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5 Palauan Verbs


In 2.23 we began the task of identifying the parts of speech of Palauan by denning nouns in terms of their meaning and distribu­tion. We observed, among other things, that Palauan nouns name or make reference to a great variety of persons, animals, or things and share certain characteristics of distribution such as occur­rence in sentence subject and sentence object positions. In chap.3 we learned more about nouns by examining the ways in which nouns combine with possessor suffixes to form possessed nouns. In this chapter we will attempt to define another part of speech—verbs—in a similar manner: that is, first we will characterize verbs in terms of their meaning and distribution, and then we will look at the many ways in which verbs can be formed through the combination of verb stems and various affixes. The latter type of study, in which we describe how different morphemes (or meaning-bearing units) combine with each other in the formation of partic­ular classes of words, is known as morphology. Because the mor­phology of Palauan verbs is extremely complicated, we cannot possibly provide a complete picture of it in the present chapter; some of the topics touched upon below will therefore be given fuller treatment later in the text.

5.1.1. Action Verbs: Transitive and Intransitive

Whereas nouns make reference to human beings, concrete things, abstract ideas, and the like, verbs name actions or states which involve nouns in various ways. Action verbs describe actions, activities, or events and can be transitive or intransitive. Transitive action verbs name actions which characteristically have a doer and a receiver. As we saw in 2.3, the doer (or person who performs, 113carries out, or causes the action of the sentence) appears before the verb as sentence subject, while the receiver (the person, animal, or thing affected by the action of the sentence) follows the verb as sentence object. Because the action is “transferred”, so to speak, from doer to receiver, the term ‘transitive’ (derived from a Latin word meaning ‘cross over’) has come to be used. The italicized verbs in the sentences below are typical transitive action verbs:

(1) a. A ngalȩk a mȩnga ȩr a ngikȩl.
    ‘The child is eating the fish.’
  b. A John a milȩngȩlebȩd ȩr a katuu.
    ‘John was hitting the cat.’
  c. A Toki a mȩngȩtmokl ȩr a delmȩrab.
    ‘Toki is straightening up the room.’
  d. A chad ȩr a Merikel a milkodir a mȩchas.
    ‘An American killed the old lady.’
  e. Ak rirȩngȩsii a chisel a Toki.
    ‘I heard the news about Toki.’
  f. chilsbrebȩr a blai.
    ‘They painted the houses.’
  g. A Droteo a milȩngimd ȩr ngak.
    ‘Droteo was cutting my hair.’

Can you identify the nouns (or pronouns) which function as sen­tence subject and sentence object in the examples above?

As the examples in 1 show, any action verb is transitive if it names an action which is done to or directed at some person, ani­mal, or thing. Some additional Palauan transitive action verbs are cited (in the imperfective form) in the list below:

(2) mȩlim ‘drink’ mȩlasȩch ‘carve’
  mȩngitakl ‘sing’ mȩruul ‘make, repair’
  mȩlamȩch ‘smoke, chew’ mȩleng ‘borrow’
  mȩluchȩs ‘write’ mȩnguiu ‘read’
  mȩngiis ‘dig’ mȩlesȩb ‘burn’
  omes ‘see’ orrengȩs ‘hear’
  osiik ‘look for’ orrebȩt ‘drop’

As opposed to transitive action verbs, intransitive action verbs involve only a doer, but no receiver. In other words, these verbs do not describe actions which can be directed at someone or some­thing else, but rather actions in which only a doer participates. For this reason, sentences with intransitive verbs like the follow­ing never contain object nouns:114

(3) a. A ngalȩk a milil ȩr a sers.
    ‘The child is playing in the garden.’
  b. A Droteo a milȩngȩdub ȩr a diong.
    ‘Droteo was swimming in the stream.’
  c. A dȩmak a oureor ȩr a bangk.
    ‘My father works at the bank.’
  d. A Toki a mo ȩr a skuul.
    ‘Toki is going to school.’
  e. A sȩchȩlik a me ȩr a blik.
    ‘My friend is coming to my house.’

Though the italicized verbs in the examples of 3 obviously refer to actions or activities, it is not difficult to see that they are basically very different from those illustrated in the examples of 1. To repeat what we have said above, transitive action verbs take an object (i.e., we eat something, we hit someone, we hear someone or something, etc.), but intransitive action verbs do not. Thus, we cannot conceive of “swimming someone or something”, “going someone or something”, and so forth. Notice that the nouns which follow the intransitive action verbs of 3 (i.e., sers ‘garden’, diong ‘stream’, etc.) are not objects, but instead identify the location of an activity (as in 3a-c) or the goal of some movement (as in 3d-e). In either case we have a relational phrase (cf. 3.8 and see chap. 14) in which the relational word ȩr ‘in, at, to’ is followed by a noun designating a place or location.

Whereas intransitive action verbs never take objects, we will often see sentences containing transitive action verbs in which the object has been omitted (or deleted). Observe the pairs of sen­tences below:

(4) a. Ak milsuub a tȩkoi ȩr a Siabal.
    ‘I was studying Japanese.’
  b. Ak milsuub.
    ‘I was studying.’
(5) a. A John a mȩngitakl a chȩlitakl ȩr a Ruk.
    ‘John is singing a Trukese song.’
  b. A John a mȩngitakl.
    ‘John is singing.’

In 4a and 5a above, the presence of the sentence objects tȩkoi ȩr a Siabal ‘Japanese (language)’ and chȩlitakl ȩr a Ruk ‘Trukese song’ shows that mȩsuub ‘study’ and mȩngitakl ‘sing’ are transitive action verbs. In 4b and 5b, however, these verbs are not followed by an object; rather, it is merely understood that the subject of the 115sentence was studying something or singing something. Apparently, sentences like 4b and 5b are acceptable because verbs like mȩsuub ‘study’ and mȩngitakl ‘sing’ designate activities whose possible objects can usually be predicted (at least in a general way) even if the object noun is absent. In other words, the object of mȩsuub ‘study’ must be something which can be studied or learned, and the object of mȩngitakl ‘sing’ must be something which can be sung. By contrast, if a verb designates an activity which can take a large number of objects, then the object of the sentence cannot be omitted. This is true for verbs like mȩleng ‘borrow’ and mȩruul ‘make, prepare’, as in the examples below:

(6) a. Ak mo mȩleng ȩr a mlil a Cisco.
    ‘I’m going to borrow Cisco’s car.’
  b. *Ak mo mȩleng.
    (? ‘I’m going to borrow.’)
(7) a. A Maria a mȩruul a kall.
    ‘Maria is making the food.’
  b. *A Maria a mȩruul.
    (? ‘Maria is making.’)

To Palauan speakers, 6b and 7b above are unacceptable because they sound incomplete—that is, they do not allow us to predict anything about the omitted object.

5.1.2. State Verbs

Whereas action verbs describe actions, activities, or events, state verbs specify states, conditions, or qualities which temporarily or permanently characterize persons, animals, or things. In the great majority of cases, state verbs describe the sentence subject in some way. Because only a sentence subject is involved, these state verbs are to be classified as intransitive. Observe the sentences below, in which the intransitive state verbs are italicized:

(8) a. A ngȩlȩkek a smechȩr.
    ‘My child is sick.’
  b. A eangȩd a mȩkngit.
    ‘The weather is poor.’
  c. Tia ȩl delmȩrab a mȩkeald.
    ‘This room is warm.’
  d. A rȩchad ȩr a Merikel a mȩtongakl.
    ‘Americans are tall.’
  e. A blil a Toki a klou.
    ‘Toki’s house is big.’ 116

In 8ac, the states which describe the sentence subjects are tem­porary and therefore subject to change, while those in 8de are relatively permanent or unchanging.

Some additional Palauan state verbs are given in the list below. See if you can decide whether the state involved is tem­porary or permanent.

(9) ungil ‘good’ klȩbokȩl ‘pretty’
  songȩrengȩr ‘hungry’ kekȩdeb ‘short’
  kikiongȩl ‘dirty’ meteet ‘rich’
  mȩsaul ‘tired’ milkolk ‘dark’
  bibrurȩk ‘yellow’ bȩches ‘new’
  bȩcheleleu ‘white’ bȩkȩtȩkoi ‘talkative’
  ngar ‘be (located)’ mla ‘was (located)’

The verbs ngar ‘be (located)’ and mla ‘was (located)’ are special state verbs which assert, respectively, the present or past existence of the subject in a particular location. As the following sentences illustrate, these intransitive state verbs must be followed by a relational phrase which identifies the location of the subject:

(10) a. A Toki a ngar ȩr a bab.
    ‘Toki is upstairs.’
  b. A udoud a ngar ȩr a chȩlsel a skidas.
    ‘The money is inside the drawer.’
  c. Ak mla ȩr a M-Dock.
    ‘I was/have been at M-Dock.’

