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Hieber, Daniel W. to appear. Word classes. In Carmen Jany, Keren Rice, & Marianne Mithun (eds.), The languages
and linguistics of indigenous North America: A comprehensive guide (The World of Linguistics 13). Mouton de
Daniel W. Hieber
(University of California, Santa Barbara)
Word classes (traditionally called parts of speech) are groups of words in a language that fill
similar slots in an utterance (Croft 2001: 11) and share some linguistic properties, whether those
properties are semantic, syntactic, or morphological (Anward, Moravcsik & Stassen 1997: 171–
172; Anward 2001: 726; Rijkhoff 2007: 709; Schachter & Shopen 2007: 1–2; van der Auwera &
Gast 2011: 166).1 For example, the class of words that can fill the slot in the utterance the big
_____ are typically called “nouns” in English. Noun, verb, and adjective are the best-known
classes, but linguists argue for the existence of many others. Languages vary in the number of
word classes they have, the characteristics that define those classes, and the number of words
that fall into each class (Schachter & Shopen 2007: 1; Velupillai 2012: 122; Smith 2015).
Native North American languages have a unique part to play in research on word classes.
These languages challenge traditional conceptions of word classes because they do not cleanly
map onto the categories of Greek and Latin, which were thought to be universal (Anward,
Moravcsik & Stassen 1997: 167; Vogel & Comrie 2000: xiii). As a result, early Americanist
linguists sought to analyze languages on language-internal evidence alone, rather than impose
grammatical models from other languages and traditions (Sapir 1921: 125). The subsequent
quest to accurately describe Native American languages in their own terms motivated—and
continues to motivate—a large portion of the research into the nature of linguistic categories.
An understanding of word classes is useful to speakers and language learners because
knowing the category of a word provides speakers with information about how that word is used.
The part of speech of a word can indicate which affixes that word is allowed to take, how that
word combines with other words or affixes to create new words, and what roles that word can
play in a sentence, among other information.
This chapter has two primary goals:
1) to introduce the study of word classes with a focus on current approaches
2) to highlight the unique place and contribution of native North American languages in
Section 2 presents two competing theories of word classes. Section 3 explains the main types of
word classes: lexical vs. functional and open vs. closed. Section 4 is a brief survey of some
common word classes. Section 5 summarizes two central issues in word class research in North
1 This definition is intentionally broad, because linguists disagree—often fundamentally—on what word classes
are, and how to define them in particular languages (see §2). Bernard Comrie (p.c.) points out that the present
definition could include inflectional classes or valence classes, which are not traditionally considered distinct parts
of speech. The tradition in linguistics is that the term word class refers to categories like noun, verb, pronoun, etc.
(Haspelmath 2001: 16538). However, some linguists, particularly those that adopt the perspective of construction
grammar (see especially Croft 2001), happily accept different inflectional classes or valence classes as types of word
classes. See §2 for more detail.
Hieber Word classes
American languages specifically. Section 6 concludes by summarizing the distinct contribution
of North American languages to the study of word classes.
2. Theories of word classes
Today, there are two diametrically opposed perspectives on the nature of word classes (Croft
2001: 63). The first, more traditional approach, argues that individual languages have large,
cohesive word classes such as noun, verb, and adjective, but that these categories vary
considerably across languages, with perhaps some languages lacking certain categories entirely.
Researchers that adopt this perspective differ as to whether they view word classes as clearly
defined or fuzzy and prototypal, but they agree that it is possible to define and describe major
categories for every language. This is the particularist (that is, language-particular) approach to
The second approach argues that the behaviors of individual words in a language are so
diverse that it is impossible to formulate broad definitions for word classes unless one ignores
contradictory evidence. In this approach, languages do not have major word classes like noun,
verb, and adjective. Instead they have a proliferation of tiny categories or constructions. The
major word classes are emergent, arising from the human propensity to view the world through
the cognitive prototypes of objects, actions, and properties. This cognitive propensity is reflected
in various subtle ways in the grammars of all languages. This is the typological (that is,
crosslinguistic), constructional, or functional prototype approach to word classes (Croft 2001:
It is impossible to discuss word classes without at least implicitly committing to one of these
two perspectives. Nearly all the studies referenced in this chapter adopt the particularist approach
to word classes. The typological approach to word classes is still fairly recent, and little research
has looked at North American languages from a constructional perspective (though see Hieber
2018 and Vigus 2018). However, since this chapter is a crosslinguistic survey, I adopt the
typological approach here. When I use terms like noun or verb in describing a language, I am
referring to crosslinguistic prototypes or comparative concepts (Haspelmath 2010), rather than
making a claim about the existence or nonexistence of that particular part of speech in that
3. Types of word classes
Word classes are typically described along two dimensions: they may contain lexical
(“content”) words or grammatical (“function”) words, and they may be open to new members or
closed to new members. This section describes each of these types.
3.1. Content words vs. function words
One way to describe word classes is in terms of the meanings of their words, dividing them
into lexical categories or functional categories (Haspelmath 2001; Rijkhoff 2007). Lexical
categories contain “content words” which prototypically refer to things, events, or properties in
the world. Below are some lexical words in Arapaho (Algonquian). Section §4.1 discusses
lexical categories in more depth.
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(1) hébes ‘beaver’
ho’óeetno ‘(clay-based) ceremonial paints’
nebiixúút ‘my shirt’
nííhooyóúʼu ‘they (inanimate) are yellow’
nííhoonéíh(i)t ‘s/he (animate) is yellow)
nonóóhowó’ ‘I see him/her’
neihoownoohówoo ‘I don’t see him/her’
(Cowell & Moss 2008: 56, 61, 74–75)
In contrast, functional categories contain words which indicate grammatical relationships or
specify features about content words. These are called “function words”, and they typically have
abstract meanings. Below are some function words in Creek (Muskogean).
(2) leyk- auxiliary verb, ‘be (while sitting)’
hoyɬ- auxiliary verb, ‘be (while standing)’
wa:kk- auxiliary verb, ‘be (while lying)’
=ta:t(i) focus of attention
=a:t(i) referential (definite / emphatic)
(Martin 2011: 304, 331–332, 357–359, 360–362)
North American languages have a great diversity of functional categories. Section §4.2 describes
several common ones.
The terms “lexical category” and “functional category” are not used the same way by all
researchers. Both “lexical category” and “functional category” are sometimes used to refer to
word classes as defined here (e.g. Payne 1997: 32). Sometimes “word class” is used to refer to
lexical categories (Rijkhoff 2007: 710). It is also common to use the term grammatical
categories for word classes, although this term more typically refers to formally marked features
of a word such as person, tense, or number (Crystal 2008: 68–69; 186–187; Trask 1993: 122).
Another related term is syntactic categories; this is sometimes used in the equivalent sense of
lexical categories, sometimes in the broader sense of word classes (see Rauh  for an
extended discussion). It is helpful to be aware of these terminological differences when reading
The distinction between lexical and functional categories is not always a clear one.
Adpositions (prepositions and postpositions) often have both lexical and functional uses
(Haspelmath 2001: 16539; Smith 2015: 178). Consider the two uses of the word by in English in
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(3) a. Remember the last time you passed by your favorite park
b. If your life was destroyed by the money that paid for this thing
(Corpus of Contemporary American English; Davis 2020)
In example (a), by is lexical, meaning ‘next to’ or ‘in proximity to’. In (b), by is functional,
marking the agent of a passive clause. Adpositions in Chitimacha (isolate) also have both lexical
and functional uses. In (4), the postposition hix may mean ‘with; by means of’ (its lexical sense,
in (a)) or mark the agent of a transitive verb (its functional sense, in (b)).
(4) a. hus mahci kuh hix qapx neh-pa-puy-na
3SG tail feather with REFL cover-CAUS-HAB-NF.PL
‘they adorn themselves with his tail feathers’ (Swadesh 1939a: A10k.2)
b. qix hix hi koo-mi-cu-ki-x
1SG ERG AND call-PLACT-IRR-1SG.AGT-COND
‘if I call them’ (Swadesh 1939a: A11c.10)
The reason for this gradation between lexical and functional uses of the same word is that
function words derive historically from lexical words, a process known as grammaticalization
(Hopper & Traugott 2003). A language will often retain the older, lexical meaning alongside the
newer, functional meaning.
