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Incorporation (linguistics)

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Title: Incorporation (linguistics)  
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Subject: Sirenik Eskimo language, Polysynthetic language, Milewski's typology, Word formation, Linguistic typology
Collection: Linguistic Typology, Transitivity and Valency
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Incorporation (linguistics)

Incorporation is a phenomenon by which a grammatical category, such as a verb, forms a compound with its direct object (object incorporation) or adverbial modifier, while retaining its original syntactic function.

Incorporation is central to many polysynthetic languages such as those found in North America, Siberia and northern Australia. However, polysynthesis does not necessarily imply incorporation (Mithun 2009); neither does the presence of incorporation in a language imply that that language is polysynthetic.


  • Examples of incorporation 1
    • English 1.1
    • Oneida 1.2
    • Panare 1.3
    • Chukchi 1.4
    • Mohawk 1.5
    • Cheyenne 1.6
  • Semantics of noun incorporation 2
  • Syntax of noun incorporation 3
  • Incorporation in diachronic perspective 4
  • References 5

Examples of incorporation


Although not used regularly, English shows some instrument incorporation, as in breastfeed, and direct object incorporation, as in babysit. Etymologically, such verbs in English are usually back-formations: the verbs breastfeed and babysit are formed from the adjective breast-fed and the noun babysitter respectively. Incorporation and plain compounding may be fuzzy categories: consider backstabbing, name-calling, axe murder.


The following example from Oneida (Iroquoian) illustrates noun incorporation.

waʼkhninú: ne kanaktaʼ
waʼ- k- hninu- ': ne ka- nakt-
FACT- 1.SG- buy- PUNC ne PREF- bed- SUF
'I bought a bed.'

In this example, the verbal root hninu appears with its usual verbal morphology: a factive marker (FACT), which very roughly translates as past tense, although this is not quite accurate; an agreement marker (1.SG), which tells us that the verb agrees with 1st person singular (the speaker); and an aspect marker, punctual (PUNC), which tells us that this is a completed event. The direct object ne kanaktaʼ follows the verb. The function of the particle ne is unclear. Note that the word for bed consists of a root nakt plus a prefix and a suffix. The notion of the root is important here, but the properties of the prefix and suffix do not matter for this discussion.

The following sentence means the same as above, but noun incorporation has taken place.

waʼ- ke- nakt- a- hninu- ':
FACT- 1.SG- bed- EPEN- buy- PUNC
'I bought a bed.'

In this example, the root for bed nakt has incorporated into the verbal construction and appears before the verbal root. Two other incidental changes are noticed here. First, the agreement marker in the first example is k and in the second example is ke. These are two phonologically-conditioned allomorphs. In other words, the choice between using k and ke is based on the other sounds in the word (and has nothing to do with noun incorporation). Also, there is an epenthetic vowel a between the nominal and verbal roots. This vowel is inserted to break up an illegal consonant cluster (and also has nothing to do with noun incorporation).


The next example, from Panare, illustrates the cross-linguistically common phenomenon that the incorporated form of a noun may be significantly different from its unincorporated form. The first sentence contains the incorporated form u' of "head", and the second its unincorporated form ipu:

(1) y-u'-kïti-ñe amën
3-head-cut-NONPERF.TRANS 2SG
"You head-cut it."
(2) y-ipu-n yï-kïti-ñe amën
"You cut its head."


Chukchi, a Paleosiberian language spoken in North Eastern Siberia, provides a wealth of examples of noun incorporation. The phrase təpelarkən qoraŋə means "I'm leaving the reindeer" and has two words (the verb in the first person singular, and the noun). The same idea can be expressed with the single word təqorapelarkən, in which the noun root qora- "reindeer" is incorporated into the verb word.


Mohawk, an Iroquoian language, makes heavy use of incorporation, as in: watia'tawi'tsherí:io "it is a good shirt", where the noun root atia'tawi "upper body garment" is present inside the verb.


Cheyenne, an Algonquian language of the plains, also uses noun incorporation on a regular basis. Consider nátahpe'emaheona, meaning "I have a big house", which contains the noun morpheme maheo "house".

Semantics of noun incorporation

In many cases, a phrase with an incorporated noun carries a different meaning with respect to the equivalent phrase where the noun is not incorporated into the verb. The difference seems to hang around the generality and definiteness of the statement. The incorporated phrase is usually generic and indefinite, while the non-incorporated one is more specific.