The existential state verbs ngar ‘be (located)’ and mla ‘was (lo­cated)’ will be examined in detail in 18.2.

As we mentioned above, most Palauan state verbs are in­transitive. There is a very small class of state verbs, however, which do take objects and must therefore be classified as transitive. Such transitive state verbs refer to certain types of mental states or abilities and include items like mȩdȩnge ‘know’, mȩduch ‘know how (to), be skilled at’, mȩtitur ‘not know how (to), not be capa­ble of’, and mȩdakt ‘be afraid of, fear’. Can you identify the sub­jects and objects of the (italicized) transitive state verbs in the sentences below?

(11) a. A Droteo a mȩdȩnge a tȩkoi ȩr a Sina.
    ‘Droteo knows Chinese.’
  b. A ngȩlȩkek a mȩdakt ȩr a sensei.
    ‘My child is afraid of the teacher.’
  c. Ak mȩduch ȩr a ochur.
    ‘I know (how to do) math.’ 117

5.1.3. Further Differences Between Action Verbs and State Verbs

In 5.1.12 above we attempted to define action verbs and state verbs in terms of a fundamental meaning difference. Thus, we said that while action verbs designate actions, activities, or events, state verbs specify states, conditions, or qualities. In addition, we saw that both action verbs and state verbs can be transitive or in­transitive, resulting in the following four possibilities:

(12) Transitive action verb:    mȩnga ‘eat’, mȩngȩlebȩd ‘hit’, etc.
  Intransitive action verb:   milil ‘play’, oureor ‘work’, mo ‘go’, etc.
  Transitive state verb:   mȩdȩnge ‘know’, mȩdakt ‘be afraid of, fear’, etc.
  Intransitive state verb:   ungil ‘good’, smechȩr ‘sick’, ngar ‘is (located)’, etc.

When we look at some of the grammatical properties of action verbs and state verbs, we find further support (or evidence) for distinguishing the two types. Action verbs and state verbs “behave” differently in at least two important ways. First of all, the past tense forms of action verbs and state verbs are derived differently. The past tense forms of action verbs involve the addition of an affix of some kind. In 4.1 we saw that affixes are morphemes which cannot occur as independent words but which must always be attached to some other word. The two types of affixes we mentioned were prefixes and suffixes, which are added to the beginning or end of a word, respectively. In discussing the past tense forms of action verbs, we need to speak of a third type of affix—namely, infixes. Infixes are morphemes which are inserted into a word. Thus, for any transitive or intransitive action verb which begins with the verb marker prefix mȩ- or m- (see 5.4 below and chap. 6), the past tense is derived by infixing the past tense marker -il- or -l- after the m of the verb marker. In the past tense forms given below, the infixed past tense marker has been itali­cized:

(13) Action VerbPresent Tense Past Tense Form
  mȩnga ‘eat’ milȩnga ‘ate’
  mȩngȩlebȩd ‘hit’ milȩngȩlebȩd ‘hit’
  mȩlim ‘drink’ millim ‘drank’
  mȩluchȩs ‘write’ milluchȩs ‘wrote’
  milil ‘play’ mililil ‘played’
  mȩngȩdub ‘swim’ milȩngȩdub ‘swam’ 118
  mo ‘go’ mlo ‘went’
  me ‘come’ mle ‘came’

While action verbs which begin with the verb marker prefix mȩ- or m- take the infix -il- or -l- for the past tense, those which begin with the verb marker prefix o- derive the past tense by replacing this initial o- with ul- or ulȩ-. Thus, we have pairs like omes ‘see’—ulȩmes ‘saw’, osiik ‘look for’—ulsiik ‘looked for’, oker ‘ask’—ulȩker ‘asked’, oureor ‘work’—ulureor ‘worked’, etc.

As we have seen above, the past tense forms of action verbs are derived by using an infix or a prefix. By contrast, the past tense forms of state verbs (whether transitive or intransitive) are derived with the auxiliary (or “helping”) word mle ‘was, were’.1 This auxiliary word is simply placed directly before the state verb, as in the following:

(14) State Verb Past Tense Form
  mȩkngit ‘bad’ mle mȩkngit ‘was/were bad’
  mȩtongakl ‘tall’ mle mȩtongakl ‘was/were tall’
  bȩches ‘new’ mle bȩches ‘was/were new’
  mȩdȩnge ‘know’ mle mȩdȩnge ‘knew’
  mȩdakt ‘be afraid of, fear’ mle mȩdakt ‘was/were afraid of, feared’

As the examples of 13 and 14 show, a major difference in the way past tenses of verbs are formed can be explained according to the basic distinction between action verbs and state verbs. In other words, the validity of this distinction is upheld because from it we can predict a grammatical phenomenon which would otherwise be inexplicable—namely, the fact that certain verbs have infixed -il- or -l- for the past tense while others must be preceded by the auxiliary word mle ‘was, were’.

A second way in which action verbs and state verbs behave differently is with respect to the use of mo ‘go’ as an auxiliary. Both types of verbs can be preceded by mo ‘go’ (or its past tense form mlo ‘went’), but the resulting meanings are totally different. In 15 below, mo ‘go’ precedes action verbs, while in 16, it precedes state verbs:

(15) a. Aki mlo milil ȩr a blil a Toki.
    ‘We went to play at Toki’s house.’
  b. A Toki a mlo mȩngȩtmokl ȩr a blik.
    ‘Toki went to clean my house.’
  c. Ak mo mȩsuub ȩr a klukuk.
    ‘I’m going to study tomorrow.’ 119
(16) a. A Toki a mlo smechȩr.
    ‘Toki got sick.’
  b. A delmȩrab a mlo kikiongȩl.
    ‘The room got dirty.’
  c. A John a mla mo mȩduch ȩr a ochur.
    ‘John has gotten proficient in math.’

As we will see in chap. 13, mo can be used with action verbs to express two types of meanings: in 15ab, the sequences mlo milil ‘went to play’ and mlo mȩngȩtmokl ‘went to clean’ simply express the fact that the subject went somewhere to perform a particular activity, while in 15c, mo mȩsuub ‘will study’ describes a future event. On the other hand, when mo is used with state verbs, neither of the two abovementioned meanings applies; instead, the result­ing sequences describe a change of state. Thus, mlo smechȩr ‘got sick’ and mlo kikiongȩl ‘got dirty’ of 16ab describe states or con­ditions which developed or came into existence and which re­present a change from the previous circumstances (i.e., Toki’s being in good health, and the room’s being clean). And in 16c mla mo mȩduch ‘has become skilled at’ refers to a recent change of state and implies a contrast between the present state (John’s being good at math) and some earlier, opposing state (John’s being poor in math).

Though we will examine sentences like 1516 more carefully in later chapters, we can understand enough about them to see that, in this case, too, the distinction between action verbs and state verbs is essential to our description of Palauan grammar. In other words, it is only on the basis of this distinction that we can predict the different meanings given to the auxiliary word mo in the examples of 15 vs. 16.


In a preliminary and much oversimplified discussion of the Pa­lauan word a in 2.6, we observed that the major function of this word is merely to “introduce” (i.e., precede) certain Palauan parts of speech—specifically, nouns and verbs. Later (cf. 3.6), we modified our analysis of a by showing that this word actually introduces noun phrases, which can consist of single nouns as well as groups of associated words such as blil a Toki ‘Toki’s house’, John ȩl sensei ‘John the teacher’, etc. In this section, we will take a similar approach in modifying our analysis of a as it relates to verbs: in other words, we will claim that a does not really in­troduce 120single verbs, but rather certain groups of associated words called verb phrases.

Although verb phrases can consist of single verb forms such as mȩnga ‘eat’, mililil ‘played’, etc., they often involve a sequence of words such as mle ungil ‘was good’, mlo smechȩr ‘got sick’, mo mȩruul ‘will make/prepare’, mla mo mȩrek ‘has finished’, etc. In these examples, various kinds of auxiliary words (cf. 5.1.3 above)—mle, mlo, mo, mla mo—precede state verbs or action verbs and provide, among other things, information about the tense (see 5.3 below). Other types of verb phrases consist of a quali­fying word (see 24.6) followed by a verb form, as in kmal ungil ‘very good’, di mililil ‘just played’, dirk smechȩr ‘is still sick’, etc.

