Nuer is a Western Nilotic language of the Dinka-Nuer subgroup spoken in the Republic of South Sudan and Ethiopia by anywhere from 900,000 to well over two million speakers.Footnote 2 Nuer has a number of dialects that can be separated into two broad varieties which we term Western Nuer and Eastern Nuer. Western Nuer, also known as Bentiw, is spoken in Ruweng, Northern Liech and Southern Liech States of South Sudan. Eastern Nuer is spoken over a vast geographical stretch – in Western Bieh (Fangak), Eastern Nile, Latjoor, Eastern Bieh and Jongley States of South Sudan and the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Many South Sudanese Nuer live abroad due to a persistent unrest in the native territories. Large Nuer settlements can be found in the U.S.A. and Australia as well as in Eastern Africa. Previous studies include Crazzolara (1933), Vandevort (n.d.), Yigezu (1995), Storch (2005), Frank (1999), Baerman (2012) and Faust (2017), among others.
Some preliminaries about the vocalic system and associated suprasegmental features are necessary in order to describe the morphological alternations. Like many other Western Nilotic languages, Nuer distinguishes three degrees of vowel length, which we refer to as short, long and overlong, and represent with one to three vowel graphemes. (Diphthongs are represented as digraphs, with length indicated by the non-initial component.) Voice quality is also distinctive: breathy voice is indicated by two subscript dots, while modal voice (the unmarked phonation type, which may tend towards creakiness), is not overtly represented. There are three phonemically distinct tones (tonemes): low (v̀), rising (v̌), and one which for convenience we will call high, but which is only realized as high with breathy vowels (), while with modal vowels it is falling (). Tone is represented just on the first vowel grapheme of any graphic sequence of vowels. Tone does not play a role in the account to follow.Footnote 3
Case inflection and the gerund
Nouns in Nuer inflect for three cases: nominative, genitive and locative, whose use we illustrate here with the noun ‘home’. The nominative is in effect the default case, used both for subject and for object, as in (4), among other things. The genitive is used in adnominal constructions, as in (5), where it is the complement of the gerund ‘thinking about’ (thus literally ‘I want the thinking about of the home.’). The locative indicates location, as in (6), where it is used in conjunction with the uninflected copula, or goal of motion, as in (7).
The parallel constructions with a gerund in place of an ordinary noun are shown in (8)–(11), using the verb ‘kick’. In (8) it is the nominative object of the verb ‘want’, and itself takes a genitive complement. In (9) it is the genitive complement of the gerund ‘thinking about’, which itself is the nominative object of ‘want’. These two patterns are the usual way of making one verb the complement of another. In (10), following a cross-linguistically familiar pattern, the locative forms the basis of a progressive construction, (thus literally ‘Bool is on kicking of the person’), while in (11) it expresses purpose as the complement of a verb of motion.
Note that the nominative of ‘kicking’ is identical to the genitive. Gerunds typically display syncretism of two out of the three cases, but which cases those are depends on inflection class. In order to demonstrate the validity of the three-way case distinction, we repeat (8)–(10) with the gerunds of two other verbs: (12)–(14) show a gerund with nominative/locative syncretism, and (15)–(17) show a gerund with genitive/locative syncretism.
Typically, the gerund is a singular noun form. However, if the verb is multiplicative (a derived verbal category which indicates that the action is performed multiple times; see (25)), a plural noun form is used instead; examples (18)–(20) give the multiplicative equivalents of (8), (9) and (11). (Note that plural case is not distinguished in the particular nominal pattern that gerunds follow.)
Although gerunds are nominalizations, we hold that the forms illustrated here still constitute a part of the verbal paradigm. As shown in Sects. 2.2–2.3, gerunds are productive and available to every verb, and they are required to form a progressive construction, and to allow one verb to be the complement of another verb. This gives nominal morphology, in particular case morphology, a point of entry into the verbal system. Nouns fall into different inflection classes on the basis of case-marking morphology, as is shown in Sect. 2.3, and these find their way into the verbal system through constructions that use the gerund.
The shape of the verbal paradigm
As a necessary precursor to describing the morphological properties of the gerund we first sketch out the basic elements of the verbal paradigm. Nuer verbal morphology can be divided into two cross-cutting systems that we distinguish as inflectional and derivational. The inflectional paradigm consists of (i) finite forms, (ii) non-finite forms that are used with auxiliaries, and (iii) the gerund. The derivational paradigm distinguishes various types of valence alternations (both arguments and goals), as well as iteration.
