Friday, January 16, 2009

Coptic adjectives

A little follow-up on the previous post, based mainly on Reintges' Coptic Egyptian (Sahidic Dialect): A Learner's Grammar:

In Coptic, predication of properties is handled exactly as for nouns, including the use of an determiner with the adjective:

hen-noc gar ne neu-polytia for are their-labours.
For their labours are great.

In attribution, the structure is Determiner - A - n - B, where A can be the noun and B the adjective, or vice versa:

ou-kohi n-soouhs: a-small n convent
t-parthenos n-sabê: the-virgin n prudent

To express the material of which something is made, you use the same structure, except that only B can be the material:

t-kloole n-ouein: the-cloud n light "the cloud of light"

Note that this is separate from the attributive construction:

ntof pe-iôt pahôm "He, our father Pahom"

So can adjectives be distinguished as a separate word class, when they behave so much like nouns? The answer is yes: an adjective is an item that can occupy either A or B in the attributive structure without a change in referential meaning. (See Coptic Grammatical Categories, Shisha-Halevy, p. 53.) If you reverse the constituents of a genitive or material construction, you change the referential meaning: "a vessel of wood" vs. "vessel wood (ie wood for vessels.)" If you do so for an adjective-noun attributive construction, the referential meaning stays the same: ou-noc n-polis or ou-polis n-noc both refer to the same entity, "a big city". So for this case, Dixon's hypothesis scrapes through.


Matt said...

"To express the material of which something is made, you use the same structure, except that only B can be the material:

t-kloole n-ouein: the-cloud n light "the cloud of light""

Well, I think that's a good counterargument if this genitive of material construction. I didn't notice that before, so I'll try to find a reference in Layton's reference grammar.

I'll have to hold out my judgement on Coptic for now since the status of the adjective as a distinct grammatical category, no, perhaps I should say distinct morphological and syntactic category appears ambiguous aside from this counterexample. Of course, I'm not denying the adjectival idea in Coptic. The fact that they have an adjectival idea is quite evident, and it's clear that there are occasional relics of old adjectives from earlier Egyptian.

Anyway, I agree: This has been a fun and interesting discussion. Let the search for a *truly* adjectiveless language continue!

shaden said...

Even if the semantic structure of the phrase 'a big city' presumably stays the same in either order (which is not that clear either, there are strong preferences), it does not explain the function of the word 'big' where it's morphologically altered in each position. Where n- appears in a phrase may not change the meaning in English (or ostensibly Coptic), but alters the syntactic function in Coptic entirely. In u-noč n-polis, noč is the head, in the reverse order it is the dependent. Dixon here is problematic.

Glen Gordon said...
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Glen Gordon said...

Excellent! I like this post. I've been thinking about adjectives and nouns in Etruscan, coincidentally, and so far I'm not quite sure what quality seperates the two. Etruscan is still slowly being deciphered and so any exploration into language norms obviously helps in a sensible decipherment.

In Etruscan, we know that adjectives follow the nouns they modify, but strangely, I swear I've been finding instances of nouns acting as adjectives to modify the head noun. Perhaps my understanding of the structure is incorrect but examples that come to mind are Flereś vacl mi "A votive gift am I" (TLE 738) or tartiria vacl "votive tartiria" (Tabula Capuana, line 28). Yet elsewhere it seems to be a noun meaning "a votive".

Lameen Souag said...

Matt: the genitive material construction I gathered from Shisha-Halevy, but it seems to be consistent with such examples as Reintges gave.

Shaden: What's the evidence that "in u-noč n-polis, noč is the head, in the reverse order it is the dependent"?

GG: reminds me of a comment about Italian on the previous post...

shaden said...

For one thing, if we assume 'big' is an adjective in both orders, ie. the dependent, there remains the problem of explaining why it is marked in one order while the head is marked in the other. I don't know of any languages that behave this way, do you? Even in split-marking languages, the distribution of head vs. dependent-marked constituents is not random or optional. But in any event, n- is a dependency marker in Coptic because all Coptic concatenative morphology is (see Reintges). This is also clear from the fact that n- is also a marker of possession. But in possessive constructions where the possessor is clearly distinguished from the possessed, only one order is allowed: POSSESSED n-POSSESSOR. The reverse, where the head would be marked, is never allowed. Hausa comes to mind again (though I don't know if it's dependent-marking), since as I recall, other than a small set of closed-class adjectives, it uses a possessive particle between two substantives to express attribution.

shaden said...

On another note, I just thought of a similar ambiguity in Arabic. Didn't the Classical Arabic grammarians treat both nouns and adjectives as nouns (ism)? This would make sense since I can't think of any adjectives other than the nisbas, which are themselves derived from nouns, that can't function independently as nouns. Predicatively, they take the tanwin as would an indefinite noun (just as the Late Egyptian/Coptic equivalent takes an indefinite article).

Lameen Souag said...

