Plenary session: Gabelentz Award

Thursday 14 December

11am Gabelentz Award Plenary

Title: Descending from the mountain of tongues: Agreement in Hinuq and beyond

Speaker: Diana Forker, University of Jena


The Caucasus, which is known since antiquity as the ‘Mountain of Tongues’, represents the place with the highest genealogical and structural diversity in Europe (Comrie 2008) and within the Caucasus, Daghestan is the area with the largest number of languages. With around 600 speakers, Hinuq is the smallest of the five Tsezic languages belonging to the Nakh-Daghestanian or East Caucasian language family. It is mainly spoken in the village of Hinuq, which is located in the Daghestanian Mountains in the Russian part of the Caucasus.

In this talk, I will first briefly introduce the main tenets of Hinuq. I will then focus on agreement, taking Hinuq as the starting point and further include data from other languages of the Nakh-Daghestanian family.

Gender is a major grammatical category in Hinuq as well as in most Nakh-Daghestanian languages and can be reconstructed back to Proto-Nakh-Daghestanian. Gender is usually not marked on the nouns themselves, but reflected in agreement with a variety of targets, most prominently verbs, adjectives, and pronouns. Hinuq has five genders that are partially semantically based (Table 1). Within the domain of the clause and partially even across clausal boundaries, verbs agree with their absolutive argument in gender and number. In contrast to gender, person agreement is considered to be a relatively recent innovation. It is only attested in a handful of Nakh-Daghestanian languages, e.g. Dargi languages, Lak, Tabasaran and Udi, but not in Hinuq. The syntactic rules governing person agreement greatly differ from language to language and from construction to construction (e.g. Helmbrecht 1996).

In typological as well as in more formally oriented studies of agreement gender is treated as one of the four most common agreement features alongside with person, number, and case (see, e.g., Wechsler & Zlatić 2003, Corbett 2006, Baker 2008, Matasović 2014). Like numberand person it is a feature of the two major agreement domains, the nominal and the verbal.However, gender differs from the other features. Most importantly, gender is an inherentcategory of nouns that normally manifests itself only through agreement and not by means ofadditional exponents added to nouns. In contrast to person, there are many languages that donot have gender (e.g. 145 of the 257 languages surveyed by Corbett (2005) do withoutgender). Gender agreement is not equally distributed between the nominal and the verbal domain. All of the 34 languages in the 100 languages sample of Matasović (2014) that have gender have gender agreement in the NP. Gender agreement on verbs is less common and only found in 26 languages. Thus, verbal agreement of the Nakh-Daghestanian type that features gender as the main agreement category is typologically rather unusual. Gender indexing on verbs normally goes hand in hand with person indexing. In his 100 language sample, Matasović (2014) lists only four languages that have gender, but no person agreement on verbs. Three of them are Nakh-Daghestanian languages. Therefore, it is worth asking how exactly gender agreement differs from agreement in other features, notably person, and if the differences are predominantly formal and/or functional.

In order to discuss this topic, I will analyze gender and person agreement in Hinuq and other Nakh-Daghestanian languages. After the presentation of the morphosyntactic properties (agreement exponents, targets, rules, etc.), I investigate possible functions such as the use as anaphoric devices in reference tracking. For instance, we find gender agreement in all three clauses in (1), but only the first two subordinate clauses contain overt agreement controllers. Yet the gender agreement in the third clause can help us to identify the absent referent, which must be human masculine singular.

Table 1 gender agreement prefixes in Hinuq


Baker, Mark C. 2008. The syntax of agreement and concord. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Comrie, Bernard. 2008. Linguistic diversity in the Caucasus. Annual Review of Anthropology 37, 131-143.

Corbett, Greville G. 2005. Number of genders. In Martin Haspelmath, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds.), The world atlas of language structures, 126–129. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Helmbrecht, Johannes. 1996. The syntax of personal agreement in East Caucasian languages. Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 49. 127–148.

Matasović, Ranko. 2014. Verbal and adnominal agreement: Areal distribution and typological correlations. Linguistic Typology 18. 171–214.

Wechsler, Stephen & Larisa Zlatić. 2003. The many faces of agreement. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

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