In my morphology class this semester, I did a project on Amharic, a language I’ve wanted to learn more about for a long time.
Amharic is a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia; it is a primary language in the off-white area of Ethiopia on the map to the left. This language is notoriously complex in terms of its morphology and grammar, as each word has a root that can appear to change significantly in different grammatical situations.
Image source: The Language Gulper
In my project, I investigated the relationship between case-marking (which indicates whether a noun is a subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.) and valence-modifying operations (things like causative – ‘I make you eat potatoes’, passive – ‘potatoes were eaten by you’, etc.). Amharic has a nominative-accusative case-marking system, like English – meaning it distinguishes between subject and object. However, it has a marker that goes directly on the noun to indicate nominative or accusative case, which English does not have.
It took me eleven pages of data and discussion to complete my analysis, but the essence of my conclusion is this: only nouns functioning as an accusative argument are marked in causative and passive operations, and only one of these may be marked in a sentence. When a decision has to be made about which accusative argument to mark, Amharic prefers to mark nouns indicating the goal or source of a verb to those indicating the theme of the verb.
It was very interesting to investigate these operations in a morphological and grammatical system that much more complex than English’s is. However, my favorite thing I learned was a related crumb of information I stumbled upon. In Amharic, the causative can be layered onto the passive (which is not possible in English, but would take the translated form, rather inelegantly, of something like: ‘I made the potatoes be eaten by you’). The following examples show how these layered operations in Amharic result in logical and beautiful shifts in meaning:
‘disturb’ (Leslau 1995:503)
‘be disturbed’ (Leslau 1995:503)
‘cause to be disturbed’ (Leslau 1995:503)
Amharic language source:
Leslau, W., & Thomas Leiper Kane Collection (Library of Congress. Hebraic Section). (1995). Reference grammar of Amharic. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz.