Pam Munro's Intro to Grammatical Analysis
presented at Breath of Life 2006

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Part B || Part C || Glossary

The Joy of Grammar
Breath of Life Workshop, June 2006
Pam Munro (

Grammar refers to the rules and processes by which words and sentences are built up. This can be complicated! Linguists often use grammatical terminology that is intimidating if you're not used to it, but which can be helpful both in terms of organizing your ideas about language and for understanding published descriptions. In our grammar workshops we'll examine some techniques you can use to figure out what is going on in your language, using real examples from real languages of the Americas, and go over some useful terminology. Figuring out grammar can give you a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and it's fun!

Acknowledgement: I owe special thanks to my teachers Anita Martinez and Maurice Lopez (for Garifuna), Catherine Willmond (for Chickasaw), the late Molly Star Fasthorse (for Tolkapaya Yavapai), Felipe H. Lopez (for Valley Zapotec), and Virgil Lewis and the late Etheleen Rosero (for Pima). All of the examples here are presented in practical orthographies for the languages represented. Ask me if you would like to know more about how things in these languages are pronounced (or about anything else!).

Part A: Starting to Figure it Out

§ 1. Garifuna

The first exampleswe'll consider come from Garifuna, a language of the Arawakan family spoken in Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Garifuna has over 100,000 speakers, but this number is rapidly declining, since fewer children learn to speak the language each year.

§ 1.1. Here are some Garifuna sentences. (A sentence is a simple utterance that makes a complete statement about some event or state of being.)

1. Amáligihati mútu. 'The man swims'

2. Amáligihati óunli. 'The dog swims'
We can begin a mini-dictionary for Garifuna based on examples (1) and (2):

man __________________   dog __________________   swims __________________
Man and dog are nouns, and so are mútu and óunli. Swims is a verb, and so is amáligahati. Every verb has a subject (the person or thing that is doing the action or in the state named by the verb): the man is the subject of swims, óunli is the subject of amáligahati, and so on. (There is a glossary of all the linguistic terms in small capitals at the end of this handout.)

There are two important differences between the Garifuna sentences in (1-2) and their English translations:

• The order of the verbs and their subjects is different.

• Garifuna does not use a word meaning 'the'.

The following sentence shows wo more differences between Garifuna and English:

3. Amáligahati. 'He swims' OR 'It swims'

• In Garifuna, a verb may be a complete sentence.

• Garifuna does not make the same distinction English does between he and it.

We'll notice many ways in which the words and sentences that we examine from other languages today are different from English. Many of these things will be true of your language also, but not all of them – it may turn out that your language works more like English than Garifuna (and the other languages we'll look at) in some respects. The important thing to realize is that languages can vary in many ways. You shouldn't necessarily assume that your language works like English.


§ 1.2. Here are some longer Garifuna sentences:

4. Áluaha lumúti mútu óunli. 'The man looks for the dog'

5. Áluaha lumúti óunli mútu. 'The dog looks for the man'

In these sentences, four Garifuna words correspond to six English words.

Áluaha lumúti in (4-5) is a Garifuna verb phrase (a sequence of more than one word that works like a shorter unit) that corresponds to the English verb phrase looks for. (Looks for is two words, but it has approximately the same meaning as a single word expression like seeks. We'll come back to the meaning of the two parts of the Garifuna phrase later.) The man and the dog are English phrases that correspond to one Garifuna word.

These Garifuna sentences include not only a subject and a verb phrase, but also an object (the other noun in the sentence, the one which is affected by the action of the verb or toward which that action is directed). Conclusions:

• The order of subject, verb, and object differs between Garifuna and English.

• American Indian languages often use fewer words than English to express the same meaning, but this is not always the case. It's very rare indeed that you can translate from one language to another on a word-for-word basis. Each language has its own quirks (including words that may be difficult to translate by themselves, but that still contribute to the meaning of the sentence). 


§ 1.3. Now, here are three more Garifuna sentences:

6. Áluaha lumúti. 'He looks for him' (or 'He looks for it', or 'It looks for him')

7. Amáligahati surúsiya. 'The doctor swims'

8. Ídaagua lumúti. 'He helps him' (or 'He helps it', or 'It helps him')


Just for fun: You can say things in Garifuna!
Translate the following sentences into Garifuna, following the patterns in examples 1-8.
a. The doctor looks for the man.                      b. The man looks for the doctor.
c. The doctor helps the dog.                            d. The dog helps the doctor.