Another example of the cline between lexical and functional uses of a word is the use of
words meaning ‘sit’, ‘stand’, and ‘lie’ as auxiliary verbs indicating progressive or continuative
aspect in Siouan (Mithun 1999: 115–116), some Muskogean languages (Munro 1984; Broadwell
2006: 209–211), and Chitimacha ( Hieber 2019: 350–352), among others. Example (5) shows
lexical and functional uses of ‘sit’, ‘stand’, and ‘lie’ in Mandan (Siouan).
(5) a. wɛ́rɛx nakóc
‘A pot was there (sitting).’
b. mah ísɛkanakeròmakoc
‘he was (sitting) making an arrow’
c. múixtɛ̀na tɛ́romakoc
‘there was a big village’
‘he was running around (upright)’
e. máːta makómakoc
‘the river was there’
‘he was playing (prone)’ (Kennard 1936: 31)
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3.2. Open classes vs. closed classes
Another way to describe word classes is by how open they are to new members. Open
classes are typically large and have new words added to them frequently, whereas closed classes
are typically small, limited to a fixed set of words, and add new members only slowly and
infrequently (often through grammaticalization) (Robins 2014: 214–215; Schachter & Shopen
2007: 3; Velupillai 2012: 115). English articles, for example, are a closed class of just two words
(the and a/an), while English nouns are in principle unlimited, adding more words all the time.
There is gradation here as well: English prepositions are generally considered a closed class even
though they constitute a large group of words (greater than 100 members), because new
prepositions are not created easily. Nonetheless, new prepositions do occasionally arise. For
example, prepositional uses of the word absent (as in the utterance absent those ropes, we’d float
to a new and faraway place [COCA]) arose only in the 1940s (Harper 2020).
In North American languages, one somewhat common closed class of words is the preverb
category, word which form a semantic unit with their verb, and often indicate things like
direction or aspect (Los et al. 2012: Ch. 1).2 Chitimacha has a closed set of 10 preverbs, shown
below in (6) (Hieber 2018). By contrast, Menominee (Algic) has a large open class of preverbs
(Bloomfield 1962: 214).
(6) hi ‘to, there’
his ‘back to, back there’
kap ‘up, beginning, becoming’
kaabs ‘back up’
kas ‘back across, apart, reverse’
ni ‘down’, INDEFINITE
qap ‘here, coming’
qapx ‘back here, coming back’, REFLEXIVE, RECIPROCAL
(Hieber 2018: 19)
While open classes tend to be lexical ones and closed classes tend to be functional ones, this
is just a tendency (Velupillai 2012: 115). Some Australian languages (Dixon 1976: 615–768;
Dixon 1980: 280–281) and Papuan languages (Foley 1986: 113–118) have small, closed classes
of verbs (Anward 2001: 728). However, I know of no North American language which has a
closed class of verbs like this. Closed adjective classes are likewise less common in North
America. In a balanced sample of 27 languages in Mexico and northward, Velupillai (2012: 127–
128) finds that 7 have a closed adjective class. Velupillai analyzes most languages in the sample
as lacking an adjective class entirely (17 languages), and the few languages with an open
adjective class are constrained to Mesoamerica (3 languages). Cupeño (Uto-Aztecan) has fewer
than 100 adjectives (though Hill [2005: 202] notes that “the classes of adjectives and adverbs are
not closed by structural principle but simply have relatively few members”). In Wichita
(Caddoan), property concepts are expressed through verbs; however, a handful of words behave
2 In some language families, the term preverb is used for certain types of verbal prefixes with lexical meanings,
rather than for syntactically distinct words. This is the case in many Dene languages, for example (Rice & de Reuse
2017: Sec. 23.2.2). Interestingly, the functions and meanings of these affixal preverbs are similar to those of
syntactically free preverb classes in other languages, suggesting that preverb are a coherent typological class whose
boundedness is a cline.
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like inflected noun stems rather than inflected verb stems. The only words in this category are
Riwa·c ‘big’, Rikic ‘little’, riya·s ‘old’, and colors such as khac ‘white’ and kʷah·c ‘red’ (Rood
4. Word classes in North American languages
This section describes the major lexical categories (§4.1) and a sample of functional
categories (§4.2) in North American languages from a crosslinguistic perspective, in keeping
with the functional-typological approach presented in §2.
4.1. Lexical classes
The four most widely-discussed lexical classes are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
This section briefly defines each in turn.
Nouns are words whose prototypical function is to refer to things Croft 2001: 66, 89. The
best exemplars are “time-stable” entities such as people, places, and things (Givón 2001: 51), but
nouns frequently refer to non-prototypical concepts as well, such as abstract ideas and feelings.
Distributionally, the prototypical function of nouns is to serve as a participant in a clause, or as
the head of a noun phrase that does so.
Typologically, nouns regularly have special forms or markers for the grammatical categories
of number, possession, definiteness / specificity, noun class (“gender”), or case / grammatical
relations (Haspelmath 2001: 16541; Dixon 2010: 54–55; Velupillai 2012: 125). However, every
one of these features may be marked on verbs as well, meaning that the presence of these
grammatical categories is not a failproof diagnostic for distinguish nouns from verbs. I
demonstrate a few such cross-cutting examples in the remainder of this section.
NUMBER: On nouns, number marking indicates plurality of the referent; analogously, some
languages have a kind of number marking on verbs called pluractionality (also event number or
verbal number). Pluractionality indicates that the event happened multiple times, or that the
action was distributed among multiple participants (Mithun 1988: 215–218; Mattiola 2020).
Most North American languages surveyed by Mattiola (2020) have pluractional morphology.
POSSESSION: While many languages indicate a possessive relationship between two nouns by
marking either the possessor noun or the possessed noun, Nuuchahnulth (a.k.a. Nootka;
Wakashan) also allows possessive marking on verbs. When the possessive suffix -ʔa·k appears
on nouns, it indicates that the noun is possessed by the subject of the clause. When the suffix
appears on verbs, it indicates that the subject of the verb is the possessor of the noun phrase. The
two examples in (7) illustrate this contrast. Possession is not an exclusively nominal category.
(7) a. ʔaapḥiiʔiš ɬuucmaakqs
‘My wife is kind.’ (Nakayama 2001: 128)
b. ʔaapḥiiʔaks ɬuucma
‘My wife is kind.’ (Nakayama 2001: 128)
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DEFINITENESS: Verbs may have special morphology indicating that the speaker is referring to
a definite (identifiable) action, or a definite / indefinite participant involved in the action.
Chitimacha, for example, has a preverb ni which marks the verb as definite. The verb
gast- ‘plant’ is transitive, usually taking an object, but with the preverb ni it becomes intransitive
and means ‘plant it’, indicating that there is some definite thing being planted, whose identity
can be understood from context. Definiteness is therefore also not criterial of a noun category.
NOUN CLASS: Nouns in many languages take affixes that signify some inherent property
about the item, such as its animacy, spatial orientation, or shape (Mithun 1999: 95–103),
separating nouns into classes. For example, the Iroquoian and Algonquian languages make a
morphological distinction between animate and inanimate nouns, with different affixes for each.
In Yurok (Algic), however, adjectives also make this distinction (see §4.1.3; Robins 1958: 93–
95). Dene languages have an entire set of classificatory verbs whose stems change based on the
countability, number, animacy, and shape / consistency of their absolutive argument (Jaker,
Welch & Rice 2019: 497). Classification is therefore not a category unique to nouns.
Verbs are words whose prototypical function is to predicate—that is, to state something
about a referent (Searle 1969: 23–24; Croft 1999: 109–111; Croft 2001: 66, 89). The best
exemplars of verbs are actions, events, and processes (Givón 1984: 52), but verbs frequently
convey static meanings as well, such as location or knowledge. Distributionally, the prototypical
function of verbs is to serve as the head of a clause.