The sentences of Palauan, like those of all other languages, are not just “strings” of single words that have been tacked on to each other in random fashion. Rather, they consist of certain groups of associated words (i.e., phrases) which are related to each other in well-defined ways. The three major types of phrases in Palauan have already been introduced: they include noun phrases, verb phrases, and relational phrases. These three kinds of phrases combine in various ways to give the main sentence types of Palauan. For example, any Palauan sentence containing a transi­tive verb (cf. 5.1.1 above) followed by an object has the structure subject noun phrase + verb phrase + object noun phrase, as in the following:

(17)   Subject Noun Phrase    Verb Phrase    Object Noun Phrase     
  a.   A ngalȩk   a silsȩbii   a blai.   ‘The child burned down the house.’
  b. A ngȩlȩkel a Toki   a mla sosȩbii   a blil a Droteo.   ‘Toki’s child has burned down Droteo’s house.’

As 17a shows, noun phrases and verb phrases may consist of single nouns (ngalȩk ‘child’, blai ‘house’) or single verbs (silsȩbii ‘burned it down’), respectively. But they may also consist of se­quences of closely associated words, as in 17b: here, ngȩlȩkel a Toki ‘Toki’s child’ and blil a Droteo ‘Droteo’s house’ are noun phrases of possession (cf. 3.6), and mla sosȩbii ‘has burned it down’ is a verb phrase consisting of the auxiliary word mla (which desig­nates a recent past event—see below) followed by the 121perfective verb form sosȩbii ‘bum it down’. Notice that the subject noun phrase, the verb phrase, and the object noun phrase in 17ab are all introduced by the word a.

The sentences of 17 illustrate an important fact about the distribution of Palauan verbs—or, more properly, verb phrases. These sentences show that verb phrases containing a transitive verb follow the subject noun phrase and precede the object noun phrase (if there is one—cf. the discussion of examples 47 in 5.1.1 above). If the verb phrase contains an intransitive verb (whether an action verb or a state verb), it takes a subject noun phrase but no object noun phrase, as in the sentences below:

(18) a. A buik a rȩmurt.
    ‘The boy is running.’
  b. A sensei a mei.
    ‘The teacher is coming.’
  c. A bȩchil a Droteo a smechȩr.
    ‘Droteo’s wife is sick.’

The sentences of 18 can be expanded by placing various kinds of relational phrases in sentence-final position following the verb phrase. Compare the following examples:

(19) a. A buik a rȩmurt ȩr a sȩrsel a Droteo.
    ‘The boy is running in Droteo’s garden.’
  b. A sensei a me er a elȩchang.
    ‘The teacher is coming now.’
  c. A bȩchil a Droteo a smechȩr ȩr a tȩretȩr.
    ‘Droteo’s wife is sick with a cold.’

In the sentences of 19, the italicized relational phrases consist of the relational word ȩr followed by a noun phrase. As we will see in chap. 14, relational phrases serve many different functions: in 19a ȩr a sȩrsel a Droteo ‘in Droteo’s garden’ tells us the location of the activity; in 19b er a elȩchang ‘now, today’ specifies the time of the event; and in 19c ȩr a tȩretȩr ‘with/because of a cold’ identifies the cause of the subject’s ill health.

Relational phrases can also be added to sentences like 17ab, in which a verb phrase containing a transitive verb is followed by an object noun phrase; in such cases, the relational phrase is placed in sentence-final position, after the object noun phrase. Thus, with 17a, compare the following sentences:

(20) a. A ngalȩk a silsȩbii a blai er a elii.
    ‘The child burned down the house yesterday.’ 122
  b. A Toki a mȩruul a kall ȩr a uum.
    ‘Toki is making the food in the kitchen.’
  c. Ak milleng a udoud ȩr a sȩchȩlik.
    ‘I borrowed some money from my friend.’

In the sentences of 20, the italicized relational phrases identify the location, the source, or the time. Can you tell which type of relational phrase appears in each sentence?

We can summarize the distributional features of Palauan verb phrases in terms of the following “formulas” for sentence types:

     A. subject noun phrase + transitive verb phrase (+ object noun phrase) (+ relational phrase).

Here, parentheses are used to indicate those elements whose appearance is optional. Using this formula, we can derive varieties of sentences in which (i) neither of the optional elements appears, as in 4b and 5b, (ii) both of the optional elements appear, as in 20ac, or (iii) one or the other of the optional elements appears, as in la-g and the following:

(21) A John a mȩsuub er a elȩchang.
  ‘John is studying now.’
  B. subject noun phrase + intransitive verb phrase (+ rela­tional phrase).

If the optional relational phrase is chosen, we have sentences like 3ae or 19ac, but if it is omitted, we simply get sentences like 8ae or 18ac.

In some Palauan sentences we find that the distribution of the verb phrase with respect to the surrounding noun phrases does not correspond to that given in the two formulas above. As we mentioned in 4.7, many Palauan sentences are formed by a process of subject shifting, in which the subject noun phrase is moved to the right of the verb phrase; as a result of this process, a pro­nominal trace is left in the original subject position in the form of a non-emphatic pronoun. Therefore, in sentences like those below, the verb phrase is followed by the (shifted) subject noun phrase (italicized) and preceded by a pronominal trace:

(22) a. Tȩ mla me a rȩsȩchȩlim.
    ‘Your friends have come.’
  b. Ng mȩringȩl a chimal a Toki.
    ‘Toki’s hand hurts.’ 123

If a sentence like 22b is further modified by proposing the possessor (cf. 4.7, ex. 28 and see 17.3), then we have a sentence like the following:

(23) A Toki a mȩringȩl a chimal.
  ‘Toki’s hand hurts.’

Here, the verb phrase mȩringȩl ‘hurts’ is preceded by a noun phrase indicating the possessor (Toki) and followed by a noun phrase indicating the thing possessed (chimal ‘her hand’).

5.3. TENSE

As we have seen in many of the examples above, Palauan verb forms show differences of tense. The tense of a verb specifies the time of the action or state which the verb designates. There are three major distinctions of tense in Palauan—present, past, and future. Each of these will be taken up separately below.

5.3.1. Present Tense

The major function of present tense verb forms is to describe actions or states which are in progress at the time the sentence is uttered. Often, sentences of this kind will contain a temporal phrase (see 14.6) like er a elȩchang ‘now’, which designates the present moment. Observe the sentences below:

(24) a. A Toki a mȩsuub er a elȩchang.
    ‘Toki is studying now.’
  b. A ngȩlȩkek a mȩchiuaiu.
    ‘My child is sleeping.’
  c. A sensei ȩr ngak a smechȩr.
    ‘My teacher is sick.’
  d. A tolȩchoi a mȩdakt ȩr a chȩrrodȩch.
    ‘The baby is afraid of the noise.’

You will notice that the action verbs and state verbs of 24a-d do not contain any special affixes except the verb marker, which appears as a prefix mȩ- in mȩsuub ‘study’, mȩchiuaiu ‘sleep’, and mȩdakt ‘afraid of’ and as an infix -m- in smechȩr ‘sick’ (see 5.4 below and chap. 6). In other words, Palauan has no special affix to mark the present tense; rather, it is the absence of such a marker which identifies present tense verb forms. Thus, Palauan present tense verb forms are unmarked, while the other tense forms are 124marked with various affixes or auxiliary words, as we shall see below.

Present tense verb forms are also used in general statements, which express broad generalizations or commonly-accepted facts about the subject, and in habitual statements, which express habits or repeated actions which the subject engages in. A few typical examples are given below:

(25) a. A rȩchad ȩr a Sina a mȩnga a bȩras.
    ‘The Chinese eat rice.’
  b. A rȩchad ȩr a Merikel a mȩtongakl.
    ‘Americans are tall.’
  c. A Toki a mo ȩr a skuul ȩl ngar ȩr a mlai.
    ‘Toki goes to school in a car.’
  d. A Satsko a mȩngȩtmokl ȩr a blik ȩr a bek ȩl tutau.
    ‘Satsko cleans up my house every morning.’

As we saw in 4.9.12, Palauan perfective verb forms in the present tense have a special connotation of warning or precaution. Additional examples illustrating this point will be given in 12.2. A similar connotation is observed among the present tense forms of ergative verbs, which will be discussed in 5.4 below.

5.3.2. Past Tense

Palauan past tense verb forms always describe an event or state which was in progress in the past, at some point in time preceding the time of the utterance. As we saw in 5.1.3 above, the past tense forms of action verbs and state verbs are derived in an entirely different manner. State verbs in the past tense are simply preceded by the auxiliary word mle ‘was, were’, as in the following sen­tences:

(26) a. Ak mle smechȩr er a elii.
    ‘I was sick yesterday.’
  b. A eolt a kmal mle mȩses ȩr a kȩsus.
    ‘The wind was very strong last night.’
  c. A kall a mle bȩdȩrȩchuis.
    ‘The food was spoiled.’
  d. Ak mle mȩdȩnȩlii a Toki ȩr se ȩr a lȩngalȩk.
    ‘I knew Toki when she was a child.’
  e. Aki mle kaudȩnge ȩr a Guam.
    ‘We knew each other in Guam.’ 125

As sentences like 26ab show, verbs in the past tense are often accompanied by temporal phrases (see 14.6) like er a elii ‘yester­day’, ȩr a kȩsus ‘last night’, etc. which designate some time point or time period in the past.

The auxiliary word mle is also used with certain action verbs which have been borrowed into Palauan from foreign languages such as Japanese or English. Observe the sentences below:

(27) a. A dart ȩl chad a mle sengkio.
    ‘One hundred people voted.’
  b. A sensei a mle harau a blals.
    ‘The teacher paid the fine.’
  c. A bilsȩngek a mle kosio.
    ‘My boat went out of order.’
  d. A Kiyosi a mle {fail / otsir} ȩr a test.
    ‘Kiyosi failed the test.’

Since borrowed action verbs like sengkio ‘vote’, fail, etc. are totally different in structure from native Palauan action verbs like mȩnga ‘eat’, mȩsuub ‘study’, etc., it is not at all surprising that the former do not follow the pattern of the latter (i.e., infixing -il- or -l-) in deriving the past tense forms (see below).

As we saw in 5.1.3 above, we derive the past tense forms of transitive and intransitive action verbs by infixing the past tense marker -il- or -l- after the m- of the verb marker. For most action verbs, we have two past tense forms, one containing -il- and the other containing -l-, as in the following:

(28) Action VerbPresent Tense Past Tense Forms
  mȩnga ‘eat’ milȩnga, mlȩnga ‘ate’
  mȩsuub ‘study’ milsuub, mlsuub ‘studied’
  mȩchiuaiu ‘sleep’ milȩchiuaiu, mlȩchiuaiu ‘slept’
  mȩkȩra ‘do what?’ milȩkȩra, mlȩkȩra ‘did what?’

It is very difficult to determine the exact difference between the two past tense forms shown for each verb in 28, since many speakers seem to use the two forms interchangeably. For those speakers who do use the two forms differently, there is a fairly subtle distinction in meaning, which we will now attempt to explain.

Past tense forms with -il- focus on a past action while it was in progress; often, the particular action is portrayed as going on or 126continuing at the moment when some other action or event occurred. Note the following sentences:

(29) a. Ak milsuub er se ȩr a lȩmad a dengki.
    ‘I was studying when the electricity went out’.
  b. A Toki a milȩchiuaiu er se ȩr a lȩme a Droteo.
    ‘Toki was sleeping when Droteo came.’
  c. A Droteo a milȩngȩdub er se ȩr a kbong.
    ‘Droteo was swimming when I arrived.’

In the sentences of 29, the activities of studying, sleeping, and swimming were going on when some other (possibly interrupting) event took place; this latter event is introduced by er se(ȩr a) ‘when’ (which is followed by a hypothetical verb form—see 22.2).

By contrast, past tense forms with -l- do not focus on an event as it was in progress; rather, they seem to view a completed action or event as something which more or less fully occupied a particular period of time. For example, if someone asked

(30) Kȩ mlȩkȩra er a elii?
  ‘What did you do yesterday?’

it would be appropriate to give answers like the following:

(31) a. Ak mlsuub.
    ‘I studied.’
  b. Ak mlȩchiuaiu e le ak mle smechȩr.
    ‘I stayed in bed because I was sick.’

In 31ab, the past tense forms with -l- imply that studying or staying in bed was essentially all that the subject (ak ‘I’) did during the particular period of time designated by er a elii ‘yesterday’.

Because -il- and -l- look at past events from different view­points, they cannot substitute for each other in certain environ­ments. Thus, the sentences of 29 sound extremely strange if we replace milsuub ‘was studying’ by mlsuub ‘studied’, etc. In other words, a sentence like the following (cf. 29a):

(32) *Ak mlsuub er se ȩr a lȩmad a dengki.
  (? ‘I studied when the electricity went out.’)

makes no sense because it would be impossible for the subject (ak ‘I’) to have spent a lot of time studying (which is what mlsuub implies) at the very moment the electricity went out!

So far, we have only looked at the past tense forms of state verbs and of action verbs which contain the verb marker prefix 127mȩ-. There are, of course, many other classes of verbs, and most of these have past tense forms, as described in the paragraphs below.

a. As we saw in 5.1.3 above, some Palauan action verbs begin with o-, which is one form of the verb marker prefix (see 5.4 below and chap. 6). For such verbs, the past tense forms are derived simply by replacing the initial o- with ul(ȩ)-2, as in the examples below:

(33) Action VerbPresent Tense Past Tense Form
  osiik ‘look for’ ulsiik ‘looked for’
  oker ‘ask’ ulȩker ‘asked’
  omes ‘see’ ulȩmes ‘saw’
  orrengȩs ‘hear’ ulȩrrengȩs ‘heard’
  omuchȩl ‘begin’ ulȩmuchȩl ‘began’
  okiu ‘go by way of’ ulȩkiu ‘went by way of’
  obes ‘forget’ ulȩbes ‘forgot’
  ousbech ‘need’ ulusbech ‘needed’
  oureor ‘work’ ulureor ‘worked’

Causative verbs (see chap. 9) also begin with o-, but this o-is part of the causative prefixes omȩ(k)-, ol(ȩ)- and or-.3 As in the examples of 33, the past tense forms of causative verbs are derived by replacing the initial o- with ul(ȩ)-:

(34) Causative Verb (in imperfective form) Past Tense Form
  omȩkdȩchor ‘make…stand’ ulȩmȩkdȩchor ‘made…stand’
  omȩngamȩch ‘make…smoke’ ulȩmȩngamȩch ‘made…smoke’
  omȩngim ‘give drink to’ ulȩmȩngim ‘gave drink to’
  olȩkar ‘wake up’ ullȩkar ‘woke up’
  olȩchiis ‘chase’ ullȩchiis ‘chased’
  ollangȩl ‘make…cry’ ulȩllanȩl ‘made…cry’
  orrebȩt ‘drop’ ulȩrrebȩt ‘dropped’

In addition to the present and past imperfective forms given in 34, causative verbs also have present and past perfective forms. Because the structure of these forms is very complicated, we will postpone further discussion until 9.4.


b. As we will see in 6.2, there are many Palauan intransitive action verbs which do not begin with the verb marker - but instead contain an infixed verb marker of the form -(ȩ)m- or -u-. 128To derive the past tense forms of such verbs, we simply replace the infixed verb marker (italicized in the examples below) with the past tense marker -il- or -ir-:

(35) Intransitive Action Verb
Present Tense
Past Tense Form
  lmuut ‘return’ liluut ‘returned’
  suebȩk ‘fly’ silebȩk ‘flew’
  tuobȩd ‘come out’ tilobȩd ‘came out’
  chȩmiis ‘escape’ chiliis ‘escaped’
  ruebȩt ‘fall’ rirebȩt ‘fell’
  rȩmurt ‘run’ rirurt ‘ran’
  rȩmos ‘drown’ riros ‘drowned’

In the last three examples of 35, the past tense marker appears as -ir- instead of -il-. If we consider -il- to be the basic form of the past tense marker, we can explain the change of l to r as an in­stance of complete assimilation: in other words, the l of -il- assimilates completely to (i.e., becomes identical with) the preced­ing word-initial r.

In discussing the past tense forms of transitive action verbs, we have so far only considered the imperfective forms. Now we will look briefly at the perfective forms of such verbs, which can also appear in the past tense. Observe the following examples:

(36) Transitive Action Verb
Perfective Form,
Present Tense
Past Tense Form
  sosȩbii ‘burn it’ silsȩbii ‘burned it’
  suesȩb ‘burn them’ silesȩb ‘burned them’
  kolii ‘eat it up’ killii ‘ate it up’
  kma ‘eat them up’ kila ‘ate them up’
  rullii ‘make it’ rirȩllii ‘made it’
  rȩmuul ‘make them’ riruul ‘made them’

As you can see, the examples of 36 involve exactly the same pro­cesses which we observed in 35 above. Thus, in the past tense forms, the past tense marker -il- or -ir- has replaced the (italicized) infixed verb marker of the present tense forms. Furthermore, the appearance of -ir- in the last two forms is the result of assimila­tion. Because the morphology of Palauan perfective verb forms is extremely complex, we cannot pursue it further at this point. A more detailed discussion will be given in 6.3, 6.3.13, and 6.47.

