Do we know what “noun incorporation” is?

Linguists treat many technical terms as so well-established that they are not in need of explanation or definition, or that any further discussion is a secondary matter. But even a widely used term such as “word” is not well-understood (Haspelmath 2011), so it is not surprising that more specialized terms such as “noun incorporation” suffer from the same problems. This is clearest if one defines “noun incorporation” in terms of wordhood, as in de Reuse (1994a: 2842), where noun incoproration is defined as

“the morphological construction where a nominal lexical element is added to a verbal lexical element; the resulting construction being a verb and a single word”

This definition (as well as Gerdts’s (1998) very similar definition) is fully in line with Wilhelm von Humboldt’s original use of the term “einverleibend” (= incorporating) for examples such as Classical Aztec ni-naka-kwa [1SG-meat-eat] ‘I eat meat’, where -naka- ‘meat’ seems to be part of the complex verbal word ninakakwa, at least according to the spelling. But how exactly do we know that ni-naka-kwa is a single word, apart from the spelling? Couldn’t we write it ni naka kwa and regard it as a syntactic phrase? To be sure, this syntactic phrase has some peculiarities, but then so do many other syntactic phrases. Clearly, a definition of noun incorporation in terms of wordhood is only as good as one’s definition of word is, or one’s definition of “morphological compound”.

In Rochelle Lieber & Pavol Štekauer’s (2009) introduction to their Handbook of Compounding, they discuss a range of criteria for distinguishing compounds from syntactic phrases, and their summary begins with the following remarks:

“The picture that emerges here may seem a bit dispiriting: what are we to think if there are (almost) no reliable criteria for distinguishing compounds from phrases or from other sorts of derived words? … Nevertheless, the majority of theorists – us among them – seem to believe that it’s worth looking further.” (p. 14)

It’s never wrong to try again, but probably the field of linguistics as a whole should acknowledge that at present it doesn’t know what compounding is (as a general process; there may of course be language-particular compound categories which are quite well-defined). If we want to make general claims about compounding in language, we cannot rely on people knowing what we mean.

Given this, it’s interesting to see a typological definition of noun incorporation that does not rely exclusively on wordhood. Caballero et al. (2008) count a noun as incorporated “if it occurs between parts of the inflected verbal complex”, as in the Aztec example ni-naka-kwa. The authors allow the verbal complex to consist of non-affixed material as well, e.g. the subject agreement marker in post-object position in Car Nicobarese in (1):

(1) tínŋɛ ́n tətmák an céˑms
sent.away Tetmak 3SG.SBJ James
‘James sent Tetmak away.’

Here we have post-incorporation of the object, because the inflectional marker follows the object. This is the normal position of the agreement marker, so noun incorporation is obligatory in the language. But if such cases are regarded as noun incorporation, then the same should be said about German compound tense clauses as in (2):

(2) Ich habe ein Buch gekauft.
I have a book bought
‘I bought a book.’

Conversely, if a language forms compounds but does not insert them “into the verbal complex”, this does not count as incorporation. Thus, de Reuse (1994b) has argued that Lakota has noun incorporation, but unlike in Aztec, the incorporee does not follow the person prefixes:

(3) napé-ma-kìpazo (*ma-nape-kipazo)
‘show me (your) hands’

The problem with Caballero et al.’s definition is thus that it leads to a concept of “noun incorporation” that is quite at odds with common usage. Even though Humboldt may originally have had in mind the Aztec-type situation with an affix occurring before the N+V complex (or after the V+N complex), in view of the “in-corporation” metaphor, linguists have not normally required the presence of inflectional affixes in a particular position. Note also that on this view of incorporation, isolating languages could not have incorporation by definition.

There is a completely different direction in which the term incorporation has been extended over the last 15 years: Since the Aztec-style incorporation prototype tends to be associated with nonreferential and generic semantics, some linguists have used “incorporation” in a semantic sense, also for constructions that have no syntactic peculiarities (e.g. She took the train), or for constructions with articleless (“bare”) noun phrases (e.g. He attended class) (see van Geenhoven 1998, Carlson 2006). This is somewhat like the extension of the term case to mean semantic role: A term for a formal pattern is taken and given a meaning that derives from some of the salient semantic properties of the formal term (see Lehmann 2007 for this general tendency in the development of linguistic terminology).

So what should we do? When a term has acquired too many senses, my general preference is to abandon it (see, e.g., Haspelmath 2006 on “markedness”), and use other terms instead. That this may be workable can perhaps be illustrated from the following generalization:

(4) If a noun is used as an argument but is indefinite, does not refer to a specific referent, has narrow scope, and is number-neutral, then languages tend to express it without article, tend to disallow modifiers and tend to give it little positional freedom with respect to the verb.

