Incorporation (linguistics)

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Incorporation is a phenomenon by which a grammatical category, such as a verb, forms a compound with its direct object (object incorporation) or adverbial modifier, while retaining its original syntactic function. The inclusion of a noun qualifies the verb, narrowing its scope rather than making reference to a specific entity.

Incorporation is central to many polysynthetic languages such as those found in North America, Siberia and northern Australia. However, polysynthesis does not necessarily imply incorporation (Mithun 2009); neither does the presence of incorporation in a language imply that that language is polysynthetic.

Examples of incorporation[edit]


Although not used regularly, English shows some instrument incorporation, as in breastfeed, and direct object incorporation, as in babysit. Etymologically, such verbs in English are usually back-formations: the verbs breastfeed and babysit are formed from the adjective breast-fed and the noun babysitter respectively. Incorporation and plain compounding may be fuzzy categories: consider backstabbing, name-calling, axe murder.


The following example from Oneida (Iroquoian) illustrates noun incorporation.

waʼkhninú: ne kanaktaʼ
waʼ- k- hninu- ': ne ka- nakt-
FACT- 1.SG- buy- PUNC ne PREF- bed- SUF
'I bought a bed.'

In this example, the verbal root hninu appears with its usual verbal morphology: a factive marker (FACT), which very roughly translates as past tense, although this is not quite accurate; an agreement marker (1.SG), which tells us that the verb agrees with 1st person singular (the speaker); and an aspect marker, punctual (PUNC), which tells us that this is a completed event. The direct object ne kanaktaʼ follows the verb. The function of the particle ne is unclear. Note that the word for bed consists of a root nakt plus a prefix and a suffix. The notion of the root is important here, but the properties of the prefix and suffix do not matter for this discussion.

The following sentence means the same as above, but noun incorporation has taken place.

waʼ- ke- nakt- a- hninu- ':
FACT- 1.SG- bed- EPEN- buy- PUNC
'I bought a bed.'

In this example, the root for bed nakt has incorporated into the verbal construction and appears before the verbal root. Two other incidental changes are noticed here. First, the agreement marker in the first example is k and in the second example is ke. These are two phonologically-conditioned allomorphs. In other words, the choice between using k and ke is based on the other sounds in the word (and has nothing to do with noun incorporation). Also, there is an epenthetic vowel a between the nominal and verbal roots. This vowel is inserted to break up an illegal consonant cluster (and also has nothing to do with noun incorporation).


The next example, from Panare, illustrates the cross-linguistically common phenomenon that the incorporated form of a noun may be significantly different from its unincorporated form. The first sentence contains the incorporated form u' of "head", and the second its unincorporated form ipu:

(1) y-u'-kïti-ñe amën
3-head-cut-NONPERF.TRANS 2SG
"You head-cut it."
(2) y-ipu-n yï-kïti-ñe amën
"You cut its head."


Chukchi, a Paleosiberian language spoken in North Eastern Siberia, provides a wealth of examples of noun incorporation. The phrase təpelarkən qoraŋə means "I'm leaving the reindeer" and has two words (the verb in the first person singular, and the noun). The same idea can be expressed with the single word təqorapelarkən, in which the noun root qora- "reindeer" is incorporated into the verb word.


Mohawk, an Iroquoian language, makes heavy use of incorporation, as in: watia'tawi'tsherí:io "it is a good shirt", where the noun root atia'tawi "upper body garment" is present inside the verb.


Cheyenne, an Algonquian language of the plains, also uses noun incorporation on a regular basis. Consider nátahpe'emaheona, meaning "I have a big house", which contains the noun morpheme maheo "house".

Chinese (Mandarin)[edit]

Chinese makes extensive use of verb-object compounds, which are compounds composed of two constituents having the syntactic relation of verb and its direct object.[1] For example, the verb shuì-jiào 睡觉 'sleep (VO)' is composed of the verb shuì 睡 'sleep (V)' and the bound morpheme object jiào 觉 'sleep (N)'. Aspect markers (e.g. le 了 PERFECTIVE), classifier phrases (e.g. 三個鐘頭 sān ge zhōngtóu THREE + CL + hours), and other elements may separate the two constituents of this compounds, though different verb-object compounds vary in degree of separability.

Semantics of noun incorporation[edit]

In many cases, a phrase with an incorporated noun carries a different meaning with respect to the equivalent phrase where the noun is not incorporated into the verb. The difference seems to hang around the generality and definiteness of the statement. The incorporated phrase is usually generic and indefinite, while the non-incorporated one is more specific.