Typologically, it is common for verbs to mark the grammatical categories of tense, aspect,
mood, polarity (negative / positive), evidentiality (source of knowledge), epistemic modality
(attitude towards the statement), event number, verb class, or grammatical relations (information
about the participants in the clause and their relations to one another) (Haspelmath 2001: 16541;
Dixon 2010: 52-54). In §4.1.1, I noted that nouns also indicate grammatical relations; it is quite
common for North American languages to indicate grammatical relations on both nouns and
verbs. An important difference is that markers of grammatical relations on nouns indicate their
own role in the clause, while markers of grammatical relations on verbs indicate the role of its
arguments in the clause.
The grammatical categories most commonly associated with verbs may be found on other
categories as well. Since the noun-verb distinction is treated at length in §5.2, I will mention just
two cross-cutting cases here: Although tense is the most canonical grammatical category
associated with verbs, Makah (Wakashan) nouns may also appear with tense markers. Compare
the predicative and referential uses of the tense marker in the (8).
(8) a. baʔasʔu
‘It was a house.’ (Jacobsen 1979: 113)
‘the former house’ (Jacobsen 1979: 113)
Similarly, although aspect is also canonically associated with verbs, Nuuchahnulth (also
Wakashan) allows aspect markers on nouns:
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(9) a. ḥaaḥuupač
‘This is a teaching.’ (Nakayama 2001: 48)
‘Qaahma was a young man.’ (Nakayama 2001: 48)
When nouns are used in this non-prototypical way, they are inherently durative, and may only
form existential, classifying, or identifying expressions (Nakayama 2001: 48).
Adjectives are words whose prototypical function is modify—that is, to specify additional
features, qualities, or attributes of a referent (Searle 1969: 23–24; Croft 1991: 109–111; Croft
2001: 66, 89; Schachter & Shopen 2007: 13). Adjectives always modify nouns; words which
modify other kinds of items are classified as adverbs (see §4.1.4). The best exemplars of
adjectives are words which attribute properties having to do with value, dimension, age, speed,
physical property, and color (Dixon 1977), but adjectives may convey a vast diversity of
concepts depending on the language. Adjectives may have distinct forms for comparatives
(taller), superlatives (tallest), and equatives (as tall as).
Adjectives are not the only way that languages can convey information about attributes and
properties. They may have verbs meaning ‘have quality X’, or nouns meaning ‘thing with quality
X’. Consequently, adjectives crosslinguistically tend to associate with either nouns or verbs
(Wetzer 1996: 19). This is especially true for North American languages—there are few if any
morphosyntactic devices dedicated to modification. However, words for property concepts
usually exhibit behaviors which are different from other words in their class, often justifying the
recognition of a subclass of verbs or nouns.
There are North American languages with a large, open class of adjectives such as
Chitimacha (see discussion in §5.1) or Central Pomo (Pomoan) (Mithun 1999: 474), but this is
rare. Slightly more common are languages with a small, closed class of adjectives. In a sample
including 23 North American languages, Velupillai (Velupillai 2012: 128) finds only 6 of those
languages have a distinct but closed class of adjectives. Southern Paiute (Uto-Aztecan) has only
about a dozen adjectives, for the concepts LARGE, SMALL, LONG, SHORT, NEW, OLD, GOOD, HIGH,
STRONG, HARD, and COLD (Sapir 1930: 77–79). We have already seen the small class of
adjectives in Wichita (Rood 1996: 594–595). Tłı̨ cho Yatıì (a.k.a. Dogrib, Na-Dene) likewise has
a closed set of 20 adjectives which are distinguished by their lack of inflectional morphology
Most North American languages arguably lack an adjective class, such that property concepts
are a subcategory of noun or verb or divided between both. Only a few North American
languages encode property concepts as nouns; most languages code property concepts as a
subclass of verbs. Rincón Luiseño (Uto-Aztecan) is one language which codes some property
concepts like nouns. While most modifiers in Luiseño are derived from verbs, the most
prototypical property concepts take noun endings, e.g. yoot ‘large’ and kiháat ‘small’ (Kroeber &
Grace 1959: 59). The following examples illustrate the morphological similarity between nouns
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and adjectives. (Note that the “absolutive” suffix3 in these examples has various realizations—
here -ch, -l, or -sh—and that the plural of ‘girl’ is irregular / suppletive.)
Rincón Luiseño (Uto-Aztecan)
(10) a. nawítma-l yawáywi-sh
b. nánatma-l-um yawáywi-ch-um
c. Yaʼá-sh tóow-q nawítma-l-i yawáywi-ch-i.
man-ABS see-PRES:SG girl-ABS-OBJ pretty-ABS-OBJ
‘The man sees a pretty girl.’
d. péshli-chal yawáywi-chal
‘with the pretty dish’ (Elliott 1999: 27–28)
The Maidu (Maidun) and Cherokee (Iroquoian) languages are like the Chitimacha language
mentioned above in that they contain an open class of adjectives, all of which are formed from
verbs (Dixon [1911: 716–717] for Maidu; Lindsey & Scancarelli , Chafe , and
Barrie & Uchihara  for Cherokee). Unlike Chitimacha, however, these languages use
nominal rather than adjectival affixes for modifiers. Adjectives in these languages are therefore a
subclass of nouns which are all derived from verbs.
By far the most common way to encode property concepts in North American languages is as
a subclass of verbs. The following examples illustrate the use of such property concepts in a
selection of languages, comparing them to action verbs in the same language.
(11) a. yi-sh-cha
‘I am crying’ (Young & Morgan 1980: 216)
‘I am tall’ (Young & Morgan 1980: 290)
(12) a. čaːč-a-ø
‘it is/was flying’ (Andrade 1933: 267)
‘he is handsome’ (Andrade 1933: 257)
3 In the North American tradition, the term absolutive sometimes refers to the default or unmarked form of a
noun rather than the single argument of an intransitive verb (as most linguists use the term today). Grammatical
descriptions of Luiseño often use this former, more traditional sense of the term. I retain that usage in the examples
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West Greenlandic (Eskaleut)
(13) a. isir-puq ingil-luni-lu
‘she came in and sat down’ (Fortescue 1984: 120)
b. illu-at kusanar-puq kial-luni-li
house-3PL.POSS pretty-3SG.IND warm-4SG.CTMP-and
‘their house is pretty and warm’ (Fortescue 1984: 121)
Many North American languages make a distinction in their verbal person marking between
agents—the argument in the clause that performs, effects, instigates, or controls the event—and
patients—the argument in the clause which lacks one or more of these properties. In languages
with property verbs that exhibit agent-patient marking, property verbs often use patient person
markers, although this is just a typological tendency. Examples include Alabama (Muskogean;
Wetzer [1996: 216–217]), Kiowa (Kiowa-Tanoan; Wetzer [1996: 187]), Lakota (Siouan; Pustet
[2002: 388]), and Mojave (Yuman; Wetzer [1996: 187]), among many others. Central Pomo is
one North American exception to this tendency: basic adjectives appear with agent markers
unless they are inchoative (‘becoming’) (Mithun 1991: 521).
As mentioned, property verbs often exhibit slightly different behavior from prototypical
event verbs within a language. The most common difference is that property verbs are limited in
the range of inflectional possibilities they can take (what Croft [1991; 2000; 2001; 2003; 2010]
calls their behavioral potential). They may be limited to the stative or durative aspects, for
example. Another common difference is that property verbs may modify nouns directly, but
event verbs require some type of additional nominalizing or relativizing morphology to modify
nouns. For instance, in a thorough review of evidence for adjective classes in several Siouan
languages, Helmbrecht (2006; in progress) reports that in Hocank (a.k.a. Winnebago; Siouan)
nouns may be modified using relative clauses. Relative clauses in Hocank are structurally nearly
identical to noun phrases in the language. They typically require a determiner and person
inflection, and may take tense and aspect marking. However, when a property word is used to
modify a noun, it does not require a determiner, is never inflected for person, and never takes
tense or aspect marking.
In Choctaw (Muskogean), property words are morphological verbs, but there are clear
semantic regularities which set them apart from other verbs. In Muskogean languages, verb
stems undergo certain phonological changes such as nasalization, h-insertion, lengthening, etc. to
indicate their aspect. These sets of phonological changes are called grades in the Muskogean
literature. When applied to property words, however, these grades have the semantic effect of
intensifiers or comparatives rather than aspect (Haag 1995, 1997). Secondly, when these
property words appear after nouns, they optionally show nominal morphology, with a
penultimate pitch accent and final glottal stop (Broadwell 2006: 223).
In the case of Nuuchahnulth, Nakayama (2001) argues that the adjective class is a discourse
tendency rather than a clearly-defined set of properties that pick out a mutually exclusive set of
words. He reports that adjectivals are words which do not take objects, and which may be
combined with nominals to form a phrase (Nakayama 2001: 50). They may however sometimes
also serve directly as arguments.
A more unusual pattern of behavioral differences for property concepts occurs in Yurok,
where numbers and about eleven adjectival roots vary the form of their stem (that is, their stems
are suppletive) based on the category of the noun they modify. The categories include HUMAN,
ANIMAL, PLANT (non-tree), TREE, STRINGLIKE, FLAT, and others. Each adjective in Yurok
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potentially has a different form of the stem for each one of these categories. Example (16) shows
the different stems for ‘big’ and ‘small’.
(14) Yurok (Algic)
animals and birds
body parts, utensils, clothes
(Robins 1958: 93–95)
In other languages there seems to be no substantive behavioral differences between property
words and event verbs. In Seneca (Iroquoian), words expressing property concepts do belong to a
subclass of verbs that are limited to stative aspect, but there are numerous other, non-property
verbs which also belong to this class (Chafe 2012). Example (17) lists representative sets of
property words and event words in Seneca, both of which are restricted to the stative aspect.
(15) a. osde’ ‘it’s heavy’
otgi’ ‘it’s dirty’
odö:sgwi:h ‘it’s wrinkled’
o:ni:yöh ‘it’s hard, tough’
ojiwagëh ‘it’s sour, bitter’
hohsë:h ‘he’s fat’
hodí’gyö’ ‘he’s shy’
b. otga:h ‘it’s making a noise’
̈́hde’ ‘it has something added to it’
hotö:de’ ‘he hears it’
̈́hdö’ ‘he knows it’
hóío’de’ ‘he’s working’
hohse’ ‘he’s riding on its back’
ho:wísdagá’de’ ‘he has a lot of money’
ho’áshägéhde’ ‘he’s carrying a basket on his back’
(Chafe 2012: 13–14)
Chafe (2012) considers seven possible criteria that might identify a class of adjectives in Seneca
(and by extension all of Northern Iroquoian), and finds that all the criteria are subject to the same
problem in that they include non-property concepts as well.
Finally, some languages distribute property concepts across multiple word classes. In
Chinook (Chinookan), words expressing speed, color, and a few words for human propensity are
particles, while words expressing age are verbs, and words expressing dimension, value, and
other human propensity concepts are nouns (Dixon 1977: 53–54).
In sum, the encoding of property concepts in North American languages shows tremendous
diversity. Some languages have a large, open class of distinct adjectives, others have a small
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closed class, but in most North American languages property words are a subset of either nouns
or verbs. And in a few cases, even the existence of such a subclass is difficult to motivate.
Adverbs, like adjectives, are words whose prototypical function is modify; however, they
differ from adjectives in that adjectives only modify nouns, while adverbs may modify
essentially anything else (Haspelmath 2001: 16543; Velupillai 2012: 130), including verbs (run
quickly), adjectives (quite happy), other adverbs (very quickly), prepositions (right out), noun
phrases (quite the party), entire utterances (unfortunately), but not individual nouns (*dog
quickly) (Velupillai 2012: 130). Semantically, adverbs prototypically convey meanings such as
manner (quickly), degree (extremely), time (now), location (there), or evidential / epistemic
attitude (probably, frankly) (Quirk et al. 1985; Velupillai 2012: 130). Like adjectives, adverbs
may have distinct forms for comparatives (faster), superlatives (fastest), and equatives (as fast
Adverbial constructions are not strongly grammaticalized in North American languages. In a
recent handbook of North American languages, discussions of adverbs appear only sparingly,
and the term “adverb” does even not appear in the index (Siddiqi et al. 2020).4 Languages use a
variety of other strategies for conveying prototypical manner concepts instead. In Dëne Sųłıné
(Na-Dene), locative nouns may function as adverbs (Cook 2004: 303), and adverbs in most Dene
languages are derived from relative clauses (Jaker, Welch & Rice 2019: 497). Chitimacha has a
set of suffixes expressing manner, including -di ‘doing horizontally’, -duwa ‘doing
suddenly’, -kint ‘by pushing’, and -ti ‘by handling’. In Nuuchahnulth adverbial concepts like
‘also’, ‘for two days’, and ‘still’ are encoded with intransitive predicates (Nakayama 2001: 51–
53). Nuuchahnulth also has a number of lexical suffixes expressing location, such as -ʽis ‘being
on the beach’, -ʼas ‘being on the ground’, -ʼa· ‘being on the rock’, or -ʽiɬ ‘being in the house’.
Otherwise, adverbial concepts are expressed through verb serialization. The examples below
show serial verbs expressing manner, time, and location, respectively.
(16) a. ƛawaʔiiʔaƛquuč kʷaačiƛ
‘[While he was dancing] he would go near [him] moving backwards.’
(Nakayama 2001: 100)
b. qiis waɬyuu
‘For a long time I stayed at home.’ (Nakayama 2001: 100)
4 This point is a comment on the structure of North American languages rather than a criticism of the volume’s
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c. yacaaqtuu ʔucačiƛ ʔuuƛ
yac-a·qtu· ʔu-ca-či(ƛ) ʔuuƛ
step-going.over it-going.to-MOM NAME
walked.over.the.hill went.there Odlaqutla
‘They went over [the high land] to Odlaqutla.’ (Nakayama 2001: 100)
4.2. Functional classes
As mentioned in §3.1, North American languages exhibit a large variety of function words.
This section covers just a few functional classes for which North American languages exhibit
unique or interesting behaviors—adpositions, articles, auxiliaries, particles, and pronouns.
Adpositions are words that govern a noun phrase and signal a relationship between the noun
phrase and another word in the clause (Hagège 2010: 1; Kurzon & Adler 2008: 2). It can be
difficult to distinguish adpositions from case markers since they both signal relationships
between elements of a clause, and there is often a diachronic and synchronic cline between them
resulting from grammaticalization (Hagège 2010: Sec. 2.2). Adpositions may also be clitics
(Hagège 2020: 18).
There are several types of adpositions: prepositions precede the noun phrase, postpositions
follow the noun phrase, and circumpositions consist of two elements, one which precedes the
noun phrase and one which follows it. Shoshone (Uto-Aztecan) has another type called an
inposition which occurs inside the noun phrase (Dryer 2013c). Many second-position clitics
could also be considered a type of inposition.
Perhaps because North American languages signal many of the relationships among
participants using affixes (especially verbal affixes), adpositions are not a robust word class in
most North American language families. Not all languages have them. In Nuuchahnulth,
relationships between referents are always communicated by predicates, as shown below.
(17) a. šišaa ʔuuʔatup kʷakuucuk
šiš-(y)a· ʔu-ʽatup kʷakuːc-uk
clean-CONT it-doing.for grandchild-POSS
cleaning doing.for.them her.grandchildren
‘She would peel them for her grandchildren.’ (Nakayama 2001: 53)
As mentioned in §4.1.1, one of the categories that can be indicated on a noun is definiteness.
One way languages do this is by using definite / indefinite articles (such as the, a/an in English).
Lakota has a dedicated definite article similar to English’s (Van Valin 1977: 36), while
Nuuchahnulth has a definite suffix instead of an article. Conversely, Quileute (Chimakuan) has
an indefinite article (Andrade 1933: 246). Chitimacha uses a demonstrative adjective as a
definite article, a common strategy in North America (Dryer 2013b).
