Preliminary Research and Elicitation Preparations

Today was my first full day in the site of my fieldwork:  the Coushatta Tribal Reservation near Kinder, Louisiana. I spent the two weeks leading up to my arrival reviewing academic literature on active-stative languages and collecting a list of verbs that I’d like to elicit to determine the precise semantic boundaries that determine Koasati’s verbal person marking.  As I described in my abstract, active-stative is a term used to describe languages in which the subjects of certain verbs are marked differently based on semantic criteria, such as the subject’s control or volition over the the action that is being performed, or whether the verb describes an event or a state (hence the name “active-stative”).  More specifically, the subject of an intransitive sentence might be marked the same way as the either subject of a transitive sentence or the object of a transitive sentence.  So, if English were an active-stative language, you might say “I ran,” because “running” is typically an event that the subject has control over, but “me fell,” because “falling” is not typically an action that the subject has control over or does intentionally.

While doing preliminary research about active-stative languages, I ran into quite a number of different terms used to describe them.  Sometimes they are referred to as “active-stative,” or just “active,” other times they are labeled “split intransitive,” and other times they are called “agent-patient” or just “agentive” languages.   As Wichmann (2008) points out, none of these terms describe the full range of languages for which the subject of an intransitive sentence could be marked either the same way as the subject of a transitive sentence or the object of a transitive sentence.  A more inclusive term for these languages is “semantic alignment,” because it recognizes the full range of semantic boundaries that languages may draw when determining how to mark the subjects of intransitive sentences.  As a result, starting here I will use the term “semantic alignment” instead of “active-stative” when describing this type of language.

Mithun’s (1991) often-cited paper, Active/agentive Case Marking and Its Motivations, describes in depth the diversity of semantic boundaries that languages can draw in determining their case marking and verbal person-marking.  Caddo, a Native American language currently spoken in Oklahoma, marks the subjects of intransitive verbs the same way as subjects of transitive verbs if the subject is in control of the action, but marks them the same way as objects of transitive verbs if the subject is not in control, as in the “to run” vs. “to fall” example described above.  For Guarani, an indigenous language spoken in Paraguay, the distinguishing factor is whether the verb in question describes an event or a state.  So, for example, the subject of the verb “to go,” is marked differently from the subject of the verb “to be sick.”  In Mohawk, a Native American language spoken in Ontario and upstate New York, verbs are marked differently based on agency and another category that Mithun labels “affectedness,” broadly described as when an action described by a verb significantly affects the subject.  So for example, the verb for “to be flat” is an inherent property that does not affect the subject, whereas the verb for “to be damp” is not an inherent property, implying that something happened to it that caused it to be damp.  In other words, it was affected by something; thus, in Mohawk “to be flat” and “to be damp” take different verbal person-markers.

Koasati’s verbal agreement system is outlined in Kimball’s (1991) grammar of Koasati.  Verbs in Koasati take on three different sets of affixes that can indicate the subject of the sentence; for example, a first person singular subject can be marked with either the prefix am-, the prefix cha-, or the suffix -l.  Kimball mentions briefly that Koasati has a the choice of which affix set to use seems to be based on control, as in Caddo, and he gives a handful of examples as to how it works.  However, he is not exhaustive in his description, and at the time that his grammar was published the terminology used to describe semantic alignment was relatively imprecise.  In preparation to determine more precisely and provide more up-to-date examples for Koasati’s semantic alignment system, I have been going through a Koasati dictionary and finding words that I can elicit which will test the system.  I have selected verbs from a broad range of semantic categories: some states, others events; some controllable, others not controllable, some which imply affectedness, and others which don’t.  Hardy and Davis’s (1993) article The Semantics of Agreement in Alabama, a Muskogean language closely related to Koasati, outlines many semantic classes of verbs which often help in the categorization of semantic alignment systems, such as positional/locational verbs (to be at, to be sitting), quantifiers (to be many, to be few), perception verbs (to see, to hear), and bodily processes (to burp, to sweat).  I have made special note to include verbs from these categories.

In addition to describing the semantics of Koasati’s verbal person system, in order to make my project more useful to the Coushatta tribe, I will be helping to create a verb book, similar in style to the “601 Spanish Verbs” book series.  I have selected 101 common verbs to elicit in all persons and numbers, and soon I will go through my verb list with a native speaker of Koasati to make sure that I haven’t left out any particular important or commonly used ones.  I will also be attending materials development workshops to help make other teaching materials for the tribe.

I will be in Louisiana working on my project and helping the tribe develop materials until next Friday, June 9th. I’ll be sure to post more in the blog in the coming two weeks about my experiences doing fieldwork.


Hardy, H., & Davis, P. (1993). The semantics of agreement in alabama. International Journal of American Linguistics, 59(4), 453.

Kimball, G. (1991). Koasati grammar. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Mithun, M. (1991). Active/agentive case marking and its motivations. Language, 67(3), 510.

Wichmann, S. (2008). The study of semantic alignment:  Retrospect and state of the art. In S. Wichmann, & M. Donohue (Eds.), The typology of semantic alignment (pp. 3). New York: Oxford University Press.


  1. Kate Sandberg says:

    This is such an exciting project! I’m assuming you took Professor Martin’s class on Native American languages this past semester, which is where you must have gotten your inspiration! I admire you for taking on a project that not only deals with syntax, but with semantics as well, as it can be so interesting, but also incredibly confusing when trying to define syntactical rules. It is also so neat that you found a gap in language documentation that currently needs to be filled… you’re doing the work of a real linguist!

    I’m interested to hear how many speakers you end up meeting with to translate the verbs and about your experiences working with the members of the tribe! I’m also curious to hear more about the materials development workshops you mentioned you will be attending, as I wonder if these are already held by members of the community in order to revitalize the language and keep it alive or if these are workshops that you will be setting up yourself. Either way, what a fantastic way to give back to the speakers’ community!

    I can’t wait to hear about your fieldwork experience! As an aspiring linguist, just know that I am very envious of the experiences you will be having in the weeks ahead of you.

  2. jawilling says:

    Hi Kate! You’re right that I got a lot of my ideas from Professor Martin’s Native Languages class this past semester; semantic alignment was one of the many fascinating topics that we covered in class, since many Native American languages have this feature. I’m certainly lucky to have found a topic that combines semantics and syntax/morphology, two very different parts of linguistic theory!

    I only just got back from Louisiana a few days ago, and it was a great and unique experience. For my individual project I only met with three speakers, but I got chances to meet many more tribal members over the course of my two weeks there. The materials development workshops were mostly organized by tribal members and Professor Martin, who went to Louisiana with me, but I was happy to get to help out!

    I’ve already posted two more entries about my time there; I hope you get a chance to read them! Thanks for your interest in my project!