The grammar of multifunctionality

Grant holder

Dr Andrew Koontz-Garboden (PI) and Dr Yuni Kim (co-PI)

Funding agency

Arts & Humanities Research Council

Amount of award


Collaborating institutions

Dr Itamar Francez (University of Chicago) and Professor Chris Kennedy (University of Chicago)

Summary of project

The project explores the linguistic phenomenon known as multifunctionality, which occurs in language any time that a single element (whether a word or a unit smaller than a word) is used in more than one distinct context, as with, for example, the suffix --ka that appears on nouns in Ulwa to indicate possession. It appears not only on the possessed noun in a noun phrase like Andrew balauh-ka `Andrew's table', but also on adjectives, as in pau-ka `red'. If this happened only in Ulwa, we might rightly think it an accident, but there are a number of other unrelated languages that show the same kind of use of possessive morphology on adjectives, Hausa (Chadic; Nigeria), Huave, Moseten (Mostenan; Bolivia), among them.

We aim to show through the detailed study of multifunctionality in possessive morphology, that phenomena of this kind have been underappreciated and have serious consequences for formal linguistic architecture. We accomplish this through breadth and depth studies. In order to better understand its extent and variation, we cull the linguistic literature for additional instances of multifunctional use of possessive marking across languages, building a publicly-accessible wiki to display them and access them for our own purposes (and for use by anyone interested in the public, academic or otherwise). In order to understand the multifunctionality in greater depth, we undertake detailed fieldwork on it in Ulwa, developing an analysis of possession in the context of Ulwa grammar that has the multifunctional use of the possessive marker as one of its explananda. We then explore the consequences of this analysis, both internal to Ulwa, and crosslinguistically. Internal to Ulwa, we carry out additional fieldwork on constructions in the language that are related to adjectives, specifically comparative constructions (e.g., Kim is taller than Sandy) and degree-based constructions (e.g., Kim is 6 feet tall), since our analysis of possession with adjectives involves a treatment of them in Ulwa whereby they have a fundamentally different meaning from their English counterparts, thereby raising questions about the analysis of constructions involving them. Beyond Ulwa, we undertake detailed fieldwork on Huave and Hausa to better understand the nature of the multifunctional use of possession in these languages and the extent to which it can or cannot be analyzed similarly to Ulwa.

The project will demonstrate, through this detailed case study, the consequences of taking multifunctionality seriously in formal linguistic analysis. Beyond this, it also has implications for the understanding of the nature of possession and crosslinguistic variation in the nature of the use of possessive marking. It will further contribute valuable data and analysis to developing efforts to understand the nature of variation in adjectival semantics crosslinguistically. Additionally, the data collected on Huave and Ulwa, both highly endangered languages, will contribute to the documentation of these languages at the same time that they shed light on the nature of language more broadly.