we (inclusive)-word/language-reduplicate-cut-[transitive verb theme]

'Cutting up words'- learning about Bininj Gunwok verb parts.

Linguists describe Bininj Gunwok (Kunwinjku, Gundjeihmi, Kuninjku, Kune, Kundedjnjenghmi, Mayali) as a ‘polysynthetic language’ because of the way meaning is built up at the word level. Many different word parts are glued together around the root of verbs such that a single word in the language can be a sentence when translated into English. For this reason languages such as Bininj Gunwok are also called ‘agglutinative’ because of the way a string of morphemes (word parts) are 'glued' together to make what can sometimes be very long words.

[Gundjeihmi] gabarrire ‘they are going’

[Kunwinjku, Kuninjku, Kune] kabirrire ‘they are going’

gabarri- / kabirri- 'they plural'

-re 'go'

[Gundjeihmi] gabarriyawoihre ‘they are going again’

[Kunwinjku, Kuninjku, Kune] kabirriyawoyhre

gabarri- / kabirri- 'they plural' -yawoyh- / -yawoih- 'again' -re 'go'

OK, let's glue together a few more word parts:

[Kunwinjku, Kuninjku, Kune] ngurriwernhyawoyhwarddemoyhma



‘you all pick up the rocks again carefully’

The -ø symbol at the end of the definition above is not a letter in the language but a linguistic symbol which means 'zero' i.e. nothing on the end. The verb -mang means 'to get' but when you drop off the final nasal sound [ng] -ma then it becomes a command (an imperative).

Here’s a sentence transcribed from a Kune speaker at Korlobidahdah outstation talking about a particular kind of native honey bee which unlike most species of native bees, can give an irritating little nip when the hive is raided:

Ngokkowino ngandjalkuyinmimbayehbayemeninj, ngadjalborrohborrohmeng.

‘Yesterday it [the bees] nearly bit my eyes, I was chasing [it] them away with my hands.'

Don't fret yet. Yes, it's a long word, but in the same way that you can fluently join many words together in an English sentence, so with practice you will be able to join word parts together to make a polysynthetic word in Bininj Gunwok.

When the individual parts of the words are broken up into their smaller units of meaning (or morphemes) it looks like this:

Ngokkowi-no ‘yesterday-its’ (the 'its' means a part of the whole daily cycle)



ngan- it (as the SUBJECT) acting on me (as the OBJECT). This prefix is pronominal (relating to pronouns, i.e. words in English like I, me, you, he, she, it, they, us, them). Note that this prefix combines two grammatical elements simultaneously i.e. both the subject and the object of the verb.

-djal- ‘just kept the action going’. This is an adverbial prefix on the verb stem. There are many different kinds of adverbial prefixes that can be used in this slot. They give information about the direction, location, immediacy, the manner or quantification of an action and other information about time.

-kuyin- ‘almost, nearly happened but didn’t’. This is another adverbial prefix to the verb as described above for –djal-

mim ‘eye(s)’ (but it also means 'seeds'). This is a noun which has been incorporated into the verbal complex. Linguists call this ‘nominal incorporation’ (nominal means ‘related to nouns’). The kind of nouns which can be incorporated in this way belong to a closed class. This means, you can’t just incorporate any kind of noun into the verb complex, but only those in a limited set. One of the type of nouns which are in this set are body parts and so mim ‘eye(s)’ is acceptable. Note that when this happens, nouns with noun class prefixes drop the prefix when incorporated. Normally the word for eye would be kun-mim (or spelt gun-mim in Gundjeihmi) and so the kun- / gun- is dropped and the stem mim is what is incorporated into the verbal complex.

bayehbaye ‘to bite [repeatedly]. This is our verb stem which in its base form is -baye but it has been reduplicated according to a formula which produces bayehbaye. This iterative reduplication gives the verb a sense of repetition, that is, there were many bees trying to 'bite and bite' the speaker’s eyes.

-meninj Irrealis suffix. Now we have moved on to the bits glued on the end of the verb. This suffix is of a form which applies only for those verbs which fall into a particular class of which –baye is a member. We will look at verb classes some time in a future lesson post. Suffixes on verbs give information about:

  • the tense (the time of an event)
  • aspect (temporal view and issues of continuity, or not)
  • mood (kinds of speech acts and issues of realisation of an event)

In this case, the irrealis form –bayemeninj means that the biting didn’t actually occur, but nearly did. Irrealis is a linguistic term meaning 'not a real or realised event'. This is also consistent with the –kuyin adverbial prefix ‘nearly’ mentioned above.


that is all


  1. [...] that you also need to know in order to construct sentences correctly. If you have already read the post on the polysynthetic nature of languages such as Kunwinjku and Gundjeihmi, you will know that it is necessary to learn parts of words as [...]

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