Variation is almost always significant in some way, and this AdjN / NAdj variation is probably no exception. But saying they're differently headed doesn't explain anything about why a speaker would pick one rather than the other. It's clear that the gender of the whole noun phrase is determined by the noun, not by the adjective, whether it comes first or second; that seems like a good reason to regard N as the head.

In Classical Arabic, adjectives are remarkably similar to nouns - but inanimate plural agreement morphology gives a test that should work. In a construction A B, if A is inanimate and plural, B should appear in the feminine singular if it's an adjective, but in the plural if it's an apposition (though I have trouble thinking of plausible examples of appositions involving inanimates to begin with.) It's also distinct from the possessive construction, because the adjective agrees in case whereas a possessed item just gets jarr.

Lameen Souag said...

Oh - a test that works for Arabic dialects too, actually: whether it takes gender agreement or not with inanimate singulars.

shaden said...

That the noun is the head of the NP is a given, but if 'city' is the head in both cases, then again there is no good explanation for why it is marked as the dependent in one. Gender/number can be tricky. For one, it's nearly always indexed by the determiner. In the few relics that are morphologically marked, like sabe 'wise', agreement is not obligatory. So you can say hen-rome n-sabe 'wise men' with no agreement, or hen-rome n-sabewe (or, hen-sabe n-rome, etc.)

Adjectival words that function like nouns and verbs (Coptic has both) are typically analyzed as a subclass of nouns and verbs rather than a distinct lexical category. There are no adjectival words in Coptic that don't behave syntactically as either nouns or verbs.

I forgot to mention that there are in fact languages that are frequently cited as positively having no adjective class, Quechua being one. Dixon says very little about it.

Matt said...

Hey Shaden, what do you make of the p-šêre/t-šeˀere šêm 'small boy/girl' fixed (fossilized?) noun phrases?

I'm sympathetic to the idea that there's a complete lack of adjectives as a distinct morphological and syntactic class in Coptic, but I was just curious how you fit these into your own analysis.

Lameen Souag said...

I think most adjectival classes cross-linguistically share enough properties with nouns or verbs to be considered a subset of one or the other, if one is so inclined - English is somewhat unusual in having a relatively distinct adjective class. Dixon's claim is that, despite this, there will always be some morphosyntactic properties distinguishing them from nouns or verbs, justifying the establishment of an adjective class (whether regarded as a subclass or not) - and for Coptic this seems to be borne out, though from the sound of it so far, it would take only some fairly minor changes to Coptic grammar to falsify it.

It's interesting that agreement is optional for even the few adjectives that do have remnants of it, but the point remains that the gender of the noun phrase as a whole is determined by the noun, not by the adjective. If you say "the wise woman" or "the great sky", I suspect you still have t- showing up as the definite article whether "wise" or "great" is marked for feminine or not, and whether it appears as the first element or the second one - is that right?

About Quechua I have no idea - it would be interesting to look at.

David Marjanović said...

Yet elsewhere it seems to be a noun meaning "a votive".

Which, in English, is an adjective that's used as a noun. Is there evidence that this wasn't possible in Etruscan?

shaden said...

Matt, I take šēm in constructions like p-šēre šēm to be a diminutive. Expressions like these are usually used endearingly, and it's very common after proper names as well, eg. Shenoute-šēm, Mary-šēm. But it can also function as a regular noun like other adjectival words.

Lameen, yes, it's ambiguous as I said. One way to reconcile it is to think of it as a DP headed by a determiner which subcategories for an NP complement. Both the determiner and the n- would head the noun that follows it. I'm not entirely comfortable with that explanation though, so another thing to ponder.

Alek said...

You might want to look into Wolof. Everything I can find on it confirms that it has no distinct adjectival class, only stative verbs. Also, in Lakhóta (Sioux) nouns freely function as verbs:

Hokšíla ki hená čhéya-pi.
boy the those cry-pl
'Those boys are crying.'

Čhéya ki hená hokšíla-pi.
cry the those boy-pl
'The ones crying are boys.'

And in Nootka, another Native American language:

ʔi:ḥ-ma qo:ʔas-ʔi. man-the
'The man is large.'

Even prepositions can be predicates:
ʔo:kwiɬ-ma qo:ʔas-ʔi. man-the
'He is [in relation] to the man.'

Although nouns and verbs are still distinguished in these languages, the correlation between their syntactic function and lexical category is much weaker.

Lameen Souag said...

For Wolof, see Fiona McLaughlin's article in the Dixon and Aikhenvald book quoted in the previous post. The primary test distinguishing verbs from adjectives there is the position of the definite article: it goes before relative clauses (including verbs), but after adjectives.

Nootka and Lakota would be interesting cases to investigate - but as I've said before, the predication construction is practically never enough to distinguish parts of speech. (In English, for example - it makes no distinction between nouns and adjectives, which other contexts force us to distinguish.)