Sandhi phenomena and "linking morphemes"

(Histling-l, Oct 22 2007)

Dear colleagues,

I'm interested in obtaining information on "linking morphemes" (that is, elements that "join together" two constituents in a compound or phrase). I'm particularly interested in possible cases where "linking morphemes" may have emerged through the morphologization of once-predictable phonological alternations. In lowland South American linguistics, "linking morphemes" (traditionally called "relational prefixes") are a hotly debated topic. While some linguists deny their existence as segmentable morphemes, some find them to be important pieces of evidence for a purported genetic relationship between three major South American families—Tupí, Karib, and Macro-Jê.

The similiarities between the "linking morphemes" in all three families are pointed out by Aryon Rodrigues (see data sample below, from Rodrigues 2000:102). In languages of the three families under consideration here (which are typically SOV), the "linking morpheme" occurs whenever a (noun, verb, and postpositional) root of the relevant morphological class is preceded by its absolutive argument (a possessor, for nouns; an object, for transitive verbs and postpositions; etc.). Roots belonging to this class will have at least two different stem-forms: one, with the "linking morpheme", the other, with a default, third-person marker (although, in some languages, a few stems can also occur "bare", prefixless).

Proto-Tupí-Guaraní *r- ~ *s-
Panará (Jê family) j- ~ s-
Hixkaryána (Karib) j- ~ 0-

My opinion falls somewhere between both extremes: although there are cases in which "linking morphemes" are obviously inherited, they cannot be necessarily seen as an example of "shared aberrancy" when comparing different families, since their distribution seems to point to an origin that may ultimately have been phonologically motivated. That is, given the right (phonological and syntactic) environments, "relational prefixes" could have developed independently in different families.

My own Macro-Jê comparative studies strongly suggest that the alternations involving the so-called relational prefixes (see examples below) can indeed be traced back to Proto-Macro-Jê. For instance, the linking prefix in the Parkatêjê example, j-, is clearly a cognate with the Karajá linking prefix d-, whereas the Parkatêjê third-person marker h- is clearly a cognate with the Karajá third-person marker t- (as fully corroborated by the ongoing
lexical comparison).

(1) Karajá (Karajá family, Macro-Jê stock)

(a) N d-e 'N's wing'
(b) t-e '(its) wing'

(2) Parkatêjê (Jê family, Macro-Jê stock)

(a) N j-arkwa 'N's mouth'
(b) h-arkwa '(its/his/her) mouth'

Not surprisingly, similar alternations are also found in the Jabutí family, whose inclusion in the Macro-Jê stock was only made possible (in solid grounds) by recent documentation efforts (cf. Djeoromitxí hako ~ -rako 'mouth', a cognate of Parkatêjê h-arkwa ~ j-arkwa above; Ribeiro & van der Voort 2005).

Recent advances in the comparative studies of the other families, however, seem to suggest independent origins for the "relational prefixes" in those languages. For Karib, a possibility is that the "linking morpheme" *j- is, after all, a cognate of the third-person marker *i- (a result of glide formation in constructions such as "John his-house"). A similar origin cannot be discarded for (Pre-)Proto-Macro-Jê either. [Maybe the fact that a geographically distant (and genetically unrelated) language family, Algic, presents a similar phenomenon — the "intercalated -t-" discussed by Greenberg (1987:47) in support of his "Amerind" — makes the "shared aberrancy" status of "linking prefixes" even more questionable.]

In all the language families discussed here, linking morphemes occur in environments which may favor sandhi phenomena of some sort (for instance, all the stems are vowel-initial and tend to form a stress unit with the preceding co-constituent). In addition, the alternations generally involve a "hard" consonant and its "softer" counterpart; etc. Therefore, I would very much appreciate any examples that may contribute to a better understanding of the genesis of linking morphemes (not only in the aforementioned languages), including the following possible scenarios:

  • Insertion of new phonological material (for instance, cases similar to r-insertion in English, etc.).
  • Modification of existing phonological material (such as lenitition/fortition, etc.).

Any examples will be very much appreciated. I'll post a summary if there is enough interest.

Thank you very much, and my apologies for such a long message.



Greenberg, Joseph. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ribeiro, Eduardo & Hein van der Voort. 2005. The inclusion of the Jabuti language family in the Macro-Jê stock. Paper presented at the "Simpósio Internacional sobre Lingüística Histórica na América do Sul", Belém: UFPA & Museu Goeldi.

Rodrigues, Aryon. 2000. 'Gê-Pano-Carib' x Jê-Tupí-Karib': sobre relaciones lingüísticas prehistóricas en Sudamérica. In Miranda, Luis (editor), Actas: I Congresso de Lenguas Indígenas de Sudamérica, tomo I. Lima: Universidad Ricardo Palma.

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