An account of the verbal paradigm in turn presupposes an understanding of the system of morphological exponents, whose surface manifestation may seem opaque to those not familiar with the morphophonology of Western Nilotic languages. Morphological alternations in Nuer involve both suffixation and stem modification. While suffixation is straightforward, stem modification involves complex alternations of vowel and voice quality, length and tone, a full account of which warrants separate studies of their own (for example, see Reid 2017; Monich 2019). What is crucial for our purposes here is a system of two cross-cutting sets of alternations of the root vowel (verbal roots are invariably monosyllabic), which we distinguish as grade A∼B and grade 1∼2. Table 1 illustrates the basic principles, using the verbal root meaning ‘kick’. Within the verbal system, the grade A∼B alternation characterizes inflectional values such as person/number, as shown here with the contrast between 3sg and 1sg subject forms. The grade 1∼2 alternation characterizes derivational alternations, exemplified here by the contrast between the transitive paradigm and the corresponding antipassive, which is a derived intransitive.
Table 2 shows the complete vowel inventory of the language classified in terms of the grade alternations. The grade A∼B alternation typically involves lowering (e.g. ), along with diphthongization for some vowels (e.g. ɪ∼ɪε); high mid vowels however undergo a voice quality change from breathy to modal voice (∼e and ∼o). Grade 1∼2 typically involves raising, alongside voice quality change from modal to breathy voice. For the sake of clarity, in subsequent paradigmatic tables we include the information about the grade of the stem vowel next to the word form (e.g. 1A).
Table 3 exemplifies verbal morphology, with the inflectional values as rows and a selection of the derivational paradigms as columns. We review here briefly the various functions. Along the inflectional dimension, the subject-marked forms are used with the non-negated present tense, except when a nominal subject immediately follows the verb, in which case the bare form is used. The nf form is the general form used with auxiliaries (e.g. for past and future), while the nf neg is used just with the present negative auxiliary. Along the derivational dimension, the transitive (21) is arguably the basic form.Footnote 4 Some of the derived paradigms involve valency changes, either reduction through the removal of the direct object (the antipassive in (22)), or increase through the addition of an argument (the applicative in (23)). The centripetal form signals a movement towards a reference point (24). (Not illustrated here are the valency-reducing paradigms that can be generated for the applicative and centripetal forms.) All of these categories can further derive multiplicative forms that signal that the action is performed multiple times or over a period of time, illustrated here with a multiplicative transitive (25).
Underived paradigms, can have a grade 1 or grade 2 vowel, while the derived paradigms associated with argument alternations (antipassive and applicative) are restricted to grade 2.Footnote 5 Inflectional paradigms involve an alternation between grade A∼B as well as suffixation, both of which are largely identical across all derivational paradigms, with three systematic exceptions. First, the vowel of the 3pl intransitive verbs is grade A, while other verbs have grade B.Footnote 6 Second, the vowel of the nf form varies considerably across different derivational paradigms. Footnote 7 Third, the imperative is unsuffixed with underived transitives, but suffixed with all other paradigms.Footnote 8
The gerund occupies an exceptional place within this paradigmatic matrix. First, gerunds always have a grade 2 vowel. This means that within an underived transitive paradigm, where all other forms can have a grade 1 vowel, the gerund stands out by virtue of its grade 2 vowel (see Table 3 and fn 8). Second, and more importantly in the present context, gerunds have not just the nominative form shown here, but a genitive and locative form too. This is where nominal inflection classes enter into the picture.
Nominal inflection classes and gerunds
Verbal inflection, though it appears complex, is nevertheless almost entirely regular. With the few exceptions noted in Sect. 2.3, all verbs display the same suffixes and the same pattern of vowel grade alternations. Noun inflection, by contrast, is characterized by lexical specification and irregularity in both suffixation and stem alternation. We cannot pretend here to do justice to its full extent, and limit ourselves to the points relevant to the discussion at hand. (For a more complete treatment of nominal inflection, see Baerman and Monich 2019.)
Nouns fall into a number of classes based on their inflection both in the singular and plural, but since gerunds do not have plural forms (with the exception of the multiplicative) it is enough to look just at the different patterns of singular inflection. As with underived verbs, the stem vowel may belong to grade 1 or grade 2; Table 4 shows the four major classes, using nouns with a grade 2 vowel. In the first two types (‘forest’ and ‘path’), case inflection is realized by a vowel grade alternation between grade A and B. With both types the genitive has a grade B vowel and the locative a grade A, but they differ in the nominative: the first type has a grade A vowel and the second grade B.Footnote 9 The third type (‘goose’) shows both a vowel grade alternation and a suffix, with grade B in the nominative and grade A, plus suffixation, in the genitive/locative. (The full form of the suffix is -, but the initial /k/ is only realized following a vowel.) The fourth type (‘dove’) has the same suffix, but has an invariant grade A root vowel.Footnote 10
The class membership of a noun is not phonologically determined, nor is there any single form which would allow one to predict the entire paradigm. For example, if a noun has a grade A nominative, it could belong to either the first type or the fourth type; if a noun has a grade A suffixed genitive/locative, it could belong to the third type or fourth type. That means that nouns require two principal parts in order to unambiguously identify which inflectional pattern they follow. For this reason we consider the four types represented in Table 4 to be lexically specified inflection classes. That said, not every pattern is equally well represented in the lexicon. If we take the nominative as the point of departure, if it has a grade A vowel, the noun will usually inflect like ‘forest’. If the nominative has a grade B vowel, the noun will usually inflect like ‘goose’. A prominent exception to this generalization are productively derived deverbal agent nouns, and phonologically aberrant words such as unassimilated loanwords: these inflect like ‘dove’, with a grade A vowel plus suffixation.