§ 1.4. It's often helpful to notice parts of words that you see recur again and again:

Garifuna nouns: mútu, óunli, surúsiya

Garifuna verbs and verb phrases: amáligahati, áluaha lumúti, ídaagua lumúti

The nouns here don't seem to have anything in common, but there are two things you might notice about the verbs and verb phrases.

• All the verb phases end in ti

• Two of the verbs end in lumú plus ti.

Right now we don't have enough evidence to make conclusions about what these word parts mean, but it's sometimes useful to make a list of possible guesses. You can make your guesses as wild as possible, as long as you remember that they are guesses and that you keep yourself ready to revise them if necessary. It's also good to think about what kind of evidence might be helpful to prove your hypotheses. (We'll come back to these two observations later in the handout. If we don't get to them during the workshop, you can read about the ti's and lumú's on your own!)


§ 2. Chickasaw

The next examples come from Chickasaw, a language of the Muskogean family originally spoken in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee whose speakers were moved by the Federal government to Oklahoma (Indian Territory) over 160 years ago on the Trail of Tears. Chickasaw is seriously endangered, with only a few hundred speakers, of whom the youngest is over 50.

§ 2.1. Here are some sentences in Chickasaw.

9. Hattakat malli. 'The man jumps'

10. Ofi'at malli. 'The dog jumps'

11. Alikchi'at yopi. 'The doctor swims'

We can start a dictionary:

man __________________  dog ___________________ jumps ____________________

(Once again, in Chickasaw there is no word corresponding to English the.)

What do you think about 'doctor' and 'swims'? If you are willing to take a guess here, your guess might be based on a number of observations:

• Like hattakat and ofi'at, alikchi'at ends in at.

• Like hattakat and ofi'at, alikchi'at comes at the beginning of the sentence.

• Like malli, yopi ends in i.

• Like malli, yopi comes at the end of the sentence.

Such evidence is suggestive, but still not conclusive. To support our guess, we'd like to see more sentences, for example,

12. Ofi'at yopi. 'The dog swims'

13. Alikchi'at yaa. 'The doctor cries'

Now we can complete the dictionary:

doctor _________________ swims ___________________ cries _________________

Some similarities between words result from coincidence, while others can be important. What do the new sentences suggest about the fact that malli and yopi both end in i? What are some hypotheses you might suggest as to the meanings of the ending (or suffix) at?


§ 2.2. Here are some Chickasaw sentences that have objects:

14. Ofi'at alikchi'a lhiyohli. 'The dog chases the doctor'

15. Alikchi'at ofi'a lhiyohli. 'The doctor chases the dog'

(In the Chickasaw writing system an underlined vowel is nasalized, pronounced with the air escaping through the nose rather than the mouth. We don't do this in English! Different writing systems use different ways of representing sounds.)

The new examples show that 'dog' can be ofi'a as well as ofi'at, and 'doctor' can be alikchi'a as well as alikchi'at. The part ofi' recurs in both words for 'dog', and the part alikchi' in both words for 'doctor'. In fact, if you ask speakers the words for 'dog' and 'doctor', they would tell you the following:

16. ofi' 'dog'

17. alikchi' 'doctor'

If you don't have speakers to ask, you may have to work out the root words for yourself by seeing the different ways words appear in the data.

• If you have more than one form of a word, you can begin to make guesses about what the different parts mean. (Based on just one form, however, you can't be sure.)

Check out the order of subject, verb, and object in sentences (14) and (15).

 • Chickasaw uses a different order of subject, verb, and object from either Garifuna or English.

Do the new sentences above help you identify the meaning of at? What about a?

At and a seem to have a relationship both with what the noun is doing in the sentence (is it a subject or an object?) and also with where it occurs in the sentence (is it first in the sentence or is it second?). We'll come back to this, but if you think that at is a subject ending and a is an object ending, you're right!


§ 2.3. Just as in Garifuna, a Chickasaw verb may be used alone as a complete sentence:

18. Yaa. 'He cries' or 'She cries' or 'It cries'

19. Lhiyohli. 'He chases him' or 'He chases her' or 'He chases it' or 'She chases him' or
                        'She chases her' or 'She chases it' or 'It chases him' or 'It chases her' or
                        'It chases it' (!)

• These sentences show that a Chickasaw verb used on its own may be used to express a sentence idea that in English would use a he or she or it subject.


§2.4. Another use of Chickasaw bare verbs like those above (verbs with no added parts, no endings, no prefixes) is to express a command used to order someone to do something.