This is equivalent to the statement “formally incorporated nouns tend to be semantically incorporated” but makes no use of the term incorporation. It seems that (4) has a much better chance of being testable than the corresponding statement with the undefinable term incorporation.


Caballero, Gabriela, Michael J. Houser, Nicole Marcus, Teresa McFarland, Anne Pycha, Maziar Toosarvandani & Johanna Nichols. 2008. Nonsyntactic ordering effects in noun incorporation. Linguistic Typology 12(3): 383-421. (25 May, 2012).
Carlson, Greg. 2006. The meaningful bounds of incorporation. In Svetlana Vogeleer & Liliane Tasmowski (eds.). Non-definiteness and plurality. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 35-50.
de Reuse, Willem. 1994. Noun incorporation. In R. Asher (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon. 2842-2847.
de Reuse, Willem. 1994b. Noun incorporation in Lakota (Siouan). International Journal of American Linguistics 60(3): 199-260.
Gerdts, Donna. 1998. Incorporation. In Andrew Spencer and Arnold Zwicky (eds). The Handbook of Morphology. London: Blackwell. 84-100.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. Against markedness (and what to replace it with). Journal of Linguistics 42(1): 25–70.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2011. The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the nature of morphology and syntax. Folia Linguistica 45(2): 31–80.
Lehmann, Christian. 2007. On the upgrading of grammatical concepts. In Fons Moerdijk, van Santen, Ariane, & Rob Tempelaars (eds.). Leven met woorden: Opstellen aangeboden aan Piet van Sterkenburg. Leiden: Brill. 409-422.
Lieber, Rochelle & Štekauer, Pavol. 2009. Introduction. In Lieber, Rochelle & Štekauer, Pavol (eds.). The Oxford handbook of compounding. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 3-18.
van Geenhoven, V. 1998. Semantic incorporation and indefinite descriptions: semantic and syntactic aspects of noun incorporation in West Greenlandic. Stanford: CSLI.

6 thoughts on “Do we know what “noun incorporation” is?

  1. I don’t have any conclusions about the term, positive or negative, but I’ve actually thought about this quite a bit. Gumuz, a (likely) related language to Uduk, shows complex morphological structure in which body parts become fused with the verb stem, functioning to either classify the argument of the construction or at times create an idiosyncratic meaning.

    Uduk shows similar constructions (even to the point that the same body part classifies the same idea, e.g. “eye” classifying liquids, “body” solids), but the noun component is not nearly as morphologically bound. It’s sometimes a dummy argument of the construction (and can have case), but it also sometimes just dangles in the phrase in something similar to an external possession construction.

    The variation might be somewhat comparable to variations in boundedness in Germanic phrasal verb constructions, but with body parts instead of “prepositions”, and much greater differences in terms of morphological complexity.

    Comparisons of languages like these might give some insights into grammaticalization paths, and might also serve as a test bed for whatever definition one would want to come up with, if they still want to use the term.
    Your (4) for instance would apply to both Uduk and Gumuz, but the traditional view of incorporation would only apply to Gumuz.

    Articles describing the Gumuz constructions can be found here:
    and Uduk here:

    • I agree that this is relevant.

      There are some sort-of-similar things happening in Greater Mainland Southeast Asian languages, which get variously called “psycho-collocations”, “propriocentive-state expressions” or just “body part verbs”, in which a body part – often construed as a “seat of emotion” in the human body – gets associated with another verb, most often an intransitive verb or an adjective (or adjectival verb, if that’s your preference). The body part is always generic/unmarked/nonreferential, and in languages (such as in the Eastern Himalaya) which become more agglutinating, this often becomes an “incorporated” element of the verb/adjective. I’m not aware of any descriptions that call this “incorporation”, perhaps because the body part perhaps never had the potential to be a marked, referential syntactic NP head – at least, I’m not aware of a case in which it can. But the basic diachronic pathway seems comparable.

      • Right, this sort of thing is quite common cross-linguistically – and my question is how these cross-linguistic similarities can be formulated in a rigorous way so that testable universal claims can be made. It seems to me that the notion of “incorporation” is not clear enough (and apparently cannot be made clear enough) for this goal.