In Yucatec Maya, for example, the phrase "I chopped a tree", when the word for "tree" is incorporated, changes its meaning to "I chopped wood". In Lahu (a Tibeto-Burman language), the definite phrase "I drink the liquor" becomes the more general "I drink liquor" when "liquor" is incorporated. The Japanese phrase 目を覚ます me o samasu means "to wake up" or literally to wake (one's) eyes. But when the direct object is incorporated into the nominal form of the verb, the resulting noun 目覚まし mezamashi literally means "waking up", as in 目覚まし時計 mezamashidokei meaning "alarm clock."

This tendency is not a rule. There are languages where noun incorporation does not produce a meaning change (though it may cause a change in syntax — as explained below).

Syntax of noun incorporation[edit]

Noun incorporation usually deletes one of the arguments of the verb, and in some languages this is shown explicitly. That is, if the verb is transitive, the verb word with an incorporated direct object becomes formally intransitive and marked as such. In other languages this change does not take place, or at least it is not shown by explicit morphology.

In Lakhota, a Siouan language of the plains, for example, the phrase "the man is chopping wood" can be expressed either as a transitive wičháša kiŋ čháŋ kiŋ kaksáhe ("man the wood the chopping") or as an intransitive wičháša kiŋ čhaŋkáksahe ("man the wood-chopping") in which the independent nominal čháŋ, "wood," becomes a root incorporated into the verb: "wood-chopping."

The noun may not be deleted after all. In the Oneida language (an Iroquoian language spoken in Southern Ontario and Wisconsin), one finds classifier noun incorporation, in which a generic noun acting as a direct object can be incorporated into a verb, but a more specific direct object is left in place. In a rough translation, one would say for example "I animal-bought this pig", where "animal" is the generic incorporated noun. Note that this "classifier" is not an actual classifier (i.e. a class agreement morpheme) but a common noun.

Incorporation in diachronic perspective[edit]

As proposed by Mithun (1984), one of the major origins of incorporation is coalescence between noun and verb. Another proposed origin is the denominal derivation of a nominal compound containing a noun root and a verb root (Jacques 2012).

In 1985, Mithun also introduced a four type system to define the functionality and progression of noun incorporation in a language. The first and simplest type, known as lexical compounding, involves a verb incorporating a nominal argument. The resulting compound usually describes a noteworthy or recurring activity. The second type uses the same process to manipulate case roles, incorporating the argument into the verb to allow for a new argument to take its place. Type III uses noun incorporation to background old or established information. A speaker might explicitly mention an entity once, for example, and thereafter refer to it using an incorporated verbal compound. The fourth and final type proposed by Mithun involves the development of a set of classificatory compounds, in which verbs are paired with generic nouns to describe properties of an entity, rather than the entity itself.[2] This type was previously mentioned as a feature of the Oneida language.

According to Mithun, languages exhibiting any of these types always display all of the lower types as well. This seems to imply a pattern of progression, as Mithun describes in her 1984 paper on the evolution of noun incorporation.

Incorporation can in its turn change into other constructions, such as denominal derivation, applicative, directional affixes (Mattisen 2006, Mithun 2009)


  1. ^ Li, Charles N.; Thompson, Sandra A. (1989). Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. University of California Press. p. 73. 
  2. ^ Mithun, Marianne (1985). "Diachronic morphologization: The circumstances surrounding the birth, growth and decline of noun incorporation". Papers from the Sixth International Conference on Historical Linguistics. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 6. John Benjamins-Adam Mickiewicz University: 380. 
  • Baker, Mark C. (1996). The Polysynthesis Parameter. New York [etc.]: Oxford University Press.
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  • Mithun, M. (1985). Diachronic morphologization: The circumstances surrounding the birth, growth, and decline of noun incorporation. Papers from the Sixth International Conference on Historical Linguistics. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 6. Jacek Fisiak, ed. Amsterdam-Poznan: John Benjamins-Adam Mickiewicz University, 365-394.
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  • Mattissen, Johanna. (2006) The ontology and diachrony of polysynthesis. In: Wunderlich, D. (Ed.), Advances in the Theory of the Lexicon. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin/New York, pp. 287–354.
  • Payne, Thomas E. Describing Morphosyntax, Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-521-58805-7
  • Rosen, Sara T. (1989). Two types of noun incorporation: A lexical analysis. Language, 65 (2), 294-317.
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  • Van Valin, Robert D. & Randy LaPolla. (1997). Syntax: Structure, meaning and function. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Examples and text were taken from