Auxiliary verbs are verbs which provide grammatical information about the main verb they
accompany (Velupillai 2012: 146). While this grammatical information typically includes
features like tense, aspect, person, number, etc., a prevalent feature of North American languages
is that auxiliary verbs may also provide information regarding the spatial orientation of their
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subjects—usually sitting, standing, or lying position. This is especially common in the Siouan
languages (Mithun 1999: 115–116) and the languages of the U.S. Southeast (Campbell 1997:
342). See §3.1 above for an illustration of positional auxiliary verbs in use.
Language descriptions often include a word class called particles, but particles are not a
coherent typological class. The term “particle” is a morphological term, typically referring to
words which are invariable and/or do not have inflectional morphology (Crystal 2008: 352).
However, the functions of uninflectable words are not consistent across languages. Particles in
Algonquian cover a wide array of functions such as quantifiers, numerals, adjectives, adverbs,
prepositions, and conjunctions (Oxford 2007; 2019: 511). Particles in Chitimacha, on the other
hand, are used for preverbs, postpositions, negation, topic marking, discourse markers, and
interjections. There is no typological prototypical core to particles as a word class.
Pronouns are words that either refer to discourse participants (I, you, s/he), refer
anaphorically to referents that are activated in the discourse (Kibrik 2011: 73), or otherwise stand
in for nouns. The first type are called personal pronouns, while the others are sometimes called
proforms (Bhat 2004: 5). There are many types of proforms, including demonstrative,
interrogative, indefinite, relative, logophoric, reciprocal, reflexive, and possessive. Personal
pronouns may be syntactically free words (free pronouns), affixes on the verb (bound pronouns),
or clitics (clitic pronouns). All languages have free pronouns, irrespective of whether they also
have bound or clitic pronouns. In North American languages, discourse participants are
predominantly expressed using bound pronouns on the verb (Dryer 2013a). In these languages,
the functions of the pronouns are divided between the bound and free forms. The bound
pronouns are used to refer to and track referents in the discourse, while the free pronouns
accomplish the various other functions, such as focus / emphasis, cleft constructions,
topicalization, antitopicalization, etc. (Mithun 2003; 2013).
5. Issues in word-class research
This section describes the most prominent themes in research on word classes in North
America. The difficulties in determining word classes in North American languages are
decidedly different from those presented by languages in other areas of the world. For North
American languages, there are three recurring questions in the study of word classes and lexical
categories in particular: 1) at what level a word is categorized (root, stem, or entire inflected
word; §5.1), 2) whether a given language distinguishes noun and verb (§5.2), and 3) whether a
given language has an adjective category (which has already been discussed in §4.1.3).
Languages in other regions of the world present different challenges. In Southeast Asia and
the neighboring regions, for example, a more common problem is determining whether a
language has lexical categories at all (take for example Gil’s [1994; 2013] claim that Riau
Indonesian (Austronesian) has no lexical categories). However, the widespread (but not
ubiquitous) presence of (poly)synthesis in North American languages (Mithun 2017b: 235; Rice,
this volume) means that a morphological distinction between nouns, verbs, and, when present,
adjectives, is often quite clear. Words tend to have multiple affixes indicating their word class. In
the following example from Nez Perce (Sahaptian), there are a tense marker and a perfective
aspect marker—both categories typically associated with verbs.
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Nez Perce (Sahaptian)
‘they saw us / you (pl.) / them’ (Deal 2010: 57)
Similarly, nouns in Nez Perce are marked for case (their role in the sentence) (Deal 2010: 32), a
feature which is typically associated with nouns.
Given these clear morphological distinctions, it may seem surprising that there could be any
ambiguity regarding word classes in North American languages. Nonetheless, the potential for
ambiguity in lexical categories can occur at the root, stem, or even whole word level, and words
may be categorized differently at different levels (Jacobsen 1979: 100; Mithun 1999: 56; Haag
2006: 143; Lois et al. 2017: 102; Mithun 2017a: 155; Clemens 2019: 372). Section 5.1 shows
how this ambiguity surfaces at these different levels in the languages of North America, and how
categorization depends on the level of analysis (root, stem, or word).
5.1. Locus of categoriality
In morphologically complex languages, words have an internal structure, so that some
morphemes are more central to the core meaning of the word than others. The morpheme that
provides the core sense of a word is called the root. For example, in Chitimacha the root
ni- ‘water’ is used as the base for a number of different words, including nen- ‘go out of water’,
nicwa- ‘approach water’, nitgext- ‘dump into water’, niduwa- ‘fall into water’, and others
(Swadesh 1939b: 44). Each of the forms just listed are called stems, defined as the part of the
word which serves as the basis for all its inflected forms. The stem nicwa-, for example, serves
as the base for the inflected forms nicwi ‘s/he approaches water’, nicwicuki ‘I will approach
water’, nicwipuyna ‘they used to approach water’, etc. Each of these inflectional possibilities is
called a wordform.
Words may be categorized differently depending on whether one is analyzing the root, stem,
or wordform. In the West Greenlandic (Eskaleut) language, the lexical category of a word is
typically obvious at all three levels. In example (21) the nominal root aamaruti- ‘coal’ takes
various suffixes which create new stems, changing the word at different points from a noun to a
verb and back again. Affixes which change the class of a word are called derivational affixes. At
each step of derivation in West Greenlandic, the category of the word is clear.
West Greenlandic (Eskaleut)
N > N > V > N > N > V > N
‘which is the only place for getting coal’ (Fortescue 1984: 315)
In other North American languages, roots do not seem to be categorized for word class. In
these languages, stems can be categorized but roots cannot. Haag (2006) argues that Cherokee is
one such language. Cherokee has many words which are composed of multiple roots
compounded together; however, it is impossible to determine what the category of the resulting
compound will be based on the roots. The roots are simply put together in a way that makes
sense for their meanings, and then a suffix is added that clarifies the lexical category (Haag
2006: 138). Example (22) shows two roots in Cherokee.
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(20) a. -jaʔt- ‘attach asymmetrically at an indentation’
b. -húú- ‘stoma, opening’ (allomorph -ʔúú)
(Haag 2006: 137)
Example (23) shows four compounds that can be formed using these roots.
(21) a. tii-húú-jaʔt-î
‘lunchbox (with two handles)’
‘I just now attached a handle to something (e.g. a bucket)’
‘I just now caught something by the mouth with a hook or attachment.’
‘I just now attached something with more than one handle to something.’
(Haag 2006: 137–138)
Though in each case the stem is formed from the same combination of roots, in (23a) and (23b)
the result is a noun, and in (23c) and (23d) the result is a verb. Haag takes this and other evidence
to suggest that lexical categorization is not relevant to Cherokee roots, only stems.
A similar situation occurs in Algonquian languages, in which lexical stems are formed of a
combination of up to three components, called initial, medial, and final in the Algonquian
literature (Goddard 1990; Macaulay & Salmons 2017; Lockwood 2017: 63–64; Oxford, this
volume). The initial is generally considered the root of the word, but it is the final component
which determines the lexical category of the stem. Roots in Algonquian languages are therefore
unspecified for lexical category. Examples (24) and (25) demonstrate how the same initial
(shown in boldface) can be used to form either a noun or verb stem in Ojibwe and Menominee
(both Algonquian languages).
(22) a. miskozi
‘it is red’ (Nichols 2020)
‘red leaf’ (Nichols 2020)
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(23) a. maehkuakom
‘red blanket’ (Monica Macaulay, p.c.)
‘s/he paints it red’ (Monica Macaulay p.c.)
In the Ojibwe example in (24), the same initial miskw- ‘red’ is used to form both a noun ‘red
leaf’ and a verb ‘it is red’, while in the Menominee example in (25) the initial maehkw- ‘red’ is
likewise used to form both the noun ‘red blanket’ and the verb ‘s/he paints it red’. Thus, in
Algonquian it is only stems which are categorized for lexical category, not the root /
In some languages, even the stem can be neutral or ambiguous with respect to lexical
category. Frachtenberg (1922: 318) claims that any stem in Coos (Coosan) may be used either
nominally or verbally as appropriate. This is illustrated in (26).