The above-mentioned assimilation of l to r is also observed 129in the past tense forms of action verbs in which the verb marker prefix mȩ- is followed by a verb stem (see 5.4 below) which begins with r. Thus, we have forms like mȩruul ‘make’—mirruul ‘made’, mȩrasm ‘sew’—mirrasm ‘sewed’, and mȩrael ‘leave’—mirrael ‘left’.


c. The past tense forms of ergative verbs (see 5.4 below) are derived by infixing the past tense markers -il- or -l- after the m of the verb marker, as in the following:

(37) Ergative Verb FormPresent Tense Past Tense Form
  mȩchuiu ‘get read’ milȩchuiu, mlȩchuiu ‘got read’
  mȩchamȩch ‘get chewed up’ milȩchamȩch, mlȩchamȩch ‘got chewed up’
  mȩngim ‘get drunk up’ milȩngim, mlȩngim ‘got drunk up’

Unlike the examples of 28, the two past tense forms given for the ergative verbs of 37 show no differences in meaning or use and are completely interchangeable.


d. As we saw in 4.10.3, the past tense hypothetical forms of imperfective verbs consist of a prefixed hypothetical pronoun which ends in u (e.g., lu- ‘he, she, it’, du- ‘we (incl.)’ etc.), fol­lowed by the past tense marker -l- and the verb stem.4 Forms of this kind are given below in the right-hand column:

(38) Hypothetical Verb FormPresent Tense Past Tense Form
  lolim ‘is drunk by him/her/it’ lullim ‘was drunk by him/her/it’
  dosilȩk ‘is washed by us (incl.)’ dulsilȩk ‘was washed by us (incl.)’
  mongȩlebȩd ‘is hit by you’ mulȩngȩlebȩd ‘was hit by you’ The Auxiliary mla.

Verb phrases which consist of the auxiliary word mla5 followed by the present tense form of any action verb are used to express two special types of past time. First, in the sentences below, mla + action verb refers to an event which happened in the recent past—that is, at a time point which is not too distant from that of the utterance itself:130

(39) a. A John a mla mȩsuub.
    ‘John has studied/been studying.’
  b. A Droteo a mla mei.
    ‘Droteo has come’
  c. Ng tȩcha a mla kolii a kall?
    ‘Who has eaten up the food?’
  d. Ak mla mo mȩrek ȩr a subȩlek.
    ‘I’ve finished my homework.’
  e. A chȩmȩlek a mla mȩchamȩch.
    ‘My betel nut has (all) been chewed up.’

If we replace the instances of mla + action verb in 39 with the corresponding past tense verb forms containing infixed -il- or -l- (i.e., milsuub/ mlsuub ‘studied’, mlei ‘came’, killii ‘ate it up’, mlo mȩrek ‘finished’, and milȩchamȩch/ mlȩchamȩch ‘got chewed’), we get sentences which designate relatively remote past time.

Second, mla + action verb can also refer to past experience; in such cases, it is used most commonly in questions which ask whether someone has ever had the experience of doing something. The following examples are typical:

(40) a. Kȩ mla mo ȩr a chelȩbachȩb?
    ‘Have you ever gone to the rock islands?’
  b. Kȩ mla mȩsuub a tȩkoi ȩr a Siabal?
    ‘Have you ever studied Japanese?’
  c. Kȩ mla mȩlasȩm ȩl mȩnga a sasimi?
    ‘Have you ever tried eating sashimi?

5.3.3. Future Tense

The function of the future tense is to designate an action or a state which will take place in the future, at some point in time following the time of the utterance. In order to express the future tense, we use the verb mo ‘go’ as an auxiliary word preceding any present tense verb form. Verb phrases of the form mo + verb differ in meaning depending on whether the verb following mo is an action verb or a state verb. Sequences of the form mo + action verb simply designate actions or events which are expected to take place in the future, as in the sentences below:

(41) a.   Ak mo omes ȩr a John ȩr a klukuk.
    ‘I’m going to see John tomorrow.’
  b. A Toki a mo mȩsuub ȩr a Merikel er tia ȩl me ȩl rak.
    ‘Toki will study in America next year.’ 131
  c. Aki mo mini ȩr a blil a Droteo.
    ‘We’re going to play at Droteo’s house.’

As sentences like 41a-b show, verb phrases designating the future tense often are accompanied by temporal phrases (see 14.6) such as ȩr a klukuk ‘tomorrow’ or er tia ȩl me ȩl rak ‘next year’, which refer to some time point or time period in the future.

Sequences of the form mo + state verb have a future meaning but also imply a change of state (cf. our discussion of the examples of 16 in 5.1.3 above). Note, therefore, the following examples:

(42) a.   Ng mo mȩkngit a eangȩd ȩr a klukuk.
    ‘The weather will get worse tomorrow.’
  b. A toktang a dilu ȩl kmo a ngȩlȩkek a mo ungil ȩr a klukuk.
    ‘The doctor said my child will get better tomorrow.’
  c. A tangk a mo mui ȩr a kȩbȩsȩngei.
    ‘The tank will get full (by) this evening.’


In the sections above we have already had occasion to refer to the Palauan verb marker, which can be found in one form or another in the great majority of Palauan verbs. It is very difficult to define or specify the meaning of the verb marker; rather, the best we can do is to say that the verb marker simply functions to mark or identify a particular word as a verb.

Though we will examine the verb marker in greater detail in the next chapter, let us briefly review some of its variant forms and their distribution. By far, the verb marker appears most commonly as a prefix mȩ- (sometimes reduced to m-); this prefix is found on all types of verbs, as shown in the list below:

(43) Transitive action verb:    mȩnga ‘eat’, mȩlim ‘drink’, mȩsilȩk ‘wash’, mȩles ‘cut’, etc.
  Intransitive action verb:   mȩrael ‘walk, travel’, mȩngȩdub ‘swim’, milil ‘play’, etc.
  Transitive state verb:   mȩdȩnge ‘know’, mȩduch ‘know how to’, mȩtitur ‘not know how to’, etc.
  Intransitive state verb:   mȩkngit ‘bad’, mȩsisiich ‘strong’, mȩsaul ‘tired’, mȩsaik ‘lazy’, etc.

Less frequently, the verb marker takes the form of a prefix o-, as in verbs like osiik ‘look for’, oker ‘ask’, oklukl ‘cough’, and okiu ‘go by way of’

In certain classes of verb forms, the verb marker appears as 132an infixed element of the form -(ȩ)m-, -u-, or -o-. Many intransitive verbs are of this type: these may be action verbs, as in 35 above, or state verbs like smechȩr ‘sick’, dmak ‘together’, or kmeed ‘near’. In addition, the present tense perfective forms of most transitive action verbs have an infixed verb marker; some typical examples were given in 36 above.

The simplest Palauan verbs are those which consist of just a single morpheme or meaning-bearing unit; these include a relatively small number of state verbs such as klou ‘big’, dȩngchokl ‘sitting’, ungil ‘good’, cheisȩch ‘stained’, and ngar ‘is (located)’. The overwhelming majority of Palauan verbs, however, are more complex in structure than the state verbs we just mentioned and contain anywhere from two to four morphemes. In this and the following sections we will survey the structure of verb forms con­taining two or more morphemes, beginning with the easier types and moving on to the more complex ones.

We will first examine a group of verb forms which consist only of the verb marker prefix and a following verb stem. A verb stem is a morpheme to which one or more affixes are added in the process of forming a verb. In the examples below, the verb stem which follows the verb marker prefix mȩ- or o- is actually a noun which can occur as an independent word:

(44) Derived Verb Related Noun
  mȩchat ‘be/get smoked (of fish)’ chat ‘smoke’
  mȩchȩlebȩd ‘be/get hit’ chȩlebȩd ‘spanking, whip’
  mȩchȩsimȩr ‘be/get closed’ chȩsimȩr ‘door’
  mȩchȩsbrebȩr ‘be/get painted’ chȩsbrebȩr ‘paint’
  mȩchas ‘be/get burned’ chas ‘soot’
  mȩdub ‘be/get poisoned, bombed’ dub ‘dynamite, poison’
  mȩdangȩb ‘be/get covered’ dangȩb ‘lid’
  mȩtȩkoi ‘be/get talked to’ tȩkoi ‘language, word’
  oboes ‘be/get shot’ boes ‘gun’
  obail ‘be/get clothed’ bail ‘article of clothing’
  obȩkall ‘be/get driven’ bȩkall ‘sail, driving’

The following verbs also consist of the verb marker prefix followed by a verb stem, but unlike the examples of 44, the verb stem cannot appear as a separate word:

(45) mȩchuiu ‘be/get read’ mȩdobȩch ‘be/get cut’
  mȩka ‘be/get eaten’ mȩluchȩs ‘be/get written’
  mȩchitakl ‘be/get sung’ mȩsebȩk ‘be/get kicked’ 133

Verb stems like -chuiu ‘read’, -ka ‘eat’, -luchȩs ‘write’, etc. are called bound forms because they never occur alone as independent words but must always be connected to some other morpheme (usually an affix of some kind). All affixes, too, are necessarily bound forms; thus, we will never find affixes like mȩ- or o- (verb markers) or -ek ‘my’ or -em ‘your’ (possessor suffixes) occurring as separate words.