  2. I basically agree, however I think the problem is not so much that we don’t know what incorporation is, as that we don’t know what “is” is, or rather that we still don’t know how to draw clearcut categorical boundaries (and corresponding cross-linguistically valid categorical definitions) in a way that will satisfy the data. But how important is it to be able to say, “based on my definition of phenomenon x, extremely-similar-looking construction y in language a fails to satisfy it”? To me, the right questions are not “what is a cross-linguistically valid definition of incorporation (whatever other concepts it may rely on)” and “does language x have incorporation so defined” but rather “how does incorporation, loosely defined, come about in languages”? [I can imagine that one might quibble with the “loosely defined” part, but what I mean is that a diachronically-oriented investigation can begin with a loose definition – either Mithun’s “a noun stem is compounded with a V stem to yield a larger, derived verb stem”, or something even fuzzier, like “something that could have formed a nominal in the NP syntax occurs in a tight, as in more morphological than syntactic, relationship with the verb” – because what we’re actually interested in is the nature of the categories that evolve in languages in terms of their source constructions and pathways, rather than in some sort of in-or-out membership criteria. In other words, we’re ultimately interested in explanation.] It sounds to me like this is what Martin is actually getting at by focusing on non-referential nominals that develop tight morphosyntactic associations with verbs. This is basically the syntactic bridge, as near as I can tell, for the development of the morphologically tighter constructions that most people are happy to call “incorporation”. But languages in which constructions like this become prominent will have any number of differences among them in terms of numbers, types, positions and morphosyntactic statuses of various other verbal dependents, and we should expect the eventual “incorporation” constructions to vary accordingly. Unhappiness with the term “incorporation” seems to me not very different from unhappiness with almost any other given typological category. It seems to stem from a lingering expectation that languages should be typologize-able in terms of synchronic structural types.

  3. I agree with you that this term has been overused, and that this term is in part problematic because it is dependent on the definition of “word”, which is itself difficult to define in a language-independent way.

    However, in morphologically rich languages, it is generally possible to provide (language-specific) definitions of wordhood. Problems occur mainly in languages with little morphology such as Chinese or with mostly transparent morphology.

    Using the term “incorporation” remains very useful if we distinguish it strictly from similar-looking phenomena. In your Nahuatl example ni-naca-cua for instance, the arguments for analysis this string of morphemes as a word rather than as a string of clitics are numerous, and involve both phonology and morphosyntax (for instance, the 1SG ni- prefix is not an independent word, as it is reduced to n- before vowel initial verb stems, -naca- can never occur as such on its own with the -tl suffix or a possessive prefix, the transitive verb cua is conjugated intransitively etc.). We still want to distinguish ni-naca-cua from its non-incorporating equivalent niccua in nacatl, and be able to make cross-linguistic generalization of these two types of constructions in the languages that have them (which is arguably not the majority of the world’s languages), as incorporating constructions in the narrow sense unmistakably share some common features and morphosyntactic constraints.

    The case of Lakhota is more tricky; and not all the examples discussed by De Reuse seem to me to be analyzable as incorporation in an unambiguous way (discussing this issue in detail would take too much time however). Lakhota also is a language where the word is not trivial to define (for instance scholars of Lakhota tend to disagree as to whether some suffixed morphemes, such as negative s^ni, are true suffixes or just clitics). On the other hand I fully agree with you that the fact that inflexional affixes occur between the noun and the verb does not preclude in principle the noun to be analyzed as incorporated.

    I think we still need the term “incorporation”, but in some languages that have a defined set of features (a definable “word” i.e. a unit combining phonological and morphosyntatic boundaries, a clear distinction between nouns and verbs, a clear distinction between finite and non-finite forms etc).
    I have an article in press in Lingua which might be relevant to this topic: From denominal derivation to incorporation.
    In this paper, I discuss incorporation-like phenomena in various languages, their difference with prototypical incorporation and also the pathways leading to the development of incorporation.

    • Yes, the two Aztec/Nahuatl constructions (with Incorporation: ni-naka-kwa, without Incorporation: in nakatl ni-k-kwa [the meat 1SG-3SG-eat]) are quite different, and we can use the language-particular constructional category “Nahuatl Incorporation” (using capitalization for language-particular categories) to dscribe this distinction. But note that all the criteria are language-specific: vowel elision, position, -tl suffix, verb conjugation. And yes, it’s true that we “want to be able to be able to make cross-linguistic generalizations of these two types of constructions”, but since the criteria to distinguish them in Nahuatl are language-particular, we don’t have a way to identify the constructions cross-linguistically. Generalizations such as those in the Caballero et al. (2008) article (that incorporated nouns tend to precede the verb stem) are therefore quite doubtful, to my mind. The same goes for all generalizations that make use of the term “word”, because there are no criteria that can be applied uniformly to all languages. Intuitively, it’s true that in “languages with little morphology like Chinese” one has greater difficulties in defining “word” than in other languages, but note that whether a language has morphology or not can only be answered on the basis of a definition of “word”, so this is quite circular, unfortunately.

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