Victoria Infante (Graduate Category)
Noun Phrase Elements in Southern Ninam
The Yanomami linguistic family — also called Yanoama, Waicá, Xirianá and Guarahibo — is one of the largest groups in the Amazon region of Venezuela and Brazil. According to data from the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas (2011), the Yanomami people are found in areas that are difficult to access, so there is no precise number of how many Yanomami people live in Venezuela. However, in 2011 the number of Yanomami in contacted tribes in that country was 9,569. On the Brazilian side, Terras Indígenas no Brasil (2021) estimates about 26,780 Yanomami individuals.
In initial studies, Greenberg (1960, 1987) in Campbell (1997) proposed that Yanomami was a single language with several dialects and belonged to the Panoan-Chibchan family. However, Koch-Grünberg (1911-1913) in Migliazza (1985) was the first to classify them as a separate linguistic family. Later, authors such as Migliazza (1985) and Campbell (1997) suggested that the Yanomami family was composed of four languages. More recent studies such as Perri, Machado & Benfica (2019) suggest a division of six languages.
Despite being described as highly polysynthetic (Aikhenvald & Dixon 1999), the nominal morphology in the Yanomami languages seems to be more isolating and with much less morphological possibilities than the verb morphology. In this paper, I present an initial description of the elements found in the noun phrase of Southern Ninam (identified as Ninam in this paper), a Yanomami language of Northern Brazil. The paper is divided into four sections: §1 describes the suffix on the noun phrase, §2 presents the enclitics in the noun phrase; §3 describes the constituents of the noun phrase – head of the noun phrase and prenominal and postnominal elements, and §4 presents a brief conclusion.
1. Suffix on the noun
According to the data collected, the Ninam language has only one suffix, which is used for the possession of kinship terms. The possession marker has been identified as a suffix because it attaches to one specific grammatical category and to a specific type of nouns, different from the enclitics that are presented in §2.1.
1.1. Possession for kinship terms
According to Albright (1970) and Swain (1971), this type of possession, which I identify as suffixes, only occurs with kinship terms. In the following data, the suffixes -ye and -ho express possession for first and second person singular, respectively. Another difference, in relation to the type of possession presented in §2.1.1, is that this type of possession is attached to the kinship term that is possessed. Example (1a) and (1b) show that first person possessive suffix comes right after the kinship term. Example (1c) shows that the plural marker =pèk PL comes after possession. In the same way, the examples shown in (2) illustrate the second person possessive suffix.
‘My mother’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘My father’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
awe -ye =pèk
older.brother -1SG =PL
‘My older brothers’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘Your mother’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘Your father’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
awe -ho =pèk
older.brother -2SG =PL
‘Your older brothers’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
2. Enclitics in the noun phrase
Contrary to what was proposed by Albright (1970), Swain (1971), Gómez (1986) and Gómez (1990) in the first descriptions of the Ninam languages – Northern Ninam or Yanam, and Southern Ninam –, I consider that most of the elements pertaining to nominal morphology should be considered enclitics rather than suffixes.
Aikhenvald (2002:43) proposes a list of parameters that help distinguish clitics from affixes. From this list, I have taken into consideration the following parameters to define the elements presented in this section as enclitics: (a) direction, the elements that attach to the host are on the right side; (b) selectivity, they attach to various grammatical categories related to the NP; (c) type of host, some of the enclitics tend to attach to the head of the NP, and (d) position with respect to what can be defined as affixes, the enclitics occurs after the affixes.
The Ninam language expresses possession through various mechanisms: suffixes (explained in §1.1), personal pronouns and possessive pronouns (which will be explained in §3.1.2), and enclitics. The enclitic could be used as possession for kinship terms for the third person singular, as observed in (3); however, it has been classified as an enclitic because it attaches to different categories, as explained in §2.1.1.
piap =e =pèk
older.brother =POSS.3 =PL
‘His older brothers’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
2.1.1. Third-person possessor
As mentioned earlier, another way to express possession is through the enclitic =e 3SG.POSS or its variant =ethè. Different from the first and second-person possessive suffix, which is attached to the possessed item as in the kinship terms, =e can also be attached to the possessor, which sometimes is not the head of the noun phrase. Therefore, it is identified as an enclitic. Example (4) shows the enclitic attached to the third person pronoun kama. Example (5) shows it after the demonstrative pronoun, when the demonstrative is functioning as head of the noun phrase.
