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Adjective Typology: evidence from Nuer

Within the study of lexical typology there is a debate as to the class of adjectives. There exist two main theories: first, there is the belief that all languages have (at least) three cross-linguistically universal categories: nouns, verbs, and adjectives (Dixon, 2004). Each category has distinct morphosyntactic properties. On the other hand, there is the perspective that lexical categories cannot be compared cross-linguistically (Dryer, 1997; Hapselmath, 2010). This perspective argues that, cross-linguistically, semantic meaning can be used comparatively but grammatical properties and behaviours cannot.
In this talk, I will present a description of the adjective class in Nuer, a West-Nilotic language of South Sudan, and an exploration into what it means for the existence of a distinct adjective class cross-linguistically. The research conducted consisted of direct elicitation during online sessions with a native speaker. The data gathered was then transcribed and analysed in Praat to determine with accuracy vowel length distinctions and vowel tonemes. This is important because Nuer predominantly uses morphophonological stem alternations to mark case and number in nouns and person, number, and tense in verbs. I have found that adjectives in Nuer can be divided into two categories: most adjectives function like verbs and a small subset pattern more like nouns. The distinction between the two appears to be entirely semantic, with a certain level of animacy differentiating them from adjectival verbs. Indeed, it was not possible to elicit any adjectival noun alongside an inanimate NP without the sentences being considered semantically incorrect or strange. My research focuses on the second type of adjectives: the adjectival verbs. These adjectives behave the most like verbs when used predictably. In this context, the adjectival verb forms the head of an intransitive predicate (literally, ‘the man happies’). This differs from adjectives in a language like English that requires the predicative adjective to form a copula case (‘the person is happy’). This knowledge thus seems to indicate that there is no distinct adjective class in Nuer but rather that the majority of adjectives belong to a subclass of intransitive verbs. While my research was predominantly based on the Lou dialect of Nuer, I have endeavoured to corroborate my findings with other dialects and, where possible, related languages. Therefore it is likely that my descriptions hold true across the language and can accurately inform the discussion into the existence of a cross-linguistic adjective class.

Dixon, R. M. (2004). Adjective classes in typological perspective. Adjective classes: A cross- linguistic typology, 1-49.
Dryer, Matthew S. 1997. Are Grammatical Relations Universal? In Bybee, Joan & Haiman, John & Thompson, Sandra (eds.), Essays on Language Function and Language Type: Dedicated to T. Givon, 115–143. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI: 
Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663–687. DOI: