Morphological complexity in Nuer

Project Overview


Morphological complexity in Nuer

Project members:

Dr Matthew Baerman
Dr Bert Remijsen (University of Edinburgh)
Dr Oliver Bond
Dr Irina Monich
Tatiana Reid

Period of award

June 2015 - May 2019


Arts and Humanities Research Council

Nuer, a Western Nilotic language spoken primarily in South Sudan, is remarkable for the wealth of devices that speakers employ in constructing words. For example, the verb forms kúuuɣì ‘you (singular) force something’ and kúɔɔhɛ̀ ‘you (plural) force something’ differ by their endings (-i versus -ɛ), by stem vowel (u versus the diphthong ), by length (overlong versus long), tone (falling versus high) and the stem-final consonant (ɣ versus h). These devices are independent of each other, and – in the case of noun inflection – each falls into different inflection classes which freely combine with each other to produce several dozen inflectional patterns (at least!). The nouns below give something of a flavour of the way the system works, with different patterns of suffixation, vowel quality alternations, length alternations, tone and consonant alternations.

  ‘stick’   ‘hand’   ‘hole’   ‘peg’  
nominative singular kɛ̀ɛt   tér̥   kɔ́aaaɣ   ló̤oc  
genitive singular kɛ̀ɛt-á̤   té̤r̥-à̤   kɔ́ah   lôooy  
locative singular kɛ̀ɛt-á̤   téet   kɔ́h   lóooy  
nominative plural kɛ̀ɛt-ní   té̤e̤r̥   kɔ́aaɣ   lóoç  
genitive/locative plural kɛ̀ɛt-ní   té̤e̤e̤t   kɔ́aaɣ-nì   lóoç-nì  

Studying Nuer morphology allows us to probe the limits of morphological complexity, and at the same time explore a system which also phonologically striking, with a typologically unusual three-way vowel length contrast interacting with tone and phonation type distinctions. This will expand our picture of the typological possibilities of morphological and phonological systems, and provide valuable material for theory building.