(24) a. poːʷkw-is
‘slave’ (Frachtenberg 1922: 329)
‘I enslaved him’ (Frachtenberg 1922: 329)
‘woman’ (Frachtenberg 1922: 330)
‘I marry (her)’ (Frachtenberg 1922: 330)
‘grease’ (Frachtenberg 1922: 329)
‘I greased it’ (Frachtenberg 1922: 329)
‘blanket’ (Frachtenberg 1922: 328)
‘she covered (them) with blankets’ (Frachtenberg 1922: 328)
For the Tonkawa (isolate) language, Hoijer (1933: 23–24) famously claimed, “To apply the
classificatory notion of “parts of speech” to Tonkawa would do extreme violence to the spirit of
the language.” He provides the following example as evidence of his claim:
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(25) a. notox-ʔaː-la
‘the hoe’ (Hoijer 1946: 297)
‘he hoes it’ (Hoijer 1946: 297)
Andrade (1933: 179) likewise analyzes Quileute as a language where stems may be used as
either noun or verb, assuming their function in context. In other languages, such as Hopi (Uto-
Aztecan), most stems are specified for category, but a subset are ambivalent and may be used as
either noun or verb (Whorf 1946: 163).
Even fully-inflected wordforms with clear morphological marking of their class may
nonetheless blur the distinction noun and verb. In many North American languages, fully-
inflected morphological verbs may be used as nominals without any special affixes or other
modification, as the following examples illustrate.
(26) a. dzampuyna
‘they usually thrust / spear (with it)’
‘spear’ (Swadesh 1939b: 56)
‘they usually cross (it)’
‘bridge’ (Swanton 1920: 17)
(27) a. o
‘one makes a meal with it’
‘it hauls logs’
‘horse’ (Mithun 2000: 200)
(28) a. tsinaaʼeeɬ
‘ship, boat’ (Young 1989: 316)
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‘darkness’ (Young 1989: 316)
For Cayuga (and other Iroquoian languages), some morphological verbs have been so fully
lexicalized as nouns that they may no longer be used with their verbal meanings. The default
meaning of kao
̜tanéhkwi for Cayuga speakers is ‘horse’, not ‘it hauls logs’. Other verbs may
retain both uses, while others lack any nominal meaning at all. Morphological verbs in Iroquoian
therefore each sit on a cline from fully verbal to fully nominal, with many cases in between
In other languages, fully-inflected nouns and verbs can appear superficially similar, taking
affixes of the exact same form, but nonetheless belong to clearly distinct word classes. In Central
Alaskan Yup’ik, for example, the forms of noun inflections are a subset of the forms of verb
inflections (Sadock 1999: 386). That is, noun endings all look like verb endings (but not vice
versa), and even have similar functions, as the following examples illustrate:
Central Alaskan Yup’ik (Eskaleut)
(29) a. qaya-q ‘kayak’ SG
kaigtu-q ‘he/she/it is hungry’ SG
b. qaya-k ‘two kayaks’ DU
kaigtu-k ‘they two are hungry’ DU
c. qaya-t ‘three or more kayaks’ PL
kaigtu-t ‘they all are hungry’ PL
(Mithun 2017a: 161)
Possessive suffixes on nouns likewise share their forms with transitive person suffixes on verbs:
Central Alaskan Yup’ik (Eskaleut)
(30) a. angya-qa ‘my boat’ 1SG/3SG
ner’a-qa ‘I am eating it’ 1SG/3SG
b. angya-gka ‘my two boats’ 1SG/3DU
ner’a-gka ‘I am eating both of them’ 1SG/3DU
c. angya-nka ‘my boats’ 1SG/3PL
ner’a-nka ‘I am eating them’ 1SG/3PL
d. angya-a ‘his/her boat’ 3SG/3SG
nera-a ‘he/she/it is eating it’ 3SG/3SG
e. angya-k ‘his/her two boats’ 3SG/3DU
ner’a-k ‘he/she/it is eating both of them’ 3SG/3DU
f. angya-i ‘his/her boats’ 3SG/3PL
nera-i ‘he/she/it is eating them’ 3SG/3PL
(Mithun 2017a: 161)
However, any transitive verb whose object is not third person has suffixes which never appear in
nominal inflections, such as the examples in (33).
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(31) takua-anga ‘s/he sees me’ 3SG/1SG
takua-atigut ‘s/he sees us’ 3SG/1PL
takua-akkit ‘I see you (sg.)’ 1SG/2SG
takua-rma ‘you (sg.) see me’ 2SG/1SG
(Sadock 1999: 386)
The reason for these similarities is that many verbal inflections arose historically from
nominalizations (Jacobson 1982; Woodbury 1985; Mithun 2008; Berge 2016). This is an
example of a process known as insubordination, where subordinate clauses or noun phrases are
reanalyzed as main clauses (Mithun 2008; Evans 2007; Evans & Watanabe 2016). Despite
having a common origin as noun suffixes, verbal and nominal endings in Yup’ik are now
nonetheless two distinct sets of affixes belonging to different word classes.
Another case of superficial similarity between nouns and verbs comes from Menominee:
(32) a. askēhnen
‘it is fresh / raw’ (Monica Macaulay p.c.)
‘raw thing’ (Monica Macaulay p.c.)
While the words in (34) have the same surface and underlying forms,5 this is merely a historical
accident; the third person -w suffix and the nominalizing -w suffix are unrelated.
Not only the category label, but the size of the category can vary depending on the level of
analysis. Lindsey & Scancarelli (1985), for example, argue that Cherokee has a large, open class
of adjectives when considering the level of the inflected word, but a small, closed class of
adjectives when considering the level of the root. More drastically, Chitimacha lacks adjective
stems entirely, but nonetheless has an open class of adjectives at the word level. All adjectives in
Chitimacha are formed by adding an adjectivizing suffix to a verb stem, as shown in the
examples in (35).
(33) bixtigi ‘industrious’ < bixte- ‘be industrious’
dantigi ‘cluttered’ < dante- ‘be cluttered’
deyktigi ‘wet’ < deykte- ‘be wet’
dixigi ‘bad-smelling’ < dixe- ‘smell’ (intr.)
dzahtsigi ‘tasty’ < dzahtst- ‘season’ (tr.)
hedigi ‘near’ < hedi- ‘move near (horizontally)’ (intr.)
Adjectives may be formed from either intransitive or transitive verbs. In discourse, verb stems
vary as to how frequently they appear with the adjective suffix -gi. Some verb stems have
become completely lexicalized as adjectives and are never used with regular verbal inflection.
5 Note that the final /w/ in both examples is lost due to a synchronic process of final consonant cluster
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By contrast, many verb stems are never used with -gi. Most verbs sit somewhere in the middle of
this spectrum. The verb huy- ‘be good’, for example, appears 112 times in Swadesh’s (1939a)
Chitimacha corpus as the adjective huygi ‘good’, and 28 times as a verb.
In this section we have seen that categorization and level of analysis are crucially
interrelated. Languages differ in terms of what level categorization applies to. We have also seen
that, despite robust morphological marking on both nouns and verbs, North American languages
can nonetheless exhibit ambiguities between the major lexical categories.
5.2. The noun-verb distinction
One of the most controversial ideas in linguistics is that some languages do not distinguish
nouns and verbs. This section discusses several cases where data from North American
languages have contributed to this debate.
Perhaps the most famous claim that a language lacks a noun-verb distinction involves the
Eskaleut family (Thalbitzer 1911: 1059). As mentioned above, nominal and verbal affixes in this
family are identical thanks to a historical process whereby nominalized subordinate verbs were
reanalyzed as main verbs (Mithun 2008), which led Thalbitzer to claim that Eskaleut has no
noun-verb distinction. Sadock (1999) and Mithun (2017a) have strongly criticized this claim.
