TS604-2009 A Focussed Study of C’Lela Verb Inflection

C'Lela Verb Inflection Paper

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This paper describes a particular type of verb inflection in C’Lela, a Niger-Congo language from NW Nigeria, focussing on the future/habitual inflection and comparing it with similar inflections. Chapter 1 introduces the language and the range of verbal inflection. Chapter 2 surveys the two inflections which use preverbal material and argues that these use prefixes rather than a separate set of pronouns. Chapter 3 explores the forms and semantic ranges of the t- prefix inflection, which occurs in two variants. Chapter 4 tentatively investigates possible grammaticisation sources for the t- prefix. Residue and avenues for further fruitful study of related material are reviewed in chapter 5 and chapter 6 concludes the discussion, summarising the distinctive features of the t- prefix inflections and the most probable grammaticisation source.

Read the full paper: C’Lela Verb Inflection – Future Forms [PDF, 3.5MB; includes paper and main texts]


While much C’Lela verbal inflection involves suffixes on the verb, two involve preverbal material (though not exactly prefixes on the verb). We analysed the forms, morpho-syntactic function, semantic range and grammaticisation source of one inflection.


We established that in both cases the preverbal inflection consists of an affix (or possibly pro-clitic, in the case of ‘á-‘) applied to the subject pronoun, in each case forcing a high tone on the affixed subject pronoun in place of the usual low tone. Normally the affix is a prefix, but for consonant-initial subject pronouns, this switched to a phonetically-related suffix. We focussed our study on one inflection, the t- prefix. Unlike the other prefix form á- (temporal relative clauses) it always requires a relevant pronoun to be supplied. Where this pronoun is consonant-initial, a -n suffix is used instead.

Tense, Aspect and Modality Grounding Supplied

The t- prefix is used in two ways: one alone and one involving the copula. The solitary t- prefix is most frequently used for future events, but also can be used for capability, obligation, questions (about future events), event sequences and past habitual (as a complement to another verb). The copula+t- (el t-) prefix form usually gives a (present/future) habitual aspect, but also can be used for past habitual, instructions and continuous past action.

Apart from the fact that past tense habitual aspect may be represented by either form these two forms are quite distinct. However, they do share some underlying semantic similarity. Future and habitual senses are both imperfective in aspect, and for modality indicate speaker expectation. So both affect the aspectual and modal grounding of the verb phrase to a greater extent than tense, though the default expectation is that tense is non-past for both inflections.

While these verbal inflections overtly supply an imperfective aspect of the clause, each construction has a default temporal grounding which may be assumed unless an adverbial time phrase is supplied to ground the clause in the past, present or future. The simple t- prefix inflection defaults to a future time and the copula+t- prefix inflection defaults to general present (including at least near past and future). In elicitation of individual sentences, adverbial time phrases before or after the clause were frequently given to ensure that the right temporal setting was understood. Texts often seem to leave temporal setting implicit at the clause level, since it can be understood from the context of normal narrative flow.

Implications for Textual Analysis

How should we gloss the t- prefix? Since the semantic forces of the t- prefix and the copula+t- inflections is quite different, we might legitimately gloss the morphemes differently in each case, perhaps as fut- and cop hab- respectively. However, it seems that diachronically there was likely a close relationship between the forms, and even synchronically there is some resemblance in imperfective aspect. So it may be most helpful to gloss the t- prefix (and its allomorph -n) as impf (imperfective) wherever it occurs. While perhaps being less communicative than an overt ‘future’ gloss, this avoids prejudicing the interpretation of the inflection. An adverbial phrase may be more responsible for the temporal grounding of the predicate than the inflection.

Grammaticisation Conclusions

The t- prefix most likely developed from a juxtaposed verb phrase using the verb tọ́ ‘go’ (which may have a long or short vowel) or táa ‘finish’ just before the main predicate describing the activity. Just as word-final vowels often elide in C’Lela, we hypothesise that the final vowel of the verb tọ́ has disappeared while its high tone has been retained as it combines with the subject pronoun of the next (main) clause. Rather than having two pronouns then, the first pronoun disappeared. In summary, this process is:

Pro1 tọ́ Pro2 V > t´-Pro2 V
(Where Pro1 and Pro2 are co-referential.)

We speculate that this grammaticisation process may continue so that a new set of person-aspect pronouns (as in Hausa) may result, just as it seems the possessive pronouns may have arisen from a grammaticisation process. However, apart from inanimate third person pronouns becoming slightly stereotyped (losing their class marking) there is no evidence of this occurring yet.

Practical Application of Such Study

We might ask what practical use such analysis is to native speakers. Searching through lists of unedited example sentences written for the 2001 dictionary, a significant degree of inconsistency was observed in the spelling of the various verbal forms. Consistent spelling often aids literacy and communication, but depends on a sound analysis of the grammar. So in the unedited sentences the u el tú— forms were sometimes written as u elt u—, sometimes as u eltu —. To a non-native speaker, particularly as tone is not normally marked in the standard orthography, this introduces so many ambiguities as to make reading and comprehension quite difficult. It will be easier for a native speaker to understand, but spelling inconsistencies still add unnecessary complexity to literacy.

A further use is in checking translations where verb grounding in a source language such as Greek, Hebrew or English must be conveyed in some way by a C’Lela equivalent. If we are aware of the semantic range of the future/habitual constructions in C’Lela this will help us better assess how appropriate they may be for translating particular senses implied by the Greek/Hebrew verbal forms and anticipate possible misunderstandings from ambiguities in a particular C’Lela rendering.

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  • Steve Dettweiler says:

    Hi, David and Julie. Just wanted to let you know I am attempting to download the verb form paper that you wrote at NEGST and presented at Leiden. Cheers! Steve

  • davidrowbory says:

    Some feedback/questions from CALL39 (Leiden, August 2009):

    1- Might the t- forms be best considered/analysed as auxiliaries?
    Response: that is quite possible. I just hadn’t really nailed down the analysis like this. Verb sequences like this do often seem to grammaticalise into auxiliaries. However, ‘auxiliary’ is a fairly non-descriptive and wide category, so I’m not sure whether it helps us beyond giving a category to the word.
    2- Obligation doesn’t fit well with Imperfective aspect. Perhaps it’s best seeing all these semantic categories as being potential (rather than actual).
    Response: it seemed odd to me to put the habituals and some past/definite events in a ‘potential’ category, but I had considered at an early stage whether this might be marking realis/irrealis distinction. Possibly this is an aspect/mode complex. More examples from natural texts would be helpful to narrow this down.

    Roger Blench:
    3- Should the schewa (ạ) and a not be considered rather as the same central vowel or a nasal just distinguished by tone?
    Response: I would need to look into this more. They seem to be distinguished, but that may just be a perception of MT speakers and me.
    4- Duka seems to show a similar t- form based on the preliminary dictionary.