20. Malli! 'Jump!'

21. Yopi! 'Swim!' (this also could mean 'Take a bath!')

22. Lhiyohli! 'Chase it!'

23. Ofi'a lhiyohli! 'Chase the dog!'

The last sentence shows that you can put in an object word (with the a ending) into a command if you want to.

• A Chickasaw verb can be used all by itself to make a command telling someone to do something. An objec can be added to the commend sentence.


Just for fun: You can say things in Chickasaw!
How would you say                                        e. The man cries.

Hoyo means 'looks for' (just as in Garifuna, one Chickasaw word translates the English phrase). What does the following sentence mean?
f. Hattakat ofi'a hoyo.

How would you say
g. 'The doctor looks for the man.                     h. He looks for it.
i. Look for the dog!                                         j. Look for it!


§2.5. Usually it's not too difficult to recognize the difference between a command and a simple sentence, even when they use the same verb words. The speaker's intonation (vocal rhythm) usually is quite different between different kinds of sentences (statements, questions, commands, and so on).

• Languages vary in how they form commands. Chickasaw and English commands are very simple, but some languages have special verb forms that are used only for commands, while others use forms with prefixes or endings that also may have another meaning as well. Languages also may have ways to show politeness in a command.

• If you are working with a language that is no longer spoken, it's hard to find out about intonation. If there are recordings, these can be very useful. Also, previous linguists may have tried to describe intonational patterns (such descriptions can be tricky to understand – a mentor may be able to help you if you have trouble).


In-Class Project

Try to figure out how to make a command in your language.
Use any sources you can find; work together and consult with your mentor if you like.

Your grammar may include information on this, but if not, you can use the following procedure:

a. Start by finding one command sentence. Is the verb bare, or does it have an added prefix or ending?

b. Now, find another command. Does it work the same way? If so, you can make a guess that this is the standard way to form commands, and then try to find other examples that will support your idea.

c. Once you have a theory, try to make a command with a new verb.

d. Do you have any information on command intonation?

e. Do you have any information on how to make commands more polite? (Maybe there is a word for 'please', though not all languages have this.)

Commands are very useful in the classroom! Teachers have to use them all the time, so it's good to know how to form them and understand them.


§ 3. More about word order

§ 3.1. Garifuna sentences must have the words in the order we saw in sentences (1-8). The following sentences would not sound good to native speakers of Garifuna:

24. *Mútu amáligihati. 'The man swims'

25. *Óunli ídaagua lumúti mútu. 'The dog helps the man'

26. *Mútu surúsiya áluaha lumúti. 'The man looks for the doctor'             etc.

(Linguists use the * to mark sentences that native speakers do not find acceptable.)

• Garifuna simple sentences that contain a subject, verb, and object must have these in the order verb – subject – object. The word order in the sentence is what tells a speaker which noun is the subject and which noun is the object.

• If you're dealing with a language for which there are no native speakers, it's harder to be sure what is "good" and what is not. However, you can be suspicious of any sentence patterns you do not find exemplified in the data you're looking at. (Occasionally, if you're lucky, prior linguists may have recorded judgments like those above that earlier speakers of the language have reported.)

The word order of subject (S), verb (V), and object (O) that a language uses most commonly, or that speakers find most natural, is called its basic word order.

• Garifuna's basic word order is verb – subject – object, or VSO. Only one order of these words is possible in Garifuna sentences like those above.


§ 3.2. Chickasaw sentences, on the other hand, can have different word orders. A sentence like (9), 'The man jumps', can also begin with the verb:

9. Hattakat malli.

27. Malli hattakat.

There are even more possibilities for sentences that include objects. For example, take sentence (14), 'The dog chases the doctor'. The first version is the most natural and the one speakers would be most likely to volunteer. However, all the following are also good sentences, and they all mean the same thing.

14. Ofi'at alikchi'a lhiyohli. 'The dog chases the doctor'

28. Ofi'at lhiyohli alikchi'a.

29. Alikchi'a lhiyohli ofi'at.

30. Alikchi'a ofi'at lhiyohli.

Speakers might choose to use these different versions at different times and in different contexts – for example, a speaker might use (30) to translate the English The doctor gets chased by the dog. But each of these sentences expresses the same idea, that the dog is doing the chasing and that the doctor is getting chased.

• Chickasaw has a subject – object –verb (SVO) basic word order, but other word orders are allowed: Chickasaw has variable word order.