They show that derivational affixes both select for and produce a specific category (noun or
verb). For example, the -aq suffix shown in (36a) must attach to a verb root and always produces
a noun, while the suffixes in (36b) must attach to verb roots and always produce new verbs.
Central Alaskan Yup’ik (Eskaleut)
(34) a. ega- ‘boil’ ega-aq ‘boiled fish’
mumigte- ‘turn over’ mumigt-aq ‘pancake’
b. piqertur- ‘whack’ piqertu-ar- ‘whack repeatedly’
qavange- ‘fall asleep’ qavang-caar- ‘try to sleep’
(Mithun 2017a: 167)
This seemingly clear-cut picture is however complicated by two facts. First, while 35% of
roots in Yup’ik are purely nominal and 53% are purely verbal, 12% of roots have both nominal
and verbal senses (Mithun 2017a: 163), raising the possibility that these roots are polycategorial,
or do not fall clearly into either the noun or verb class. If a root has both nominal and verbal
senses this way, any derivational affixes it takes will utilize the meaning of the category that
affix selects for (Mithun 2017a: 168–169). This is exemplified in (37).
Central Alaskan Yup’ik (Eskaleut)
(35) equk ‘thing carried on one’s shoulder; wood’
equg- ‘carry on one’s shoulder’
-iaq ‘made thing’
equiaq ‘chopped firewood’
-iur- ‘be occupied with’
eqiur- ‘chop wood’
(Mithun 2017a: 168)
The root equk / equg- has both a nominal meaning ‘thing carried on one’s shoulder; wood’ and a
verbal meaning ‘carry on one’s shoulder’. The suffix -iaq ‘made thing’ must attach to nouns and
always produces a noun stem, while the suffix -iur- must attach to nouns and always produces a
verb stem. In (37) the result of attaching either of these suffixes to equk are meanings based on
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the nominal sense of ‘wood’ rather than the verbal sense of ‘carry on one’s shoulder’. equiaq
does not mean ‘wood carried on one’s shoulder’ and eqiur- does not mean ‘be occupied with
carrying on one’s shoulder’. This shows that derivational suffixes in Yup’ik select for roots from
specific lexical categories, or at the very least specific nominal or verbal senses of a root. Mithun
(2017a) uses data like these to argue that cases like equk / equg- are two separate homophonous
forms, rather than a single polycategorial root.
The second complication in determining lexical categories in Yup’ik is that many
derivational suffixes may attach to either nominal or verbal stems, and moreover about 10–20%
of derivational suffixes create stems which themselves are ambiguous between noun and verb
(Sadock 1999: 387). The examples in (38) demonstrate these problems.
Central Alaskan Yup’ik (Eskaleut)
(36) ui ‘husband’ ui-lkuk ‘no-good husband’ (n.)
yuk ‘person’ yu-lkuk ‘no-good person’ (n.)
ayaq- ‘leave’ aya-lkug- ‘no-good one leave’ (v.)
tupag- ‘awaken’ tupa-lkug- ‘no-good one awaken’ (v.)
ii ‘eye’ ii-ckegt- ‘have well-formed eyes’ (v.)
cingik ‘point, tip’ cingi-ckegt- ‘be sharply pointed’ (v.)
tungu- ‘be black’ tungu-ckegt- ‘be very black’ (v.)
nepete- ‘stick’ nepe-ckegt- ‘climb, balance well’ (v.)
(Mithun 2017a: 167–168)
The suffix -lkuk / -lkug- attaches to either nouns or verbs and retains the original category of the
root. The suffix -ckegt- attaches to either nouns or verbs and always produces a verb. What does
not appear to be attested, however, are suffixes which attach to either nouns or verbs and produce
stems which themselves may be either noun or verb. In other words, derivational suffixes are
either category-preserving or specify the category of the resulting stem. There are no truly
An even stronger challenge to the universality of the noun-verb distinction, and one equally
as famous as Eskaleut, comes from the languages of the Pacific Northwest. Though comprising
multiple unrelated families (Salishan, Wakashan, Chimakuan, Tsimshianic, Chinookan, and the
isolate Kutenai), all the languages of this region blur the noun-verb distinction in similar ways, a
situation which arose out of an extended period of contact between these language families (see
Thomason, this volume). In these languages, it is often claimed that any lexical stem may
function indiscriminately as either noun or verb. The following data from Lillooet (Salishan) are
exemplary of the kind of phenomena which have led linguists to these claims.
(37) a. šmúɬač ta=kʷúkʷpiʔ=a
‘The chief is a woman.’
b. kʷúkʷpiʔ ta=šmúɬač=a
‘The woman is a chief.’
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c. lə́χləχ ta=kʷúkʷpiʔ=a
‘The chief is smart.’
d. kʷúkʷpiʔ ta=lə́χləχ=a
‘The smart one is a chief.’
e. ƛ’iq ta=kʷúkʷpiʔ=a
‘The chief arrived.’
f. kʷúkʷpiʔ ta=ƛ’íq=a
‘The one who arrived is a chief.’
g. ʔác’χ-ən-č-aš ta=kʷúkʷpiʔ=a
‘The chief saw me.’
h. kʷúkʷpiʔ ta=ʔac’χ-ən-č-áš=a
‘The one who saw me is a chief.’ (Davis, Gillon & Matthewson 2014: e196)
While the data in (39) would appear to support an analysis of Lillooet stems as polycategorial
or unspecified for lexical category, Davis, Gillon, & Matthewson (2014) present additional
evidence that this noun-verb flexibility has its limits. While it is true that any stem in Lillooet
may function as a verb, there are other areas of the grammar where it is necessary to maintain a
distinction between noun and verb stems. First, only nominal stems may function as the head of a
relative clause. Second, only nominal stems may have modifiers when functioning as either an
argument or nominal predicate.
Similar categorial restrictions on relativization have been described for Gitksan (Tsimshianic;
[Davis, Gillon & Matthewson 2014]) and Lushootseed (Salishan; [Beck 2013]). Though earlier
work on Salishan languages argued for the lack of a noun-verb distinction (Kuipers 1968;
Kinkade 1983), subsequent research has found a growing body of criteria—albeit subtle—for
distinguishing noun from verb (Hébert 1983; van Eijk & Hess 1986; Jelinek & Demers 1994;
Mattina 1996; Haag 1998; Beck 1999: 135–169; Montler 2003). The most prominent criteria
distinguishing noun and verb is the exclusive ability of nominal stems to take possessive affixes.
While the current consensus among Salishanists is therefore that the languages do in fact have a
noun-verb distinction, it should be appreciated that the realization of these categories is
drastically different from most languages of the world. The categories noun and verb are at most
only lightly grammaticalized in these languages, and vanishingly few parts of the grammar
depend on this distinction.
The noun-verb distinction is even less strongly grammaticalized in the neighboring
Wakashan languages. Swadesh (1938: 78) provides the following examples—much discussed
over the last century—as evidence of noun-verb flexibility in the Wakashan language
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(38) a. qoːʔas-ma ʔiːḥ-ʔiː
‘The large one is a man.’
b. ʔiːḥ-maː qoːʔas-ʔi
‘The man is large.’
c. mamoːk-ma qoːʔas-ʔi
‘The man is working.’
d. qoːʔas-ma mamoːk-ʔi
‘The working one is a man.’ Swadesh (1938: 78)
Like with the Salishan languages, there are however subtle differences between the distribution
of stems with nominal vs. verbal meanings. While any lexical stem can serve as a verb, when
nominal stems do this they are limited to the durative aspect, and can only be used for existential,
classifying, or identifying expressions (Nakayama 2001: 47). Conversely, when verbal stems
function as arguments, they appear with the definite marker -ʔi (Nakayama 2001: 48). Only noun
stems may take possessive affixes. Additionally, nouns may be modified by property concepts,
quantity, or quantifiers, but may not be modified directly by qualifying expressions like ‘almost’
or ‘barely’; the reverse holds true for verbs (Nakayama 2001: 49). Generally speaking, there is a
strong discourse tendency for words from each group to be used for their preferred function
(nominal stems as arguments, verbal stems as predicates), and when those stems are presented in
isolation to speakers, the translation offered tends to represent their default category (Nakayama
2001: 47). However, all of the above criteria show exceptions: stems may have both nominal and
verbal uses, or may occur sporadically in non-prototypical roles, and verbal stems may become
lexicalized as nouns (similar to examples (28)–(29) above), in which case they do not require the
definite suffix (Jacobsen 1979: 107).
