The most familiar classifiers in language are those that attach to numerals: many East Asian languages qualify the noun counted by a generic word that describes (typically) its shape or consistency. If we used this in English we might count 'one stick spear', 'two roll newspaper', 'three fruit apple'.

Verb classifiers are widespread, but only in the languages of North and South America, New Guinea, and northern Australia. In these the subject of an intransitive verb or the object of a transitive one -- in semantic terms the theme of the verb -- is classified by some sort of change to the verb.

We can illustrate this by English examples: 'it flowed', 'it oozed', 'it rolled', and 'it crept' all mean 'it moved along the ground' and tell you roughly what sort of thing 'it' is. Likewise, 'it stands in the garden' is appropriate for a tree, 'sits' for a rock, 'lies' for a rake placed horizontally. 'I drank it' and 'I chewed it' tell you about the consistency of 'it'. But in English such contrasts are marginal, and don't form a wide-ranging semantic scheme, and we also have common general words like 'be', 'put', 'hold' and 'give' that don't tell us anything much about their theme. This sort of system, using entirely different verbs depending on the theme, is found in North American language families such as Athabaskan, and it pervades them. Typically there is no word that can be used generally for 'be' or 'put'. These systems are sometimes called suppletive, but that name rather implies that they are all variants of the same underlying word.

Mescalero Apache has different words for 'be (located)' for the following kinds of subject: 1. solid round things; 2. animate beings; 3. pairs, and ropes; 4. long rigid things; 5. flexible things like cloth; 6. contents of open containers; 7. masses and powders; 8. substances like dough and mud; 9. flexible containers like bagfuls; 10. indefinitely shaped objects. For an object or substance that comes in various forms, such as tobacco or flour, different choices of a verb for 'give' would be used for when the substance is loose, in bags, in boxes, in masses, and so on.

The Ika language of Colombia has different words for 'be' and 'put' that distinguish 1. long; 2. flat; 3. three-dimensional; 4. liquid; 5. holders; and 6. upright. The Enga language of New Guinea uses verbs like the English 'sit', 'stand', 'lie', 'hang', classifying themes by their orientation, and also uses 'come/flow', 'be inside', and one for 'be sexually productive'.

Instead of using suppletive verbs, some languages use classificatory affixes on verbs. (In fact some languages use both systems together.) In the New Guinean language Imonda there's a verb ai 'give', but if used of fruit that can be picked from trees the prefix põt is added to it. If we said this in English we'd pickgive someone a pineapple. As põt is also a verb meaning 'pick fruit from a tree', this construction probably originated from a serial verb: i.e. to pickgive derived from to fruitpick-and-give.

Some non-Pama-Nyungan languages of northern Australia use incorporation of a generic noun into the verb: the English equivalents would be to treeplant a gumtree and foodcook a wallaby, or a river would waterflow.

Aikhenvald, A., 2000, Classifiers, OUP.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.