Now that we have seen (28-30), we can confirm for sure what the endings (or suffixes) –at and –a mean. (Linguists write a hyphen (-) before a suffix to indicate that it must be attached to something else; it is not a complete word and cannot stand alone.) These endings refer to the role of the noun they follow in the sentence, and have nothing to do with that word's position in the sentence.

• -At appears on Chickasaw subjects, regardless of their position in the sentence.

• -A appears on Chickasaw objects, regardless of their position in the sentence.

These endings are known as case markers. A case marker tells the role of a noun or noun phrase in a sentence (for example, whether it is subject or object). (In many technical descriptions, you might find a subject case marker like –at called a nominative marker, and an object case marker like a called an accusative marker.)

• Because Chickasaw marks the role of subjects and objects in a sentence on those nouns, a speaker never has any trouble figuring out whether a given noun in a sentence is a subject or an object, no matter what order the words come in. Case marking, not word order, tells a Chickasaw speaker the subject and object.


§ 3.3. In Garifuna, unlike Chickasaw, nouns look just the same whether they are subjects or objects.

• Garifuna does not use case markers on nouns.

• Because there are no case markers, it would be harder for a Garifuna speaker to figure out the meaning of a sentence if word order was more variable.


§ 3.4. Even in a language like Chickasaw where many different orders of subject, verb, and object are possible, not all word orders can be used. The following versions of 'The dog chases the doctor' would not be considered too good by Chickasaw speakers:

31. ?? Lhiyohli ofi'at alikchi'a.

32. ?? Lhiyohli alikchi'a ofi'at.

• Although it's fine to begin a sentence with a verb in Chickasaw (as in (27) or in sentences consisting only of a verb), speakers don't like sentences in which both the subject and object follow the verb. ("??" means "not too good"!)


§ 3.5. You can make sentence frames or patterns ("templates") that may be helpful for creating new sentences. Here are some examples:

Garifuna sentences with subjects and verbs:

                                    VERB SUBJECT

Garifuna sentences with subjects, verbs, and objects:

                                    VERB SUBJECT OBJECT

Chickasaw sentences with subjects and verbs:

                                    SUBJECT-at VERB
                                    VERB SUBJECT-at

Chickasaw sentences with subjects, verbs, and objects:

                                    SUBJECT-at OBJECT-a VERB
                                    OBJECT-a VERB SUBJECT-at
                                    SUBJECT-at VERB OBJECT-a
                                    OBJECT-a SUBJECT-at VERB

§ 4. Taking stock – what have we learned?

¶ It's not always possible to translate word for word from one language to another, either in terms of word order or in terms of the individual parts of words.

¶ By comparing items in the data you have (different sentences, different phrases), you can often figure out the meaning of specific words even when they are not defined individually.

¶ Words may change when used in different ways in the sentence.

¶ Languages may use different word orders of subject (S), object (O), and verb (V).

• Most languages prefer to use one word order (for instance, the one you see most often in the data, or the one speakers are reported to use most often), which we consider the basic word order. (English has a basic word order SVO, Chickasaw has a basic word order SOV, Garifuna has a basic word order VSO.)

• Many languages allow more than one word order. Languages vary from allowing only one word order possibility (as with Garifuna) to more or less variable (like Chickasaw) to allowing all word orders (this is not too common).

• Around the world, the two most common word orders are SOV (like Chickasaw) and SVO (like English), but VSO (like Garifuna) is the next most common, and some languages use VOS. Some languages' word order is so variable that it is hard to specify the "basic" word order.

¶ Many languages mark subjects and objects differently (as Chickasaw does, or with changes in words like English I-me, we-us, he-him, and so on), often using specific endings called case markers. (Much more rarely, a language might use prefixes.)

• If a language marks every subject or object for case (as Chickasaw does), it is more likely to allow different word orders (because there will be less confusion) than if there are no case markers (as in Garifuna) or if only a few words differ for subject and object (as in English).

Practice Project
Use any sources you can find; work together and consult with your mentor if you like.

1. Find an example of one possible word order of subject, verb, and object in your language.
      a. You need a sentence with separate words for the subject, verb, and object (if possible, locate a simple sentence with just one or two words for each item).
      b. Determine what each word or phrase in the sentence means.
      c. What order do the subject and object come in? You're done!

More things to do if you have time (answers may be in a grammar if you have one):
2. Find out if the subject and object in your sentence have case marking.

3. Are other word orders than the one you discovered in 1 possible? Which order (if any) seems to be more common?

Part B || Part C || Glossary