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In the languages I know, verbal tense, number, gender, etc. is applied after the word stem. Is there any language where verb conjugation morphologically affects the beginning of a word and not the end of it?

  • I tweaked your terminology a little. Your title and first sentence were referring to verbs only; however, in the last sentence you also mentioned nouns. Are you asking about the inflection (conjugation) of verbs only or inflection in general (i.e. also nouns, adjectives etc.)? – lemontree Apr 14 '17 at 17:25
  • I wasnt happy with the topic title/description either. Thanks – Pablo Apr 14 '17 at 17:25
  • (See my question - please re-edit if removing the "noun" part was inadequate, wasn't sure what exactly you are after) – lemontree Apr 14 '17 at 17:27
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    Lots of languages. See WALS for this map of prefixing languages – curiousdannii Apr 15 '17 at 5:43
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    Even in "mainstream" Indo-European languages, certain verb forms affect the beginning of words; e.g. reduplication for the perfect: dedorka (saw) in Greek ~ dadarśa (saw) in Sanskrit. – ShreevatsaR Apr 17 '17 at 18:20
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Look into the Bantu languages, such as Swahili. Tense, aspect, and subject agreement are all marked at the beginning of the verb.

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Since Bantu has been mentioned, I won't mention it again, much. I'll mention Athabaskan, Ket (not Athabaskan but probably related), Semitic, Berber, Coptic, Bongo, Krongo, Nilotic, Nyulnyul, Gooniyandi, Tiwi, Lenakel, Camsá, Cayuvava, Seri, Nahuatl, Lakota. You can get more examples here. That said, if you mean "only prefixing, with no suffixing at all", then that may be hard to find. The situation in Bantu is that tense-aspect-mood-polarity and sometimes subject number are marked suffixally, and tense-aspect-mood-polarity and subject are more marked (more distinctions are made) prefixally. In Semitic, subject can be marked in part prefixally (in the imperfective), but also suffixally. Athabaskan languages are mostly prefixing, but I don't think any are completely devoid of suffixes.

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    Mayan verb inflections are largely prefixal, – jlawler Apr 14 '17 at 23:30
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The Tupi family of languages does person and number agreement with bound verbal prefixes. Major Tupian languages include Guaraní, spoken in Paraguay; Nheengatu, spoken by a minority of Amazonian Brazilians; a number of endangered native Brazilian languages, and Old Tupi which is a substrate language of Brazilian Portuguese.

Old Tupi examples follow. I'll separate the morphemes by hyphens:

  • ixé a-só "I go"
  • endé ere-só "You (sing.) go"
  • a'é o-só "He/she/it/they go"
  • îandé ia-só "We (inclusive) go"
  • oré oro-só "We (exclusive) go"
  • peẽ pe-só "You (pl.) go"

Compare:

  • ixé a-nhe’eng "I talk"
  • endé ere-nhe’eng "You (sing.) talk"
  • a'é o-nhe’eng "He/she/it/they talk"
  • îandé ia-nhe’eng "We (inclusive) talk"
  • oré oro-nhe’eng "We (exclusive) talk"
  • peẽ pe-nhe’eng "You (pl.) talk"

The rest of the verbal morphology uses both bound prefixes (ta-pe-só "you may go") and suffixes (xe-só-reme "if I go"). It also features a form of noun incorporation; the direct object, or a pronoun agreeing with it, must be tacked on before the verb as follows:

  • ixé a-kunumĩ-epîák I 1s-boy-see = "I see the boy"
  • ixé kunumĩ a-i-epiâk I boy 1s-3s-see = "I see the boy".
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Hebrew has verb inflections at the beginning, middle, and ends of verbs. For a simple example, first person simple future tense prepends an aleph at the beginning of the verb, while past tense has a suffix.

There are more complex examples -- the three letter root "fold" gets a prefix and becomes the four letter root "duplicate".

Wikipedia has many more detailed examples.

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In Slavic languages, verbs have perfective/imperfective aspects, a core grammatical feature, and it's usually done via prefixing.

For example, in Russian: delat "to do", sdelat "to have done"; kormit "to feed", pokormit "to have fed"; gotovit "cook", prigotovit "to have cooked". Basically almost every verb comes in such pairs.

