finally a valence marker de, which in this case agrees with the indirect reflexive postpositional phrase. Notice that the stem neek has a very general meaning, ‘touch’ or ‘feel’, and it is the combination of stem plus prefixes that yields the whole verb word’s meaning, ‘take care of yourself’.


The level of complexity seen in Koyukon verbs raises the question of how a language like this might be learned. Research on construction grammar and verb learning (e.g., Goldeberg 1998, Tomasello 2003) is discussed and an application to languages with particularly rich morphologies is proposed. In previous discussions of the Athabaskan verb the string of prefixes preceding the verb root has been described as an ordered prefix template, an item and slot arrangement of inflection and conjugation markers. In contrast, I propose analyzing the prefixes as comprising constructions. Looking at verb formation in Koyukon as a layering of constructions, provides a view of the polysynthetic verb that is more in line with our notions of cognitive functioning and with the principles of language acquisition.


The first part of the paper describes how the notion of constructions, as defined by Goldberg (1995), can be applied to languages with particularly rich morphologies. I describe three separate but linked kinds of constructions that layer together in the composition of the Koyukon verb.


I then provide an examination of discourse from across the Athabaskan family, including folk stories, personal narrative, and conversation. Examples illustrate frequent patterns of verb structure occuring as chunks or formulae, supporting the proposal that verbs are learned as constructional forms. The examples show how patterns of repetition function to tie referents to the prior discourse and provide cohesion in the flow of information.

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