In order to prepare myself for a glorious sports event this weekend, I've bought and read a book about Māori. If my sources are to be believed, Māori is relatively close to other Polynesian languages, so if you are a specialist in these or in other Austronesian languages, you may be able to answer my question.

This book was quite disappointing: it is clearly very far from comprehensive (which is OK, because it isn't sold as such) and, while it insists on how far from European languages the Māori is, it somehow remains stuck in IE grammatical categories...

One aspect of the grammar where this failure was particularly frustrating is the verb question: the author explains that the verb has no form expressing person, number, gender or tense (this role is assumed by a rich system of particles), that many things can be expressed with verbless sentences, and that a same word often serves as both noun and verb (e.g. mahi translates as the noun work and the verb to work). In my opinion, all these things are clues that maybe the noun/verb opposition doesn't make much sense in that context.

I'm interested in all kinds of generalisations of this question, but I'll ask a separate question for that.

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    Wikipedia points to words in Maori that "can take a definite article, but cannot occur as the nucleus of a verbal phrase;" insofar as this analysis is correct the language must have nouns(/noun-like things). – Aaron Sep 26 '11 at 21:39
  • In fact I have read that Polynesian and Chinese languages do not really have lexical word classes at all, not just nouns and verbs. Word class only comes about by how the words are used. I guess that makes them syntactic. I've also always been fascinated by this and would like to read more about it. – hippietrail Sep 26 '11 at 21:42
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    Samoan is usually cited as the best example of an Austronesian language without clear lexical classes. My understanding of Chinese is that there are many noun/verb pairs with identical forms so in isolation cannot be distinguished, but can be when used in a clause. The same thing happens in English with zero-derivation--you can't tell if 'bank' is a noun or a verb until you hear it in a sentence. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 3 '11 at 9:51
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    @GastonÜmlaut: Your comment is full of promises. If you can find a reference about Samoan absence of lexical classes, please post it as an answer: I'll be glad to accept it! – JPP Oct 5 '11 at 8:06
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    @JPP NB, it's not that lexical classes are absent (I doubt that's possible and still have language) but rather that it's not always clear which class a word form belongs in. When used as head of a verb phrase the word is a verb; when as a noun phrase it's a noun. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 9 '11 at 1:17

Yes, it is possible to analyse Maori grammar without finding a straightforward contrast between 'noun' and 'verb', at least at the highest level of categorisation. Many Maori words may occur in a variety of syntactic environments, somewhat like English zero-derivation (eg, 'fish' can be noun or verb-or perhaps there's two words 'fish', one verb and one noun, but they have identical form?) but much more pervasive. As a result, there have been serious analyses that don't employ the usual noun-verb categtorisation. Bruce Biggs (1996) analysed Maori as having two major categories, 'bases' and 'particles', with five subcategories of 'base'. According to Biggs, Particles are words that occur on the peripheries of phrases and perform functions such as case marking, TAM, directionality, deixis, etc. Bases are those words that can occur as phrasal head and provide the lexical content. He divides 'base' into these five subcategories:

Noun: can take definite article but can't occur as head of verb phrase. Universal: a word that may be passivised. Stative: a base that can be head of a verb phrase, but not passivised. Locative: a base that can be directly preceded by the locative preposition. Personal: a base that takes the personal article.

So while 'nouns' and 'verbs' are grouped together at the highest level of categorisation, they are distinguished as subcategories (with verbs broken into two subcategories).

A more recent attempt to classify Maori word classes is that of Winifred Bauer, in The Reed Reference Grammar of Maori. She takes a very different approach to Biggs, although starting from the same issue that 'Maori, like other Polynesian languages, uses the same form of a word in many different syntactic environments' (p. 65). Her analysis identifies classes of noun and verb (along with others) but she argues that morphosyntactic distributional criteria are not enough to identify all and only the members of each category and that the way forms contribute to the organisation of syntactic structure in the clause is also relevant.

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  • I'd be grateful if whoever downvoted my answer could explain why, and suggest what edits I could make to improve it. – Gaston Ümlaut Nov 29 '11 at 11:12
  • The only reason I can fathom is your really disturbing nickname :-) But I upvoted your answer, of course! – JPP Nov 29 '11 at 22:34

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