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Colloquium with Jessica Coon, McGill University

Title: Building verbs in Chuj: Consequences for the nature of roots

The suffix -w in Chuj (Mayan) is found in two contexts: (i) attached to transitive roots to form what have been called “incorporation antipassives” and (ii) attached to nominal and positional roots to form unergatives. In both contexts, the result is an intransitive verb with a single, agentive external argument. In this talk I provide a unified analysis of these constructions in which -w is a v/Voice head that attaches to a root and introduces an external argument, but does not assign ergative case. Intransitivity is indirectly ensured through the limited availability of licensing heads. This has important implications for the status of certain antipassives. In Chuj, I argue that the incorporation antipassive formed with -w does not convert a transitive verb into an intransitive verb, but rather, both transitive and “antipassive” stems are formed directly from the root.
This detailed look at Chuj verbal morphology sets the scene for a broader question: when it comes to verb-stem formation, what information is contributed by the root, and what is contributed by the functional heads? I argue first that roots in Chuj are not acategorical, but must be grouped into categories based on their stem-forming possibilities. Root category does not map directly to surface category, but does determine which functional heads are possible. Second, I show that while licensing, agreement, and the introduction of the external argument are all governed by higher functional heads, the presence or absence of an internal argument is dictated by the root. Specifically, transitive roots in Chuj always combine with an internal argument, whether it be a full DP, a bare pseudo-incorporated NP, or an implicit object. The internal argument cannot be fully omitted or suppressed, regardless of higher functional material.