- The dynamics of nominal classification: Productive and lexicalised uses of gender agreement in Mawng by Ruth Singer
Nominal classifications in languages are morphosyntactic systems that impose a classification on their nominal lexicon, as shown by the masculine/feminine/neuter grammatical gender distinction in German and other Indo-European languages, or the lexico-syntactic numeral classifiers widespread in East and South East Asian languages, such as Mandarin Chinese (Aikhenvald 2000; Seifart 2010). Linguists are interested in these systems due to their diverse lexical and pragmatic functions as well as their cognitive and cultural correlates. Most recent studies have shown that languages rely on different types of nominal classification to express related functions such as the expansion of the referential power of the lexicon and identifying participants in discourse (Contini-Morava and Kilarski 2013).
The book under review here is an important contribution to these ongoing debates concerning the functions of nominal classification systems, since the use of grammatical gender in the Mawng (Iwaidjan) language of Northern Australia calls into question prevailing ideas about the functions of nominal classification. First, Singer demonstrates that unlike the gender systems observed in Indo-European languages, Mawng's gender has a strong semantic basis and plays an important role in the construction of meaning in discourse, rather than only being used in referent tracking. Second, in Mawng, gender agreement on verbs is frequently lexicalized, meaning that a verb tends to combine with arguments of a specific grammatical gender, creating a structure similar to noun-verb idioms. Since most research on nominal classification has focused on nouns rather than verbs, this rare phenomenon makes the book of great interest to linguists working on nominal classification, discourse analysis, and syntax, among other fields.
The book consists of eight chapters. Singer starts with a general introduction (ch. 1), followed by the theoretical definitions applied in the book (ch. 2), along with the description of the language, including a general grammatical sketch (ch. 3) and an overview of the gender system in Mawng (ch. 4). This is followed by an analysis of restricted argument verbs (ch. 5) and lexicalized agreement verbs (ch. 6). The book concludes with a comparison of Mawng with other languages (ch. 7) and a summary (ch. 8).
In ch. 1, the introduction, Singer argues that the main function of semantically based nominal classification systems, as in Mawng, is not merely to track referents in discourse, but to instantiate new references and mediate selectional restrictions. More precisely, Mawng has five grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, edible, land, and vegetation, and verb roots that may have different senses are associated with different kinds of gender agreements; for example, the transitive verb -atpi usually combines with nouns of vegetation gender when bearing the meaning of 'have/hold', but combines with nouns of land [End Page 255] gender when it means 'understand'. When it means 'win', the pattern of gender agreement on the verb is intransitive but carries agreement of vegetation gender for object. Another example is that the verb -la 'consume' is normally combined with liquids of land gender, but when a speaker was asked to express the idea of a vampire drinking blood, some confusion occurred since blood is a noun with vegetation gender. However, the speaker provided two possible agreement patterns on the same clause, reflecting the competition between the requirement of the verb and the basic gender assignment of the noun. This phenomenon is quite unusual, since one of the most basic definitions of grammatical genders is that they divide nouns of a language into rigid classes (Dixon 1986; Corbett 1991; Grinevald 2000), meaning that a noun is normally assigned to one gender without variability, as is observed in most gender language families such as Indo-European, Dravidian, among others. Through this point, Singer presents the three research questions of this book: the categorization of verbs with lexicalized agreement, the development of lexicalized agreement verbs, and the function of predominantly semantically based nominal classification...