Before discussing the meaning and use of the verb forms in 44 and 45, we need to introduce some other verb forms for com­parison. As we will see in 5.5 below, all of the verbs in 44 and 45 have corresponding imperfective forms, which in most cases can be easily identified because they show a characteristic change in the verb-stem-initial consonant. A few examples are given below:

(46) Verb of 44 or 45 Imperfective Form
  mȩchat ‘be/get smoked (of fish)’ mȩngat ‘smoke (fish)’
  mȩchuiu ‘be/get read’ mȩnguiu ‘read’
  mȩka ‘be/get eaten’ mȩnga ‘eat’
  mȩdobȩch ‘be/get cut’ mȩlobech ‘cut’
  mȩtȩkoi ‘be/get talked to’ mȩlȩkoi ‘talk, speak’
  oboes ‘be/get shot’ omoes ‘shoot’
  mȩluchȩs ‘be/get written’ mȩluchȩs ‘write’

All of the imperfective verb forms in 46 are transitive verbs—that is, they take object noun phrases (cf. 5.1.1 above). By con­trast, the corresponding verb forms of 44 and 45 are not transitive, but instead have a rather unique function: they take as their subject what would be the object of the related transitive verb. Observe the following examples:

(47) a. A Droteo a mla mȩngat a ngikȩl.
    ‘Droteo has smoked the fish.’
  b. A ngikȩl a mla mȩchat.
    ‘The fish has been smoked.’
(48) a. A Toki a mla mȩnga a kall.
    ‘Toki has eaten the food.’
  b. A kall a mla mȩkang.
    ‘The food has been eaten.’

In comparing the a- and b-sentences of 47 and 48 above, you can see that the object noun phrases (italicized) of the transitive a-sentences have become the subject noun phrases of the b-sentences. Furthermore, the subjects of the b-sentences are viewed as having undergone the effect of the actions designated by mla 134mȩchat ‘has been smoked’ and mla mȩkang ‘has been eaten’. Linguists use the technical term ergative verb to identify the verb forms listed in 44 and 45 and illustrated in 47b and 48b. As we have seen above, ergative verb forms differ from the correspond­ing imperfective verb forms in meaning and use and—in most cases—pronunciation.

In English, too, we have pairs of sentences similar to those of 47 and 48, as the following example illustrates:

(49) a. This key opens my office door.
  b. My office door opens with this key.

While 49a is a transitive sentence in which my office door is the object of the verb open, in 49b my office door appears as the sub­ject of open and designates the thing which undergoes the action of opening. Thus, 49b appears to be rather similar to the Palauan ergative sentences given in 47b and 48b. Note, however, that while the same verb form—opens—is found in both of the English sentences, the Palauan sentences in 47 and 48 show different but related verb forms—i.e., ergative mȩchat ‘be/get smoked’ vs. imperfective (transitive) mȩngat ‘smoke’, etc. Though sentences like 49b are not very common in English, Palauan sentences like 47b and 48b are found quite frequently.

Ergative verb forms in the present tense have a special inter­pretation: they are used as warnings or as suggestions to take precautions against some expected future event. (Do you recall any other Palauan verb forms which are used in the same way?). Note, therefore, the following sentences, in which the present tense ergative forms have been italicized:

(50) a.   Alii, a chimam a{mȩdobȩch / oburȩch}!
    ‘Watch out, your arm will get {cut / speared}!’
  b. Alii, kȩdȩ mȩdul ȩr a ngau!
    ‘Watch out, we’ll get burned by the fire!’
  c. Bart a chȩmȩlek e ng mo ȩl mȩchamȩch.
    ‘Hide my betel nut, or else it’ll get chewed.’
  d. Bart a kȩlek e ng mo ȩl mȩka ȩr a bilis.
    ‘Hide my food, or else it’ll get eaten by the dog.’

While 50a-b imply imminent danger, 50c-d are less urgent in tone and suggest that precautions be taken to forestall some future event which is thought likely to occur. In warning or pre­caution sentences like 50a-d (and in ergative sentences in general, 135as we will see below), Palauan speakers often omit the relational phrase which designates the cause or agent responsible for the particular event; and some Palauan speakers even find that the presence of relational phrases like ȩr a ngau ‘by the fire’ in 50b and ȩr a bilis ‘by the dog’ in 50d results in rather awkward sen­tences.

The above-mentioned facts point to one of the major features which distinguish ergative sentences from passive sentences (see 5.6 below): while the agent responsible for the event is normally expressed in passive sentences, most ergative sentences do not mention the cause or agent. For this reason, ergative sentences are used in cases where the cause or agent is thought to be irrelevant or unimportant. This point is illustrated clearly in the dialogs below, in which B’s responses to A’s questions contain ergative verbs in various past tenses:

(51) A: Ng dirk ngar ȩr ngii a biang?
    ‘Is there any beer left?’
  B: Ng diak. Ng milȩngim er a elii.
    ‘No. It got drunk up yesterday.’
(52) A: Ng dirk ngar ȩr ngii a kall?
    ‘Is there any food left?’
  B: Ng diak. Ng mla mȩkang.
    ‘No. It’s been eaten up.’
(53) A: Ng dirk ngar ȩr ngii a hong ȩl kirel ȩl donguiu?
    ‘Are there still some books we have to read?’
  B: Ng diak. Ng mla mȩchuiu ȩl rokui.
    ‘No. They’ve all been read.’
(54) A: Kȩ mo mȩngȩsbrebȩr ȩr a mlim er oingarang?
    ‘When are you going to paint your canoe?’
  B: Ng diak.6 Ng mla mȩchȩsbrebȩr.
    ‘(I don’t need to.) It’s already been painted.’

In the dialogs above, B’s responses do not contain any re­lational phrases which identify the cause or agent of the action. Such phrases are unnecessary because the main purpose of B’s responses is simply to focus on the past event as it affects the present situation: in 52, for example, what is important is the fact that the food was eaten and there is none left now; who ate the food does not matter. In some cases—e.g., 53—it is clear from A’s question who the agent of the action is; therefore, there is no need for B to supply this information in his answer. Notice, further, that while the present tense ergative verb forms in 50 have a con­notation 136of warning or precaution, the various past tense ergative forms in 5154 lack this connotation.

As the sentences below illustrate, ergative verbs can be pre­ceded by the auxiliary mo to indicate future tense:

(55) a.   A stoa ȩr a Droteo a mo mȩngai a chȩsmȩrel ȩr a euid ȩl klok.
    ‘Droteo’s store will open at seven.’
  b. A delmȩrab ȩr ngak a mo mȩchȩsbrebȩr ȩr a klukuk.
    ‘My room is going to be painted tomorrow.’
  c. A bilek a mo mȩsilȩk ȩr a suelȩb.
    ‘My clothes will get washed this afternoon.’

Unlike the examples of 50, the sentences of 55 (though still ergative) do not have any sense of warning or precaution. These sentences simply express a future event with emphasis on the event itself rather than on the person responsible for the event: in 55b, for example, our attention is drawn to the fact that the room will get painted, but it is not important to know by whom. Because of this difference of emphasis, we cannot at all say that 55a-c and the following “corresponding” transitive sentences are equivalent in meaning or function:

(56) a.   A Droteo a mo mȩlai ȩr a chȩsmȩrel a stoa ȩr ngii ȩr a euid ȩl klok.
    ‘Droteo is going to open his store at seven.’
  b. A sȩchȩlik a mo mȩngȩsbrebȩr ȩr a delmȩrab ȩr ngak ȩr a klukuk.
    ‘A friend of mine is going to paint my room tomorrow.’
  c. A Toki a mo mȩsilȩk a bilek ȩr a suelȩb.
    ‘Toki is going to wash my clothes this afternoon.’


In 5.4 above, we remarked that every Palauan ergative verb has a corresponding imperfective form, which can usually be identified by a characteristic change in the verb-stem-initial consonant. As we will see below, a detailed analysis of the structure of im­perfective verb forms will require us to modify this statement considerably. In the following paragraphs we will explain the structure of both imperfective and perfective verb forms in some detail; then we will sketch briefly how these two verb types differ from each other in meaning and use.

