Polypersonal agreement

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In linguistics, polypersonal agreement or polypersonalism is the agreement of a verb with more than one of its arguments (usually up to four). Polypersonalism is a morphological feature of a language, and languages that display it are called polypersonal languages.

In non-polypersonal languages, the verb either shows no agreement at all or agrees with the primary argument (in English, the subject). In a language with polypersonal agreement, the verb has agreement morphemes that may indicate (as applicable) the subject, the direct object, the indirect or secondary object, the beneficiary of the verb action, etc. This polypersonal marking may be compulsory or optional (the latter meaning that some agreement morphemes can be elided if the full argument is expressed).

Polysynthesis often includes polypersonalism, which in turn is a form of head-marking. Polypersonalism has also been correlated with ergativity.

Examples of languages with polypersonal agreement are Basque, Georgian, to a lesser extent Hungarian (see Definite conjugation) and several other Uralic languages such as Mansi, Mordvinic or Nenets, the Bantu languages, as well as most polysynthetic languages, like Mohawk, Inuktitut and many other Native American languages.



In Georgian, the verb consists of a root and several optional affixes. The subject and object markers might appear as suffixes or prefixes, according to the verb class, the person and number, the tense and aspect of the verb, etc.; they also interact with each other phonologically. The polypersonal verbal system of Georgian allows the verb compound to convey the meanings of subject, direct object, indirect object, genitive, locative and causative meanings. As examples of the extremely complicated Georgian verb morphology, these are some simple polypersonal verbs (hyphens indicate morpheme boundaries):

v-khed-av "I see him"
g-mal-av-en "they hide you (sing. or pl.)"
g-i-mal-av-en "they hide it from you (sing. or pl.)"
gv-i-ket-eb-s "he is doing it for us"
a-chuk-eb-s "he will give it to him (as a gift)"
mi-u-lots-av-s "he will congratulate him on it"[1]

An example of a polypersonal verb that has the genitive meaning incorporated can be:

xelebi ga-m-i-tsiv-d-a "My hands got cold"

Here, xelebi means "hands." The second morpheme in the verb (-m-) conveys the meaning "my." In Georgian this construction is very common with intransitive verbs; the possessive adjective (my, your, etc.) is omitted before the subject, and the verb takes up the genitive meaning.


In Basque, a language isolate with a polysynthetic verbal system comprising two sub-types of verbs, synthetic and analytical, three out of Basque's fifteen cases—absolutive (the case for intransitive verbs), ergative (the case for transitive verbs), and dative—can be conveyed by several affixes incorporated to verb stems. Unlike Georgian, Basque has only two really synthetic tenses able to take these affixes: present simple and past simple. The so-called analytical verbs are verbs built with the aid of the synthetic verbs izan ‘be’, ukan ‘have’, egin ‘do’, which play the role of auxiliary verbs. Here are a few examples:

Synthetic forms:

d-akar-ki-o-gu ‘We bring it to him/her’, from ekarri ‘bring’ (‘d’ standing for ‘it’, ‘ki’ for the dative case, ‘o’ for ‘he’, and ‘gu’ for ‘we’)
z-erama-zki-gu-te-n ‘They took them to us’ from eraman ‘take’

Analytical or semi-synthetic forms:

Ekarriko d-i-o-gu ‘We'll bring it to him/her’
Eraman d-ieza-zki-gu-ke-te ‘They can take them to us’ (‘d…zki’ standing for ‘them’, ‘ieza’ being a form of the auxiliary ‘izan’, ‘gu’ standing for ‘to us’, ‘te’ for ‘they’, and ‘ke’ being a potential marker)
Iristen z-a-izki-zue ‘They get to you (pl)’ from iritsi ‘get, arrive’[2]

Semitic languages[edit]

In Biblical Hebrew, or in poetic forms of Hebrew, a pronominal direct object can be incorporated into a verb's conjugation rather than included as a separate word. For example, ahavtikha, with the suffix -kha indicating a masculine, singular, second-person direct object, is a poetic way to say ahavti otkha ("I love you"). This also changes the position of the stress; while ahavti puts the stress on hav (/a 'hav ti/), ahavtikha puts it on ti (/a hav 'ti xa/).

The same is true also of Arabic and Akkadian. A number of modern Arabic dialects incorporate both direct and indirect object pronouns, e.g. Egyptian Arabic /ma-katab-hum-ˈliː-ʃ/ "he didn't write them to me". (In Classical Arabic the equivalent would be three words: mā kataba-hum lī.)


In Ganda, direct and indirect pronominal objects may be incorporated into the verb as object infixes. For example:

nkikuwa 'I give it to you'
yakiŋŋambira 'he told it to me'
y-a-ki-ŋ-ŋamb-ira < y-a-ki-n-gamb-ira

In the second example, the applicative suffix -ira converts the (usually monotransitive) verb gamba to a ditransitive.

While agreement with a verbal subject is compulsory, agreement with an object is required only when the object is omitted. Many other Bantu languages exhibit this feature.

Clitic pronouns[edit]

Polypersonalism involves bound morphemes that are part of the verbal morphology and therefore cannot be found separated from the verb. These morphemes are not to be confused with pronominal clitics, like English 'em or the Spanish object clitics lo, le, etc. While in Spanish it is quite possible to express meanings like "giving it to him/her" or "they showed it to me" in one word (dándoselo, mostráronmelo), the pronominal morphemes indicating the direct and indirect objects (se, lo, me, los) are not part of the verb.

Some[who?] have observed that the French pronominal clitics (common to all Romance languages) have evolved into inseparable parts of the verb in the colloquial use, and so, suggested that French could be analyzed as polypersonal.

See also[edit]