Conlanging is my hobby, and I would like to think more creatively about embedding. Since nature is always more inventive than any hobbyist can be, I've been reading about embedding in natural languages. Nonetheless, I been unable to find an answer to the following question, which concerns natural languages only:

Why do languages with extensive verb cross-referencing morphology require less overt marking for embedding than other languages that allow embedding do?

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    Why do you think this is the case? Can you give a reference? Also, I presume you mean a particular type of embedding, perhaps embedding of subordinate clauses? Mar 18, 2012 at 3:36
  • James, if you are interested and have not done so, take a look at the conlang.SE proposal. Mar 18, 2012 at 15:02
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    First rule: never use terminology cold without examples. In this case, there are two terms "verb cross-referencing morphology" and "overt marking for embedding", each of which could be used to mean several different things; and a question that presupposes that they are inversely proportional in some fashion and asks why. You may be right and I may even know the answer; but I don't know how you use terminology so I can't even frame the question. Try some examples? Please?
    – jlawler
    Mar 18, 2012 at 15:25

1 Answer 1


Let's say that you are talking about head-marking languages, and by "overt marking for embedding" you mean that dependent clauses must be modified by some kind of subordinating particles. Let me give an example and assume that this is what you are talking about. The example is from Classical Nahuatl, Anderson & Dibble's edition of the Florentine Codex.

notza-lo      in   tlamacazque huehuetque, in  in-toca        cuacuacuiltin: yehuantin caqui-ti-lo
summon-NONACT the  spirit      old.men     the 3pl.poss-name  C.             they      hear-APPL-NONACT
"...the old priests, whose names were quaquacuiltin, were summoned; these were informed..."

The English translation contains a relative clause, but there is no kind of subordinate marking in the Nahuatl version. A more or less literal translation will be: "[They] are called. They are priests. Their names are Quaquacuiltin. They are summoned." The verbs can appear by themselves and be a full clause. So can the nouns. The particle I've glossed "the" is itself optional. There is just not much "glue" holding the words of the sentence together.

I can't think of a very reason why dependent clauses in head-marking languages should lack particles which mark them as dependents. A not too thoughtful reason is that since dependents at the sub-clause level receive no marking (that is what makes it a head-marking language) the same phenomenon just applies to dependents at the clause- and higher level.

It could be on the other hand that clause subordination is a language specific issue that does not fully apply to head-marking languages. I'll conclude with two quotes:

Nichols (1986: 114) [this paper is worth reading in its entirety if you haven't already]

Head-marked patterns contribute to a flat syntax which minimizes intra-clause and inter-clause structure, freeing a language to concentrate on the grammaticalization of discource prominence and cohesion. In fact it turns out that it is precisely for head-marking languages that a number of traditional grammatical questions prove to be somewhat moot, because pragmatic and discourse relations (rather than strictly syntactic relations) are being grammaticalized.

Haiman & Thompson (1984: 510)

...the term "subordination" seems to be at best a negative term which lumps together all deviations from some "main clause" norm, and thus treats as unified a set of facts which we think is not a single phenomenon...

For a cross-linguistically-informed approach to clause linkage, consider perusing some of th e literature in the Role and Reference Grammar framework. (website)

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