All Palauan imperfective verb forms consist of three mor­137phemes and have the structure verb marker + imperfective marker + verb stem. As you can see, this structure is more complex than that of ergative verb forms, which consist of the two-morpheme sequence verb marker + verb stem. Ergative verb forms are more “basic” than imperfective verb forms in the sense that the latter can be derived from the former simply by putting the imperfective marker between the verb marker and the verb stem (see the ex­ample below). The imperfective marker has several variants—i.e., l, ng, or m—depending on the initial consonant of the fol­lowing verb stem. Furthermore, once the correct variant of the imperfective marker has been determined, the initial consonant of the following verb stem is deleted. To take a simple example, we have the ergative verb form mȩchuiu ‘be/get read’, which con­sists of the verb marker mȩ- and the (bound) verb stem -chuiu ‘read’. To derive the corresponding imperfective verb form, we need to “fill in” the formula + imperfective marker + chuiu with the appropriate form of the imperfective marker. As we will see below, the imperfective marker appears as ng if the following verb-stem-initial consonant is ch. Thus, we get the sequence + ng + chuiu, which, after deletion of the verb-stem-initial consonant gives us the correct imperfective form mȩnguiu ‘read’.7

In the light of the above discussion, we can see that it was incorrect to say that a given ergative verb form and its corre­sponding imperfective verb from differ with respect to the verb-stem-initial consonant. In other words, imperfective mȩnguiu ‘read’ is not really derived from ergative mȩchuiu ‘be/get read’ simply by replacing ch with ng; what actually happens is that ng (a variant of the imperfective marker) is added before the verb stem, whose initial consonant is then deleted. Thus, in mȩnguiu ‘read’, the ng is not part of the verb stem; rather, it is a separate morpheme—namely, the imperfective marker.

Let us now examine the distribution of the three variants of the imperfective marker:

a. The imperfective marker appears as -l- before verb stems which begin with the dental stops t or d, the alveolar fricative s, the liquid l, or the velar nasal ng. Some imperfective verb forms containing this variant of the imperfective marker are derived as follows:

(57) Verb Marker + Imperfective Marker + Verb Stem Delete Verb-Stem-Initial Consonant→ Imperfective Form
  + 1 + tiud ‘way of cutting’ mȩliud ‘cut (round object)’ 138
  + 1 + tȩkoi ‘word, language’ mȩlȩkoi ‘talk, speak’
  + 1 + dasȩch ‘carving’ mȩlasȩch ‘carve’
  + 1 + deel ‘nail’ mȩleel ‘nail’
  + 1 + sesȩb ‘fire’ mȩlesȩb ‘burn’
  + 1 + sȩkosȩk mȩlȩkosȩk ‘cut (meat)’
  + 1 + leng mȩleng ‘borrow’
  + 1 + luchȩs mȩluchȩs ‘write’
  + 1 + ngatȩch ‘way of cleaning’ mȩlatȩch ‘clean’
  + 1 + ngim mȩlim ‘drink’
  + 1 + ngukȩd ‘fine’ mȩlukȩd ‘pay a fine’

While most of the verb stems in 57 can be used independently as nouns, as the English glosses indicate, some stems are bound—e.g. -sȩkosȩk, -leng, etc. Can you describe the meaning relation­ship between pairs of words such as tȩkoi ‘word, language’—mȩlȩkoi ‘talk, speak’, ngukȩd ‘fine’—mȩlukȩd ‘pay a fine’, etc.?

Because of the deletion of the verb-stem-initial consonant, most of the imperfective verb forms of 57 are different from the corresponding ergative forms—thus, we have mȩliud ‘cut’ vs. mȩtiud ‘be/get cut’, mȩlesȩb ‘burn’ vs. mȩsesȩb ‘be/get burned’, etc. If the verb-stem-initial consonant is l, however, as in the case of mȩleng ‘borrow’ and mȩluchȩs ‘write’, then the corresponding ergative form is identical. Can you explain why this is so?

There are a few s-initial verb stems in which the s is not deleted following the imperfective marker -l-; instead, -l- is deleted and s remains. This small group of exceptions includes mȩsilȩk ‘wash’, mȩsebȩk ‘kick’, and mȩsuub ‘study’. Can you see why for these verbs, too, the imperfective and ergative forms are identical?


b. The imperfective marker occurs as -ng- before verb stems which begin with the velar stop k or the glottal stop ch. Some imperfective verb forms containing this variant of the imperfec­tive marker are now derived as in 57 above:

(58) Verb Marker + Imperfective Marker + Verb Stem Delete Verb-Stem-Initial Consonant→ Imperfective Form
  + ng + ka mȩnga ‘eat’
  + ng + kȩreel ‘line for fishing’ mȩngȩreel ‘catch fish (with a line)’ 139
  + ng + kiis mȩngiis ‘dig’
  + ng + chat ‘smoke’ mȩngat ‘smoke (fish)’
  + ng + chȩsimȩr ‘door’ mȩngȩsimȩr ‘close’
  + ng + chitakl mȩngitakl ‘sing’
  + ng + chas ‘soot, ash’ mȩngas ‘paint (someone) with ashes’
  + ng + chaus ‘lime’ mȩngaus ‘put lime on (betel nut)’

c. The imperfective marker appears as -m- before verb stems which begin with the bilabial stop b. With verb stems of this type, the verb marker prefix takes the form o-, as indicated in the derivations below:

(59) Verb Marker + Imperfective Marker + Verb Stem Delete Verb-Stem-Initial Consonant→ Imperfective Form
  o + m + boes ‘gun’ omoes ‘shoot’
  o + m + bail ‘article of clothing’ omail ‘clothe’
  o + m + btar ‘swing’ omtar ‘swing’
  o + m + burȩch ‘(action of) spearing’ omurȩch ‘spear’

d. Following 54 above, we listed some exceptional cases in which the imperfective marker is deleted before certain s-initial verb stems. This same phenomenon is found among two further groups of verbs. First, we do not find any trace of the imperfective marker in imperfective verb forms if the verb stem is r-initial, as in mȩruul ‘make, prepare’ and mȩrasm ‘sew’. Second, the im­perfective marker appears to have been deleted in the imperfective forms of verbs like oker ‘ask’, in which the verb marker is o- and the verb stem (ker ‘question’) is an independently-occurring noun.

Practically all Palauan imperfective verb forms have cor­responding perfective verb forms, which differ in several important respects. Let us compare the structures of the two verb types by using the following formulas:

(60) a. imperfective verb form: verb marker + imperfective marker + verb stem
  b.   perfective verb form: verb marker + verb stem + object pronoun 140

Since the imperfective marker simply functions to identify a verb form as being imperfective, it is only natural that this marker would not be part of the structure of perfective verb forms. In addition, as we observed in 4.9 and 4.9.14, perfective verb forms always take an object pronoun suffix, whereas imperfective verb forms do not. A third difference between the two types of verbs is that although both contain the verb marker (indicated as the first element in the formulas above), in perfective verb forms this verb marker always shifts to a position following the initial con­sonant of the verb stem. As a result, most perfective verb forms show an infixed verb marker of the form -(ȩ)m-, -u-, or -o-.

The following examples illustrate some of the differences discussed above:

(61) Imperfective Verb Form    Perfective Verb Form (with 3rd pers. sg. Object pronoun suffix)
  mȩlasȩch ‘carve’   dosȩchii ‘carve it’
  mȩleel ‘nail’   dmelii ‘nail it’
  mȩlesȩb ‘burn’   sosȩbii ‘burn it’
  mȩlatȩch ‘clean’   ngotȩchii ‘clean it’
  mȩnga ‘eat’   kolii ‘eat it’

Whereas the imperfective verb forms all have the prefixed verb marker mȩ-, the corresponding perfective verb forms show the verb marker (italicized) following the verb-stem-initial consonant. Like the ergative verb forms given in 44 and 45 above, the per­fective verb forms of 61 preserve the verb-stem-initial consonant (d, s, ng, k, etc.), while the imperfective verb forms do not. This is due to the presence or absence of the imperfective marker, which, as we have seen, causes (or conditions) the loss of a following verb-stem-initial consonant. Thus, in imperfective verb forms, which contain this marker, the verb-stem-initial consonant is dropped; in ergative and perfective verb forms, however, where this marker is absent, the consonant in question is retained. For this reason, we should look at ergative verb forms or perfective verb forms if we wish to determine the initial consonant of a verb stem.