Though languages of the Pacific Northwest have received much of the attention concerning
the noun vs. verb distinction, the issue is prominent in many other language families as well.
Sasse (1988; 1991; 1993a; 1993b) claims that Iroquoian languages do not distinguish noun and
verb on the basis of superficial similarities between nominal and verbal affixes. Mithun (2000)
shows that these similarities are indeed superficial, and that the two classes are clearly distinct.
Mithun does however present the interesting case of morphological verbs that have been
lexicalized as nouns, as discussed in §5.1 above. For Siouan, Helmbrecht (2002) investigates the
noun-verb distinction in Hocank, and finds that there is no morphological construction that
specifically targets nouns. Any stem may function as either an argument or predicate.
Helmbrecht goes on to argue for a noun-verb distinction on negative evidence: certain verbal
inflectional categories do not occur with stems expressing nominal concepts.
Another interesting way in which the noun-verb distinction is blurred in some North
American languages is through kinship verbs—that is, kinship relations which are expressed as
verbs rather than nouns. Kinship verbs have been documented in Algonquian (Bloomfield 1946),
Seneca (Iroquoian; Chafe ), Tuscarora (Iroquoian; Mithun Williams [1974: 221–224]),
Yuman (Yuman-Cochimí; Langdon ), Cahuilla (Uto-Aztecan; Seiler [1977; 1980; 1982]),
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Cayuga (Iroquoian; Sasse [1993b]) and Mohawk (Iroquoian; Mithun [1996; in progress]).
Example (41) shows a few examples of kinship verbs in Mohawk.
(39) a. rakhsótha
he is grandparent to me
I have him as grandchild
they two have each other as siblings
‘those two siblings’, ‘his brother’, ‘her brother’, ‘his sister’
(Mithun in progress: Sec. 10.1)
Because kinship verbs have meanings that are rather atypical for both verbs and nouns (atypical
as verbs because they refer, and atypical as nouns because they describe a relation), they often
result in a class of words which have a mix of nominal and verbal characteristics (Evans 2000:
One final issue in the study of flexible noun-verb categories is directionality: while it is
common for North American languages to allow most or all of its words to function directly as
verbs without any overt derivational morphology—a phenomenon called omnipredicativity
(Launey 1994, 2004)—not all words may function directly as arguments. The most well-known
case of omnipredicativity is Classical Nahuatl (Launey 1994, 2004), for which the term was
originally proposed. We have also seen this phenomenon at work in Salishan and Wakashan
languages above. The debate over the noun-verb distinction in languages of the Pacific
Northwest is in large part a debate over directionality: any lexical item in these languages may
function as a verb, but the debate hinges crucially on whether lexical items have special behavior
or marking when functioning as nouns, which would providence evidence that some roots are
truly verbal. Beck (2013), for example, analyzes Lushootseed as exhibiting unidirectional
omnipredicativity. The examples in (42) show how a wide variety of words can function as
verbs, including lexical pronouns (a), adverbs (b), numerals (c), interrogatives (d), and even
prepositional phrases (e). (Note that Lushootseed sentences are generally verb-initial.)
(40) a. ʔəca kʷi ɬuɬiɬičʼid tiʔiɬ tatačulbixʷ
ʔəca kʷi ɬu=ɬi-ɬičʼi-d tiʔiɬ tatačulbixʷ
I REM IRR=ATTN-cut-ICS DIST big.game
‘the one who will cut up the big game animal is me’
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b. tudiʔ tə dukʷibəɬ
tudiʔ tə dukʷibəɬ
over.there NSPEC Changer
‘Changer is over there’
c. saliʔ kʷi ɬuʔəƛʼtxʷ čəxʷ čʼƛʼaʔ
saliʔ kʷi ɬu=ʔəƛʼ-txʷ čəxʷ čʼƛʼaʔ
two REM IRR=come-ECS 2SG.S stone
‘you will bring to stones’ (lit. ‘the stones that you will bring are two’)
d. tučadəxʷ čəxʷ
‘where have you been?’
e. tulʼʔal čəd sqaǰət
tulʼ-ʔal čəd sqaǰət
CNTRFG-at 1SG.S Skagit
‘I am from Skagit’ (Beck 2013: 197–198)
However, the distinction between noun and verb in Lushootseed appears in other places, for
example in negation contexts. When nominal stems occur with the negative predicate xʷiʔ, the
resulting meaning is ‘there is no’, as shown in (43).
(41) a. xʷiʔ gʷəstutubš
‘there are no boys’
b. xʷiʔ gʷəstabəxʷ
‘there is nothing (left)’ (Beck 2013: 211)
When verbal stems occur with the same negative predicate, the resulting meaning is to negate the
verb. Additionally, the verb must be nominalized with the s= proclitic:
(42) a. xʷiʔ uʔxʷ gʷəsɬaʔ ʔə tiʔəʔ čaləs
xʷiʔ uʔxʷ gʷə=s=ɬaʔ ʔə tiʔəʔ čaləs-s
NEG PTCL SBJ=NZR=arrive PREP PROX hand-3.POSS
‘his hand still cannot reach it’ (lit. ‘there is no his hand’s reaching it’)
b. xʷiʔəxʷ gʷəsx
̌aabs dxʷʔal sɬčil ʔə tsiʔəʔ bədaʔs
̌aab=s dxʷ-ʔal s=ɬčil ʔə tsiʔəʔ
NEG=now SBJ=NZR=cry=3.POSS CNTRPT-at NZR=arrive PREP PROX:F
‘(the baby) isn’t crying (even) when her daughter arrives’ (Beck 2013: 211)
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Both this and the preceding section have demonstrated the ways that North American
languages call into question even the most fundamental distinction between nouns and verbs.
Though most linguists working on languages which are controversial in this regard share the
consensus that the distinction is present but merely subtle, the diversity of ways in which
languages blur this distinction is nonetheless remarkable. For such a seemingly fundamental
distinction, there are many North American languages which have surprisingly few areas of the
grammar that are sensitive to it.
This chapter has illustrated just some of the myriad ways that North American languages
structure their words into classes. Most, perhaps all, North American languages present
challenges to the definition or status of word classes. As a general tendency, North American
languages do not grammaticalize rigid distinctions between word classes to the same extent that
Indo-European languages do. Sometimes this difference is drastic, as in the case of
Nuuchahnulth—in which word classes are mere discourse tendencies—and sometimes less so, as
in the case of Central Alaskan Yup’ik—in which the majority of roots and derivational affixes
are strongly specified for lexical category, but where nonetheless a minority of roots and affixes
show ambiguity. The extensive lack of sensitivity in different areas of the grammars of North
American languages to the distinctions between reference (nouns), predication (verbs), and
modification (adjectives) suggest that the development of lexical categories in a language is not
necessarily a given. Certain historical processes are common, and frequently lead to the
grammaticalization of the same or similar categories across languages, but never in all areas of
the grammar, or for all words in the lexicon, or in exactly the same way (Hengeveld 1992a,
1992b, 2010). The data from North American languages, taken together, challenge our
fundamental understanding of word classes.
This chapter has benefited from comments from many people. Thanks are due to George
Aaron Broadwell, Bernard Comrie, Jack Martin, and two anonymous reviewers for their
feedback. Special thanks are due also to Toshihide Nakayama for his early collaboration on the
outline for this chapter and later feedback, and to Monica Macaulay and Hunter Lockwood for
helpful discussions about Algonquian grammatical structures. Finally, my thanks go to the
editors for providing me the opportunity to contribute to this volume, for their helpful feedback,
and for their work in making this project possible. All errors and shortcomings are of course
wholly my own.
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List of Abbreviations
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neuter / neutral position
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