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Inflectional predictability and prosodic morphology in Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara


Lexically stipulated suppletive allomorphy, such as that found in inflection class systems, makes wordforms unpredictable because any one of several exponents may be used to express some morphosyntactic property set. However, recent research shows that apparently complex inflectional paradigms can be organised in such a way that knowing one inflected form of a lexeme greatly reduces the uncertainty of other forms (e.g. Ackerman and Malouf 2013). Further typological work is required to investigate the ways in which inflectional interpredictability is achieved, and what aspects of wordforms may be informative. In this paper we present a case study of interpredictability in verbal inflection in Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (Pama-Nyungan; Australia). We show that a combination of suffix allomorphy, prosodically conditioned stem augmentation, and the prosodic structure of verbal roots all conspire to achieve a paradigm that is totally interpredictable: hearing one inflected verb enables a speaker to produce with certainty any other form of that verb. We also provide a detailed description of metrical structure in the language, clarifying previous analyses.

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  1. Irregular forms and inter-speaker variation are omitted here (see Nash 1980, p. 40). Differences in the final vowels of stems, such as yi-nyi ‘give-npst’ and yu-ngu ‘give-pst’, are due to a vowel harmony process that can apply to both suffixes and stems (see Harvey and Baker 2005; Nash 1980, pp. 81, 84–86).

  2. Pronunciation note: due to a process of vowel deletion described in Sect. 4.2, the names of the dialects are usually pronounced [′picaɲcara] and [′jankuɲcara].

  3. This has led to the assumption that feet are strictly disyllabic and quantity insensitive in some of the typological and theoretical literature regarding stress in Pintupi, a closely related language that neighbours Pitjantjatjara to the north/northwest. Pintupi stress has in fact been discussed in some detail by several authors, including but not limited to: Kager (1992, 1999), Hayes (1995), Gordon (2002, 2011), Apoussidou (2006, 2007), Heinz (2006, 2007), Pruitt (2008, 2010, 2012), McCarthy and Pruitt (2013), and Stanton (2014). It is likely that Pintupi, like Pitjantjatjara, is not an example of a quantity-insensitive stress system with both a bimoraic word minimum and strictly disyllabic feet.

  4. An inclusory construction, briefly, is a noun phrase in which two referring expressions, one referring to a member of a set and the other a pronoun referring to the superset, are juxtaposed (Hale 1966; Singer 2001). For example, ɲuntu ŋali ɲina-ɲi2sg.nom 1du.nom sit-prs’, ‘you and I – the two of us – are sitting’.

  5. There are four lexically specific minor deviations from this paradigm. One example is ɲa- ‘see’, which follows the ng-class pattern, except that it has a neutral augment -ku instead of -ŋku. The mv suffix allomorph is -la for ŋalku- ‘eat’ (l-class), as well as ŋaɻa- ‘stand’, and pica- ‘come’ (both Ø-class).

    Previous descriptions (Goddard 1985; Eckert and Hudson 1988, inter alia) include an additional pattern in the l-class whereby the retroflex /ɳ/ in suffixes becomes an alveolar /n/ following /i/-final stems, for example -ni in witi-ni ‘catch-prs’ instead of -ɳi in ampu-ɳi ‘hug-prs’. Ths is more likely not part of the phonological representation but a result of the retroflex∼alveolar distinction being nearly indistinguishable in nasals following /i/ (Tabain et al. 2020). We treat the l-class prs suffix as /-ɳi/ underlyingly regardless of preceding vowel.

  6. This table was generated by a Python script running over the electronic version of Goddard (2001).

  7. The -pa here is an epenthetic element which attaches to consonant-final nominals, ensuring that all words in Pitjantjatjara are vowel-final.

  8. An interesting comparison might be made with epenthetic prefixation in the non-Pama-Nyungan languages Alawa and Marra (Harvey and Baker 2020). In these languages, meaningless CV syllables are inserted to satisfy phonotactic constraints between noun class prefixes and the noun root; these syllables have different forms in Marra depending on morphosyntactic factors. They are argued to originate from 3sg pronouns with a determiner function, which were preserved only in contexts where they prevent a phonological constraint violation. This case has interesting parallels to the augment syllables in Pitjantjatjara which originate from TAM suffixes.

  9. In its imp.pfv form mira, this verb could potentially be confused for an n-class verb with a stem mi-. In reality, children are rarely commanded to yell, and other, unambiguous forms of this verb are more frequent. For ɲina- ‘sit’, the final syllable of the stem could be confused for an augment, if it were heard in the prs, imp.ipfv, or pst.ipfv forms, and the learner had not encountered any other forms of this verb. Like mira-, other forms of this verb are very frequent as well and this verb should not pose a problem for learners.

  10. Python scripts used to perform these calculations are available at

  11. The corpus is a fully glossed FLEx database with approximately 35,000 word tokens at the time of writing. It includes both Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara. It primarily consists of narratives, including spontaneous monologic and multi-speaker narratives, as well as elicited narratives from picture and video stimuli. There is also some more naturalistic conversation and interaction with children. There is likely some bias in the frequencies of paradigm cells due to genre, as mv forms are very common in narrative, whereas Defina (2020) finds these only occur in a small percentage of utterances in discourse. Token frequencies of verb lexemes were not included in our calculations due to insufficient data.

  12. A formatting error in the original means that ‘Paradigm Cell Entropy’ figures should be read off the last column of Ackerman and Malouf (2013, p. 443), while ‘Average Conditional Entropy’ figures should be read off the second-last column, in contradiction to the column headers.

  13. Although the lexical type frequency of the n1-class is low, its token frequency would be substantial, as it includes very frequent verbs such as cu- ‘put’ and (j)a- ‘go’.


aug :


anaph :

anaphoric demonstrative

assoc :


caus :


char :


fut :


imp :


inch :


ipfv :


loan :

loanword transitiviser

mv :

medial verb

neut :


nmlz :


nom :


npst :


pfv :


proc :

process suffix -kati

prop :


prs :


pst :


redup :


seq :



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The first author is indebted to many Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara speakers in Pukatja/Ernabella for sharing their languages with her. Two anonymous reviewers and Olivier Bonami in his role as editor-in-chief provided helpful feedback which substantially improved this paper. We are also grateful for the advice of Brett Baker, Peter Nyhuis, and Jeff Parker, Mitch Browne’s advice regarding Warlpiri, and Marija Tabain’s advice on some phonetic details. The first author was the recipient of the Susan Kaldor Scholarship from the Australian Linguistics Society in 2019. This enabled her to attend the LSA Summer Institute, including a seminar with Farrell Ackerman and Jim Blevins which influenced the direction of this paper; they also generously shared their thoughts on the data. All errors are of course our own.


This research has been supported by a Melbourne Research Scholarship, and by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (Project ID: CE140100041).

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Wilmoth, S., Mansfield, J. Inflectional predictability and prosodic morphology in Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara. Morphology 31, 355–381 (2021).

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  • Australian languages
  • Prosodic morphology
  • Inflectional paradigms
  • Word and paradigm morphology
  • Interpredictability
  • Inflectional classes
  • Transparency
  • Entropy