The formation of Palauan perfective verbs involves a great many complexities and will not be pursued further until the next chapter. Equally complex is the difference in meaning and use between perfective verbs and imperfective verbs. Though we will deal with this topic extensively in chap. 12, we will make a few preliminary observations here. The distinction between perfec­ 141tive vs. imperfective, which is found only among transitive verbs, is essentially the following: whereas perfective verb forms de­signate a totally completed (or “perfected”) action, imperfective verb forms do not indicate completion but rather focus on the action as it is (or was) in progress. This difference can be observed in the pairs of sentences below:

(62) a. A Droteo a milȩnguiu ȩr a hong er a elii.
    ‘Droteo was reading the book yesterday.’
  b. A Droteo a chiliuii a hong er a elii.
    ‘Droteo read the book yesterday.’
(63) a. Ak milȩngiis ȩr a kliokl.
    ‘I was digging the hole.’
  b. Ak kilisii a kliokl.
    ‘I (completely) dug the hole.’

In 62a and 63a above, the imperfective verb forms milȩnguiu ‘was reading’ and milȩngiis ‘was digging’ describe an action which went on for a period of time but was not completed: in other words, 62a is understood to mean that Droteo still has some of the book to read, and 63a implies that the subject must still do some digging. On the other hand, the perfective verb forms chiliuii ‘(completely) read’ and kilisii ‘(completely) dug’ in 62b and 63b designate an action which was brought to completion: thus, in 62b Droteo finished reading the book, and in 63b the subject finished digging the hole. As we saw in 2.7, and as 62 and 63 above illustrate, any specific singular object following an imperfective verb form must be introduced by the specifying word ȩr; occurrence of ȩr is impossible, however, after all perfective verb forms.


All Palauan transitive verbs, whether imperfective or perfective, can occur in active or passive sentences. The transitive verbs we have looked at so far have all appeared in active sentences such as the following:

(64) a. A ngalȩk a menga ȩr a ngikȩl.
    ‘The child is eating the fish.’
  b. A John a milȩngȩlebȩd ȩr a katuu.
    ‘John was hitting the cat.’
  c. A ngalȩk a silsȩbii a blai.
    ‘The child burned down the house.’ 142

In active sentences, the subject noun phrase corresponds to the agent—i.e., to the person who carries out or performs the action designated by the transitive verb. Can you identify the object noun phrases in 64a-c?

Now, with 64a-c above, compare the following passive sentences:

(65) a. A ngikȩl a longa ȩr ngii a ngalȩk.
    ‘The fish is being eaten by the child.’
  b. A katuu a lulȩngȩlebȩd ȩr ngii a John.
    ‘The cat was being hit by John.’
  c. A blai a lȩsilsȩbii a ngalȩk.
    ‘The house was burned down by the child.’

If we think of the sentences of 65 as being derived from those of 64, we can see that in the passive sentences of 65, the object noun phrases of 64 have come to appear in sentence subject position; furthermore, in 65, the agent, which was the subject noun phrase in 64, has moved to sentence-final position. Two further signi­ficant changes can be observed in the passive sentences: first, the transitive verb appears in the hypothetical form (cf. 4.10 and 4.10.19); and second, if the verb is imperfective, as in 65 a-b, ȩr ngii is added after it if the object is singular.

An explanation of the above phenomena is beyond the scope of our present discussion and will be postponed until 19.7. Nevertheless, we can see that passive sentences are” characterized by the fact that the noun phrase found in subject position actual­ly refers to the object of the sentence—i.e., the person, animal, or thing affected by the action designated by the transitive verb. As the English translations for 64 and 65 indicate, active and passive sentences do not differ in meaning from the point of view of what information they convey. For example, 64c and 65c pro­vide us with exactly the same information—namely, that an act of burning occurred at some time in the past, that the agent (or person responsible) was a child, and that the thing affected was a house. The only difference between these two sentences—and between active and passive sentences in general—is a matter of focus or viewpoint: the active sentence 64c would be used when the speaker is focusing his attention on the agent (ngalȩk ‘child’) and the agent’s activities (or behavior, etc.), while the passive sentence 65c would be used in a situation where the speaker is more interested in the object (blai ‘house’) than in the agent.

In discussing ergative sentences in 5.4, we noted that while 143ergative sentences containing an agent tend to be avoided by cer­tain Palauan speakers, passive sentences containing an agent are perfectly acceptable. This is because passive sentences are used when the speaker feels it necessary to mention both agent and object, although, as mentioned above, he is focusing his attention on the latter. On the other hand, ergative sentences are used when identification of the agent is considered to be irrelevant or un­important (cf. 5155 above). Thus, with 65c, for example, com­pare the corresponding ergative sentence below:

(66) A blai a milsesȩb.
  ‘The house (was) burned down.’


In the sections above, we have tried to gain an understanding of Palauan verbs by examining such major distinctions as transitive vs. intransitive, active vs. passive vs. ergative, and the like. How­ever, there still remain many features of Palauan verbs which need to be explained but which are of such a scope that they will require separate chapters. These remaining topics are summarized below:


a. In 4.10 and 4.10.19, we looked at hypothetical verb forms from the point of view of the prefixed hypothetical pronouns, which designate the agent. Hypothetical verb forms have the structure hypothetical pronoun + imperfective marker + verb stem (note the lack of the verb marker in these forms) and are used in a large variety of grammatical constructions. Such constructions will be discussed extensively in chaps. 18 and 19.


b. There are several distinct classes of Palauan state verbs which require special attention. As we will see in chap. 7, it is possible to form resulting state verbs and anticipating state verbs, as well as state verbs with the prefixes bȩkȩ-, sȩkȩ-, and bȩ-. And in chap. 10, we will consider reciprocal verbs, a subtype of state verbs which have the reciprocal prefixes kai-, ka-, cha-, etc. and which de­signate actions which two persons do to each other mutually.


c. As we saw in 5.3.2 above, causative verbs are formed with the causative prefixes omȩ(k)-, ol(ȩ)-, etc. They are transitive verbs and involve actions in which one person causes or forces someone else to do something or be in a particular state. Causative verbs will be dealt with extensively in chap. 9. 144


d. Palauan verbs can be modified in form and meaning by a large number of reduplicative processes. Special meanings can also be obtained by adding the predictive or inchoative suffixes. See 11.12 and 11.12.15 for further details.


The many types of Palauan verbs introduced in this chapter are summarized in the rather rough diagram below (fig. 4). Note that this diagram does not take account of hypothetical verb forms, certain subvarieties of state verbs, and the different verb forms occurring in active vs. passive sentences (cf. 5.6 above). 145

Figure 4


*2. The surface form ul(ȩ)- is probably derived from underlying o-il-(i.e., the verb marker prefix o- followed by the past tense marker -il-). The mid back vowel o and the high front vowel l assimilate to each other to yield the single high back vowel u.

*4. The surface forms of hypothetical pronouns like lu-, du-, etc. are probably derived from underlying sequences of the form lo-il-, do-il-, etc., which consist of the basic forms of the hypothetical pronoun prefixes followed by the past tense marker -il-. The u in lu-, du-, etc. is derived by “mutual” assimilation of the mid back vowel o and the high front vowel i, resulting in the single high back vowel u. Recall that the same process may account for the derivation of the surface form ul(ȩ)- from underlying o-il- (cf. note 2 above).

1. Although use of mle ‘was, were’ as an auxiliary word with state verbs probably developed from mle ‘came’, the past tense form of the intransitive action verb me ‘come’, it will be preferable to regard these items as separate words.

3. Though difficult to prove, it is possible that the causative prefixes listed here actually consist of the verb marker prefix o- followed by some other (causative) morpheme. See and for further discussion.

5. Though possibly related, the auxiliary word mla and the existential state verb mla ‘was/were (located)’ (see chap. 18) are best considered as separate words.

6. The use of ng diak ‘no’ in B’s response is quite interesting. Notice that, as in the case of 51–53, ng diak is normally the negative response to yes-no questions (see 20.1). In 54, however, B’s use of ng diak serves to tell A that the assumption of A’s question—namely, that B has yet to paint his canoe—is not correct.

7. Much of the analysis presented here and in subsequent paragraphs is based on Wilson 1972: 120–128. 501

You will notice that the verb stem cholȩbȩd- which occurs in the perfective forms of 42 is phonetically quite different from the related (imperfective) verb mȩngȩlebȩd ‘hit’. Some of the phonetic changes observed between these two forms—for example, the appearance of the vowel o in the first syllable of the perfective verbs, or the alternation between the consonants ch and ng—re­quire lengthy explanation and will not be discussed until 5.5 and 6.3.1–2. Other changes, however, should not be difficult to under­stand because they involve the principle of vowel reduction ex­plained in 3.4. 96

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