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  • We don't really take it as inflexion of one verb but as different verbs. German fahren and abfahren are different verbs and jet and odjet are different too and happen to have different aspect due to the ab/od. Aus/vy has the same effect graben/ausgraben and kopat/vykopat and many other similarities. It is not conjugation of one verb. (Both examples have imperfective variants by adding a suffix: odjíždět and vykopávat. Translation to German remains the same.) – Vladimir F Apr 15 '17 at 20:50
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    If I want to take "I was cooking it" (imperfective) and change it grammatically to have a perfective aspect ("I have cooked it"), I have no other choice as to add prefix pri- (gotovil => prigotovil). I cannot use the verb "gotovit" in perfective sense with suffixes alone -- and this is true for many verbs. To me, it means that it's not just pairs of different verbs. Sure, prefixing is not the only way, some verbs get away with suffixing. I'm not sure if German is related here at all, because I can apply all sorts of tenses to both graben/ausgraben. – Constantine Geist Apr 15 '17 at 21:10
  • Note also 1) in pairs such as ja gotovil "i was cooking" vs. ja prigotovil "I have cooked" the only marker to tell the difference between the aspects is the prefix 2) it's grammatically obligatory to assign perfectiveness to verbs. So, such prefixes are pretty much part of the grammar (not vocabulary). They aren't "officially" considered part of inflection because our tradition stems from Latin/Greek grammars which do not have such distinction. – Constantine Geist Apr 15 '17 at 21:20
  • The problem is that 1) you don't normally have simple pairs but more verbs in the group, 2) the verbs can change their aspects through language history, 3) there are verbs with both aspects. So yes it is part of grammar, no it is not conjugation, it is a category describing separate verbs. – Vladimir F Apr 15 '17 at 21:47
  • 1) most verbs have default prefixes to go from perf.=>imperf. and back; it's the verbs of motion (separate verb category with their own pecularities) which usually have abundance of prefixes because you need to specify the direction; verbs like "see", "cook", "read" usually have one simple pair for the default meanings 2) "legit" endings can change their meaning with time, too, such as -ama/-ima from dual taking over -im(i)/-ich in plural in several Slavic languages 3) there are endings with several grammatical meanings, too, such as -u/-e expressing both dative/locative in several languages – Constantine Geist Apr 15 '17 at 23:53
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Here is a list of languages which have polypersonal verbal inflexions at the beginning of the verb.

  • Swahili.
  • Ainu.
  • Nahuatl.

In the languages I know, verbal tense, number, gender, etc. is applied after the word stem.

Importantly, it seems that those features are marked on the verb last, i.e. after everything else has already been added. Whether they get concatenated onto the beginning of the verb or at the end, seems to be dependent on something else. The languages I listed tend to be head-final; maybe that's it.

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My modest knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic, MSA, which I acquired by weekly self-study after two years of classroom exposure several years ago, have taught me that prefixes do indeed alter Arabic verbs in the imperfect aspect, but not always exclusively so--the persons of some verbs attach both a prefix and a postfix; see, e.g, tathhebiina, she goes, below tehth.hebiina. 'th' is a single letter, voiced, as in 'that' Consider the verb 'to go', transliterated in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc., persons(p.); the prefixes show fairly clearly in front of the root, thahab ~ /THEH-heb/:

pers/no./gender Pronoun

1p sg. m/f..'athhebu ('anaa = I, 1st p. sg.),

prefix: 'a ~ /'eh/; all final u are silent in lower registers; hence, colloq: 'athheb, vs. 'athhebu;//

2p sg. m....tathhebu ('anta = you, 2nd pers. sing., masc.)//

2p sg. f....tathhebiina, ('anti = you, 2p. f. sg.)//

3p sg. m....yathhebu (huu'a = he, 3p. m. sg.),pron /YETH-heb/.//

3p sg. f....tathhebu (hii'a = she, 3p. f. sg.(but see 2p.sg.m.!)//

1p pl.......nathhab (naHnu = we, 1p. pl.)//

2p pl m.....tathhabuuna ('antum = you, 2p. m. pl.)//

2p pl f.....tathhabna ('antunna = you, 2p. f. pl.)//

3p pl m.....yathhabuuna (hum = they, 3p. m. pl.)//

3p pl f.....yathhabna (hunna, = they, 3p. f. pl.)

I would be glad to edit/correct any errors the readership may find.

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Sanskrit

The perfect tense is formed by reduplication of the root and the addition of a special set of personal endings. As in athematic present stems,Thus from drs ‘see’, dadarsa ‘he saw’, dadrsuh ‘they saw’.

The vowel of the reduplication is i/u for roots containing 1/fi, a for other roots. eg, from svap ‘sleep’, susvipa, susupuh, or sru ‘hear’ : thus susruma ‘we heard’

I beleive a few other languages of Indo-European family inherit this feature.

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