In Yucatec Maya, for example, the phrase "I chopped a tree", when the word for "tree" is incorporated, changes its meaning to "I chopped wood". In Lahu (a Tibeto-Burman language), the definite phrase "I drink the liquor" becomes the more general "I drink liquor" when "liquor" is incorporated. The Japanese phrase 目を覚ます me o samasu means "to wake up" or literally to wake (one's) eyes. But when the direct object is incorporated into the nominal form of the verb, the resulting noun 目覚まし mezamashi literally means "waking up", as in 目覚まし時計 mezamashidokei meaning "alarm clock."

This tendency is not a rule. There are languages where noun incorporation does not produce a meaning change (though it may cause a change in syntax — as explained below).

Syntax of noun incorporation

Noun incorporation usually deletes one of the arguments of the verb, and in some languages this is shown explicitly. That is, if the verb is transitive, the verb word with an incorporated direct object becomes formally intransitive and marked as such. In other languages this change does not take place, or at least it is not shown by explicit morphology.

In Lakhota, a Siouan language of the plains, for example, the phrase "the man is chopping wood" can be expressed either as a transitive wičháša kiŋ čháŋ kiŋ kaksáhe ("man the wood the chopping") or as an intransitive wičháša kiŋ čhaŋkáksahe ("man the wood-chopping") in which the independent nominal čháŋ, "wood," becomes a root incorporated into the verb: "wood-chopping."

The noun may not be deleted after all. In the Oneida language (an Iroquoian language spoken in Southern Ontario and Wisconsin), one finds classifier noun incorporation, in which a generic noun acting as a direct object can be incorporated into a verb, but a more specific direct object is left in place. In a rough translation, one would say for example "I animal-bought this pig", where "animal" is the generic incorporated noun. Note that this "classifier" is not an actual classifier (i.e. a class agreement morpheme) but a common noun.

Incorporation in diachronic perspective

As proposed by Mithun (1984), one of the major origins of incorporation is coalescence between noun and verb. Another proposed origin is the denominal derivation of a nominal compound containing a noun root and a verb root (Jacques 2012).

Incorporation can in its turn change into other constructions, such as denominal derivation, applicative, directional affixes (Mattisen 2006, Mithun 2009)


  • Baker, Mark C. (1996). The Polysynthesis Parameter. New York [etc.]: Oxford University Press.
  • Baker, Mark C. (1988) Incorporation: a theory of grammatical function changing. Chicago:. University of Chicago Press.
  • Evans, Nicholas & Hans-Jürgen Sasse (eds.). (2002). Problems of Polysynthesis. Berlin : Akademie Verlag.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. (1909). Noun incorporation in American languages. In F. Heger (Ed.), XVI Internationaler Amerikanisten-Kongress (pp. 569–576). Vienna: Hartleben.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. (1911). Incorporation as a linguistic process. American Anthropologist, 13 (4), 577-584.
  •  [1]
  • Massam, Diane. (2001). Pseudo noun incorporation in Niuean. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 19 (1), 153-197.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1984). The evolution of noun incorporation. Language, 60 (4), 847-895. [2]
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1986). On the nature of noun incorporation. Language, 62 (1), 32-38. [3]
  • Mithun, Marianne. (2009) Polysynthesis in the arctic. In: Mahieu, M.-A., Tersis, N. (Eds.), Variations on Polysynthesis, The Eskaleut Languages. Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp. 3-18. [4]
  • Mattissen, Johanna. (2006) The ontology and diachrony of polysynthesis. In: Wunderlich, D. (Ed.), Advances in the Theory of the Lexicon. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin/New York, pp. 287-354.
  • Payne, Thomas E. Describing Morphosyntax, Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-521-58805-7
  • Rosen, Sara T. (1989). Two types of noun incorporation: A lexical analysis. Language, 65 (2), 294-317.
  • Sadock, Jerrold M. (1980). Noun incorporation in Greenlandic: A case of syntactic word-formation. Language, 57 (2), 300-319.
  • Sadock, Jerrold M. (1986). Some notes on noun incorporation. Language, 62 (1), 19-31.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1911). The problem of noun incorporation in American languages. American Anthropologist, 13 (2), 250-282.
  • Van Valin, Robert D. & Randy LaPolla. (1997). Syntax: Structure, meaning and function. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Examples and text were taken from

  • Conlang: Advanced Polysynthesis (Wikibooks)
  • Lexicon of Linguistics
  • Michael Jonathan Mathew Barrie Dynamic Antisymmetry and the Syntax of noun Incorporation
  • Van Valin & LaPolla:1997
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