kama =e yãno
3SG =POSS.3 house
‘His house’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘That (thing) of him’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
2.2. Noun classifiers
Regarding nouns, Borgman (1990), Derbyshire & Payne (1990), and Aikhenvald & Dixon (1999) propose that nouns in the Yanomami languages are divided into classified and non classified nouns. The main difference between the two types of nouns is their morphological complexity. The non-classified nouns are morphologically simple; this means that these nouns are formed by a free word. Meanwhile, classified nouns are morphologically complex, being formed by a root and a noun classifier (Ferreira 2017).
Aikhenvald & Dixon (1999) state that some Yanomami dialects have up to one hundred classifiers. This represents a special feature of the morphosyntactic aspects of these languages. According to these authors, the classifiers “categorize the S […], or the O […]; [and] they are obligatory [in the Yanomami Languages]” (Aikhenvald & Dixon 1999: 347). Also, they say that the classifiers serve as semantic basis for classification.
Table 1 – Classifiers (adapted from Ferreira, Machado & Benfica 2019: 124)
|=ma||stone, hard material||stone
Table 1 shows that the noun classifiers occur on the right side of the noun root. Derbyshire and Payne (1990: 248) comment that it is common for classifiers to co-occur with nouns, as well as to substitute for the nouns to which they refer in the noun phrase. Thus, regarding the discourse level, the classifiers have an anaphoric function.
In addition to the classification of nouns proposed by Ferreira, Machado & Benfica (2019) described later in §22.214.171.124, the Ninam language has an animate and inanimate distinction. This distinction affects the occurrence of the enclitics for plural marking. Nouns referring to animate things – people and animals – present the enclitic =pèk to mark the plural, as in (6) and (7). Inanimate objects take the enclitic =k, as in (8).
‘kids’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘dogs’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘bananas’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
My initial proposal identified the plural marker as a suffix; however, I now identify it as an enclitic. Firstly, because there is no evidence of endoclitics in the language. Secondly, in most languages, the enclitics occur after suffixes (Aikhenvald 2002: 53). An example like (1) or (6), is not sufficient to show that the plural is an enclitic. Nevertheless, the occurrence of the possessive enclitic for third person singular =e between the stem and the plural marker in (3), which has already been proven to be an enclitic, shows that the plural marker is an enclitic and not a suffix.
2.4. Case marking
According to Ferreira, Machado & Benfica (2019), all the Yanomami languages present at least three nominal case markings: ergative case, instrumental case, and additive case. These markers are identified as enclitics because they are attached to the last word of the noun phrase, which may not be a noun.
2.4.1. Ergative case
The Ninam language, as well as all other Yanomami languages, has an ergative-absolutive alignment system – see Derbyshire (1997), Borgman (1999), Ferreira (2017), and Ferreira, Machado & Benfica (2019). This is expressed “only by nominal case markers” (Derbyshire 1997: 316). The ergative marker =in/=n is classified as enclitic because it attaches to the last word of the NP. Example (9) shows the ergative marker =n attached to a proper name, example (10) shows it after a personal pronoun, and example (11) shows it after the adjective at the end of the NP.
Pitolia =n okol =Ø apè- naka -he
Victoria =ERG dog =ABS SUPPOS- buy -COMPL
‘Victoria bought a dog.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2021)
kamiye =n kalaka =Ø apè- wa -he
1SG =ERG chicken =ABS SUPPOS- eat -COMPL
‘I ate chicken.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
okolo lepi =n kalaka =Ø apè- wa -he
dog old =ERG chicken =ABS SUPPOS- eat -COMPL
‘The old dog ate the chicken.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
2.4.2. Instrumental case
Ferreira, Machado & Benfica (2019) also state that all the Yanomami languages present an instrumental marker. As shown in (12) and (13), in Ninam, this marker is the same as of the ergative marker.
Xesusin kamiye apè- huka -lihe, kama ĩe =p =in
Jesus 1SG SUPPOS- save -PST 3SG red =CLN:liquid =INS
‘Jesus saved me, by his blood.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘With arrow’ [like in ‘He hunts with an arrow’] (Adapted from Ferreira, Machado & Benfica, 2019)
2.4.3. Additive case
The third case marking in the Yanomami languages is the additive case, which adds a participant to one of the arguments. According to Ferreira, Machado & Benfica (2019) all the Yanomami languages present this case marking. In Ninam, the enclitic =xo ADD must be attached to every noun that is as a participant in the argument, as in (14), or to those elements that are coordinated in the NP as the adjectives lepi ‘old’ and patapata ‘big’ in (15).
Pitolia =xo Xakalina =xo
Victoria =ADD Jacqueline =ADD
‘Victoria and Jacqueline’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
lepi =xo patapata =xo
old =ADD big =ADD
‘Old and big’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
3. Constituents of the noun phrase in the Yanomami languages
According to Swain (1971), the noun phrase in Ninam can have constituents on both sides of the head. Therefore, the NPs in Ninam can be composed of only a noun as shown in (16), a modifier followed by a noun as shown in (17), a noun followed by a modifier as shown in (18), and modifiers on both sides of the noun as in (19).
‘The dog’ (Elicited DS).
‘Your house’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
naa =ye lepi
mother =1SG.POSS old
‘My old mother’ (Swain 1971: 7)
uhe yãno lepi
that.there house old
‘That old house there.’ (Swain 1971: 8)
3.1. Head of the noun phrase
According to data presented by Swain (1971), the head position of the NP can be filled by a noun or a personal pronoun in isolated sentences. However, at the discourse level, the options are expanded because demonstratives, quantifiers, and nominal classifiers can fill the head of the NP by fulfilling an anaphoric function. In this section, I describe the nouns and the pronouns as the head of the NP.
According to Crystal (2003), nouns had a traditional classification, they have a semantic definition. However, linguists have preferred to define this category in relation to formal and functional criteria. When talking about Yanomami languages and their nouns, the semantic properties are useful but not enough; therefore, it is necessary to take into account the formal and functional criteria.
126.96.36.199. Types of nouns
Following the proposal for the classification of nouns put forward by Borgman (1990), Derbyshire & Payne (1990), and Aikhenvald & Dixon (1999), Ninam has two types of nouns, classified and non-classified. This classification can be extended by adding a type of nouns referring to nominal classifiers, as classifiers tend to be a closed class (Aikhenvald 2017: 369). Therefore, I add a Type 3 for the noun classifiers and Type 4 for the kinship terms that, as it will observe, behave different from other nouns.
Table 2 – Noun classification in Ninam
|Type 1||Non-classified noun|
|Type 2||Classified nouns|
|Type 4||Kinship terms|
Following the studies of Ferreira, Machado & Benfica (2019) and more specifically Ferreira’s (2017) work, nouns of Type 1, called non-classified holonyms in their classification, are nouns that are semantically defined. This category refers to discrete and independent entities that also represent alienable nouns in the language, as shown in examples (20) and (21).
‘Airplane’ (Elicited from Monte, 2021)
‘Toucan’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
Type 2, classified nouns, are also discrete and independent entities. However, they are different from the nouns that belong to Type 1 because these words have noun classifiers, this means they are complex because they are composed of a noun and an enclitic, as shown in (22) and (23),
‘Papaya tree.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘Coffee (beverage).’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
Type 3, also called meronyms by Ferreira (2017), is defined as parts of the discrete entities mentioned in Type 2. The data show that there is a dependency of the words in the Type 3 category, which is observed in the morphology of the language. As shown in (24) and (25), these meronyms end up being enclitics attached to the noun. Among its many classifiers, the Ninam language presents nominal classifiers for features – dark, hard, liquid, as in Table 1 – and parts of something – leaf – as in (24)
sugar cane =CLN: leaf
‘Leaf of sugar cane’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
sugar cane =CLN: liquid
‘Sugar cane drink’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
Type 4 is a group that contains kinship terms. According to Ferreira (2017), the Yanomami kinship system follows the Amazonian Dravidian pattern. In this system, the ideal marriage is described as occurring “between the son and the daughter of two siblings of different sex.” (Ferreira 2017: 146). He states that this is why the Yanomami languages do not have word equivalents for words like ‘uncle’ or ‘niece’. The important thing in this group of words is the variation that exists for the same word. Gómez (1990: 65) also found a similar system in Northern Ninam.
As shown in Table 3, there is a variation in the form of the kinship terms, e.g., both awe and piap mean ‘older brother’. This feature distinguishes kinship terms from other nouns.
Table 3 – Kinship terms – same generation (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘My older brother’
‘My older sister’
‘Your older brother’
‘Your older sister’
‘His older brother’
‘His older sister’
3.1.2. Personal pronouns
Pronouns can also fill the head position of the noun phrase. When this occurs, no other word co-occurs with the personal pronoun. As shown in (26), the pronouns seem to be of one free word that provides the information about the person and the enclitics that provide the information about number.
‘I’ (Albright 1970: 5)
‘We two (excludes the hearer)’ (Albright 1970: 5)
3.1.3. Other elements
Other elements such as demonstrative pronouns, quantifiers, described in §3.2, and nominal classifiers can also function as the head of the NP. However, this function is observable at the discourse level. These words need to refer to something already mentioned in order to be in the head role. Although it is not within the scope of this paper, it can be mentioned that the enclitic nominal classifier can be incorporated into the verb once the referent has been mentioned.
3.2. Prenominal elements
In this section, I describe the prenominal elements that may appear in the NP, namely demonstratives, possession, and quantifiers.
3.2.1. Demonstrative pronouns
According to Swain (1971), Ninam has three demonstrative pronouns that are related to the spatial location of people or items in the physical or real world. Ferreira (2017) labels them as exophoric demonstratives. These pronouns can be translated as ‘this one, near me’ as in (27), ‘that one, near you’ as in (28), and ‘that one, over there’ as in (29).
‘This pot’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘That pot near you’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘That pot there’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
Following the proposal of Ferreira (2017) and applying it to the Ninam data, the exophoric demonstrative can function as a modifier in the NP and as the head of the NP. The data below shows the demonstrative ũhu ‘that, near you’ as a modifier of the noun phrase in (30). As mentioned in 3.1.3 the demonstrative can fill the head of the NP; this is observed in example (31), where the demonstrative appears along with a quantifier, and by itself, as shown in example (32). These data were elicited through sentences related to the use of glass beads and embroidery.
‘Those glass beads you are wearing.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘Those two (glass beads)’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘Those (glass beads)’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
As I have mentioned several times, the Ninam language expresses possession in different ways. One way is through enclitics, described in §2.1; another way is the use of personal pronouns and possessive pronouns, described in this section.
188.8.131.52. Possessive pronouns
Swain (1971) – as well as Borgman (1990), and Ferreira (2017), who also described Yanomami languages – states that the Yanomami languages only feature possessive pronouns for first and second person singular. These possessive pronouns immediately precede the possessed item.
‘My house’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘Your hammock’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
184.108.40.206. Personal pronouns
Ninam also has long and short versions of the personal pronouns. The long versions are those that carry the person information – first person, second person, third person – and the number information – singular, dual, and plural. Following Borgman’s (1990) study of the Sanumá language, the long form can be used with nouns of Type 1 as in (35). Meanwhile, the short version of the personal pronouns is used for body parts.
Subject pronouns in Ninam (Based on Albright, 1970)
|Singular Dual Plural|
|First||kamiye ~kamiya||kamiyehek kamiyemak|
Although Albright (1970) identifies the first-person singular pronoun as kamiye, Dos Santos (2022) indicates that there is free variation between the forms kamiya and kamiye, which can explain the short form of the same pronoun used with inalienable body parts ya as in (36).
‘My house’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
‘My arm’ (Swain, 1971)
Quantifiers are the only category that do not have a fixed position in Ninam – nor in any of the Yanomami languages described by other researchers; this means that the quantifiers, like mõli ‘one’, can occur before the head of the noun phrase as in (37), or after the head, like yalami ‘many’, as in (38). The quantifiers can also function as pronouns and fill the head position, like yãmiin example (39).
ai mõli klaiwa
other one white.person
‘Another non-indigenous person’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
kalatha =k yalami
banana =PL many
‘Many bananas’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
ũhu yãmi apè- kõ- pe -he -lihe
DEM few SUPPOS- again- go -DIR -PST
‘Those few went back again alone.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
3.3. Postnominal elements
As previously mentioned, the Ninam language allows constituents on both sides of the head of the noun phrase. Following Swain’s (1971) study, the quantifiers can occur in a postnominal position, as discused in §3.2.3. In this subsection I describe the attributive modifiers, which is the other modifier that can – optionally – occur on the right side of the head of the NP.
According to Swain (1971), Borgman (1990), and Ferreira (2017), the Yanomami languages do not have adjectives; they have descriptive verbs. Ferreira (2017) proposes that in Yanomami, a group of the descriptive verbs can function as modifiers in the NP after undergoing a previous derivation with the adjectivizer -rima, as in (40) and (41).
wakë -rima =u =tha
red -ADJVZ =CLN:cotton =PTC.INT
‘The red one?’ (Adapted from Ferreira 2017: 182)
hiya -rima thë= pë= yãrɨ =mu =ɨ
young. MASC -ADJVZ CLN.GNR= 3PL= wash =INTRZ =DYN
‘The boys are bathing.’ (Adapted from Ferreira 2017: 183)
However, the descriptive verb stems described by Swain (1971) in Ninam seem to function as modifiers in the NP without undergoing a derivation process. The data presented by the author and the data elicited for this paper show that when the descriptive verb functions as the head of the verb phrase, it hosts affixes proper to the verb category, e.g., markers of evidentiality and aspect. On the other hand, when the descriptive verb stem functions as a modifier in the noun phrase, it does not host any affix of the verbal category.
thuwe ape- mokoi
woman SUPPOS- young.FEM
‘The woman is young.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
thuwe moko =in
woman young. FEM =ERG
‘The young woman (agentive)’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
okolo apè- uxii
dog SUPPOS- black
‘The dog is black.’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
okolo uxi =in
dog black =ERG
‘The black dog (agentive)’ (Elicited from Dos Santos, 2022)
In (41) and (42b), the descriptive verbs hiya ‘young.MASC’ and moko‘young.FEM’ refer to age and sex. However, the derivation process proposed by Ferreira (2017) only occurs in Yanomama. Meanwhile, Ninam does not have the adjectivizer in a similar environment. In addition, examples (42b) and (43b) show that the descriptive verb stem is a modifier in the noun phrase because it hosts the ergative marker =in.
This paper presents an initial description of the elements occurring in the noun phrase in the Ninam language. Up to this point, I described three ways in which the language presents the elements proper to the NP: suffixes, enclitics, and words. It can be concluded that the linear order of noun phrase elements in Ninam is: demonstrative/possession, quantifier, noun, quantifier, adjective. The head is the only required element, and the others described are optional. The head can be filled by a noun, pronoun, demonstrative, or quantifier. Modifiers range from demonstrative and quantifier to another NP on the left side, and quantifiers or adjectives on the right side.
Enclitics also play an important role in the morphology of the Ninam language. This initial research allows me to conclude that the noun classification proposed in Table 2 in §3.1.1 will be crucial when determining the order of the enclitics in the NP. Noun classification is essential because nouns will limit the type of enclitics they can host.
It is suggested that another data collection where data combining enclitics be elicited. This will help the researcher to know with certainty whether these elements co-occur or whether there are other elements that were not described in this paper. Also, it will help to define whether the analysis done up to this point is the one that best describes the Ninam language, which can contribute to a better understanding of the noun phrase in this language.
1 First person
2 Second person
3 Third person
ADD Additive case
CLN Noun classifier
COMPL Completive aspect
ERG Ergative case
INS Instrumental case
LONG Long form
PTC.INT Interrogative particle
SHORT Short form
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- Except for the possession for kinship terms explain §1.1. ↵
- Ferreira’s (2017) proposal says that the difference between the two major grammatical categories of Yanomama – nouns and verbs – lies in the possibility of hosting clitics before or after the root. In the case of nouns, that possibility only exists on the right side, which helps in the identification of the elements that actually belong to the NP. In the case of the verb, it can host clitics on both sides. ↵
- Ferreira (2017) presents a concise description of the kinship terms in the Yanomami languages, specifically in Yanomama. In his text, he describes the kinship terms for the preceding generation, same generation, and following generation. ↵
- Dos Santos (2022, personal communication) indicates that the extra [i] at the end of the descriptive verb stems is related to a phonological insertion process to maintain the stress pattern of the language. In the Yanomami languages, the stress must fall on the penultimate syllable. ↵