In this paper, I lay out the workings of the rather unusual system of positional verbs found in Nen, a language of the Morehead-Maro family in Morehead district, Western Province, Papua New Guinea. Nen is unusual in its lexicalization patterns: it has very few verbs that are intransitive, with most verbs that tend to be intransitive cross-linguistically realized as morphologically middle verbs, including ‘talk’, ‘work’, ‘descend’, and so on. Within the fifty attested morphologically intransitive verbs, forty-five comprise an interesting class of “positional verbs,” the subject of this paper; the others are ‘be’, its derivatives ‘come’ and ‘go’ (lit. ‘be hither’ and ‘be thither’), and ‘walk’. Positional verbs denote spatial positions and postures like ‘be sitting’, ‘be up high’, ‘be erected (of a building)’, ‘be open’, ‘be in a tree-fork’, ‘be at the end of something’.
Positional verbs differ from regular verbs in lacking infinitives, in possessing a special “stative” aspect inflection and an unusual system for building a four-way number system (building large plurals by combining singular and dual markers), and in participating in a productive three-way alternation between positional statives (like ‘be high’), placement transitives (like ‘put up high’), and get-into-position middles (like ‘get into a high position’). The latter two types are more like normal verbs (for example, they possess infinitives and participate in the normal TAM series), but they are formally derived from the positionals.
The paper concludes by situating the Nen system regionally and typologically. Similar systems are found in related languages, but with the exception of the Eastern Torres Strait language Meriam Mer, no comparable system has been reported anywhere in New Guinea—the “classificatory verbs” known from languages like Ku Waru are quite different, serving primarily to classify objects rather than to give spatial dispositions. On the other hand, rather similar systems are found in some parts of Meso-America and the Amazon.