Gerunds follow exactly these four patterns, as shown in Table 5. (Note that they invariably have a grade 2 stem vowel, a point we return to below.) The phonological properties of the verb stem determine the nominative form of the gerund, but do not determine the behaviour of the oblique case forms. This is lexically specified, and it is in this sense that nominal inflection class distinctions have become part of the verbal paradigm.
Though the relationship of the nominative gerund to the verbal stem is predictable, is rather more complex than it is for other forms in the paradigm. First, the gerund requires a grade 2 stem vowel, even if the verb stem otherwise has a grade 1 vowel, which means that morphologically the gerund behaves like a derived verb form.Footnote 11 Second, while the other forms in the paradigm have a fixed grade A or B vowel as determined by the template in Table 3, for the gerund the choice of a grade A or grade B vowel is dependent on additional properties of the verb stem. These are illustrated in Table 6 for the gerunds of underived transitive verbs, taking the 2sg form as diagnostic of the underlying vowel and the length contrast.Footnote 12 If the verb has a grade 1 stem vowel, the nominative gerund has a grade B vowel, whether the stem is short or long. If the verb has a grade 2 stem vowel, the form of the gerund is sensitive to length. If the verb stem is short, the nominative gerund has a grade A vowel. If it is long, it has a grade B vowel. In all these cases the underlying stem length is also seen in the gerund.Footnote 13
Oblique case morphology can then in principle follow either type (with or without suffixation), but there appear to be strong tendencies, again based on phonological properties of the verb stem (Table 7). If the verb has a short stem, it will typically be unsuffixed, while if it has a long stem, it will typically be suffixed.
There are two classes of exceptions. First, long stems that end in a glide (/j/ or /w/) shorten in the gerund. They still take the oblique case suffixes predicted by their underlying stem length, but the gerunds themselves are short (Table 8), so that the length of the nominative itself is not predictive, as was the case with verbs in Table 7.
Second, lexical exceptions to the usual association between stem length and oblique case suffixation are not infrequent (Table 9). Some short stem verbs also permit an alternative suffixed oblique form (‘sharpen’), while some long stem verbs take unsuffixed oblique case forms (‘drink’). That means that the inflection class distinctions in the gerund can still be lexically specified, even in the face of default tendencies.
The four inflectional classes exist only for gerunds formed from underived verbs (transitive verbs in the vast majority of cases, though there are also a handful of underived intransitives). Gerunds of derived verbs display uniform behaviour across the lexicon. There are two types. The first, found with most derivational paradigms, is represented in Table 10 by a applicative verb: the gerund has oblique case suffixes and an invariant grade A stem.
The second is found with multiplicative verbs whose gerunds inflect as plural nouns, reflecting their inherent event plurality through explicitly nominal plural marking. As with the singular, plural case inflection in nouns falls into different classes, but only one of them is found with gerunds, namely a grade A stem vowel plus the suffix -, the same for all three cases, as in , the gerund of the multiplicative of ‘kick’ in Table 3.
To conclude this section, we review the basis for the claim that verbs in Nuer incorporate nominal inflection class distinctions. It depends on the assumption that we can understand gerunds as part of the verbal paradigm and not just as deverbal nouns, at least when they used in the sorts of constructions illustrated in (4)–(20). It is admittedly difficult to find arguments one way or another. Thus in contrast to the Latin gerund ‘see’ in (26), which takes an accusative complement, they retain nominal properties of government, taking a genitive complement rather than the nominative complement that would otherwise be expected of verb.
But it is hardly unreasonable to ascribe their various uses – for example, verb-verb complementation, progressive aspect, or purpose – to the sphere of activity of verbs. Were it not for their nominal morphology, one would hardly hesitate in identifying gerunds as part of the verbal paradigm. The other aspect of our claim is the identification of the different case inflection patterns as inflection classes, in the sense that there is lexical specification of inflectional morphology. To the best of our knowledge this must be true, for both ordinary nouns and for gerunds. Gerunds formed from underived verbs face a two-way lexical choice: while the nominative form is largely predictable from phonological properties of the stem, oblique case inflection can still follow either of two patterns. Although there are some tendencies based on stem phonology, there is still room for lexical specification, as illustrated in Table 9.